Yuri Polakiwsky

January 29, 2021

New Europe


Ukraine has lost its way. Its chosen road towards transforming itself from a corrupt, post-Soviet thinking culture into a rules-based society has stalled.

Actually, it can be argued fairly that since the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, along with the previous Poroshenko administration, Ukraine’s political leadership has failed to establish the road to transforming society into an effectively functioning democratic society.

And now, nearly two years after Zelensky’s election, Ukraine’s potential for change has not only effectively been stalled, but its commitment to such change put into doubt.

Zelensky has not only failed to establish a governing commitment to a rules-based democracy, but he has been unable to further a transformation narrative to which he was elected. A major reason for this predicament, which is largely of his own making, is because he has not pushed strongly enough to ensure the appointment of proven, world class institutional managers and individuals who are committed to effective democratic rule.

Regardless of what is being said by Ukraine’s Western cheerleaders, and those in-country, the ongoing narrative of Ukraine’s “potential” has failed to materialize, including grave evidence showing that it is backsliding to its old governing traditions.

The Ukrainian government’s commitment to ridding the country of systematic corruption, establishing the rule of law, cleaning up its prosecutorial and judicial mendacity, must be doubted.

This failure has largely been as a result of an assumption in the last seven years of the post-Maidan period that Ukraine needed “reform”. This rhetorical framework and the processes emanating from this assumption must be discarded because they didn’t work.

Ukraine didn’t need reform, but “transformation”. Transformation meaning the “seeding” of democratic values within the seedbed of Ukraine’s society, along with its political and institutional culture, that when properly tended would bear the fruit of a changed society whose very essence and appearance would look much different than what it was and still continues to be.

The task in Ukraine of ridding itself from Soviet and oligarchic practice has proven to be much deeper than assumed. What must finally be understood is that “change” is not solely a political pursuit, but a philosophical project that has yet to be established and furthered in the country’s public square.

Ukraine’s quest towards establishing a “just society” is in a state of purgatory. Its politics and form of governance are in a state of stasis, or middle ground – in essence, a political purgatory. It is bereft of the promise for fundamental change, hope already having been

severely dissipated and becoming non-existent. The country’s psychological state is careening towards the uncertainty of growing political anger, though it has been restrained largely by the COVID epidemic and the country’s sorry economic condition. Its state of mind is bordering on frustration and despair and endemic cynicism.

The current type and form of political leadership in Ukraine remains juvenile and amateurish. This is disappointing because of both the assumption and expectation that if the country, more specifically its political component, would have “reformed” itself, then Ukraine would have gone further in its quest to become a European state.

Ukraine cannot and will not become a member of the European family of states if it does not challenge its existential and governing assumptions that still remain after decades of Communism and its legacy of a corrupt and repulsive political culture that manifests itself on society like a decaying basket of apples.  This task, based on the practice since the Maidan Revolution, seems insurmountable.

Ukraine has a grave lack of knowledge and experience of democratic principles and values amongst its ruling elite, as well as its citizenry. There is an inability by its political leadership to articulate a vision of what a post-Soviet society should look like and how it is to be operated. It is clear that its political leaders do not understand the connection between establishing the rule of law and the establishment of a fair and just society.

From a practical standpoint, it is also clear that the half measures being pursued emanate from a presidential mindset and presidential staff that is not committed to full-scale democratic change. Instead, they are insufficient at best.

Though it can be argued that the country contains the individuals needed to transform the country, the yet unconfessed reality is that without the active participation of Westerners or Western-orientated individuals who have proven skills in leading and managing large institutions on a daily basis, the country will continue to fail in its transformative attempts.

Simply put, the present leadership of Ukraine has no idea what a democratic society should look like, what its values are, how to plan and implement strategies for the long term, or how to build dignity-based institutions. At the same time, there are very few who understand how to create an economic environment that will offer Ukraine’s citizens some type of personal and economic security, while attracting foreign investment that would greatly benefit the fulfillment of the country’s and its people’s ambitions.

After many conversations with young Ukrainian Maidan generation reformers, from administrators to ministers, it is clear that most are afraid and that many have been relentlessly intimidated by anti-democratic interests. Sadly, most simply don’t have the experience to be change agents and have not shown the wherewithal to compete against the retrenching powers of corrupt and oligarchic interests that have not come close to being effectively challenged, let alone defeated.

Over the last 18 months, many Western-minded reformers have been and continue to be systematically eliminated from the country’s major institutional structures. This is clearly the result of an anti-democratic strategy being reasserted by old-time vested interests.

One important solution that has yet to be implemented is an objective that would unify Ukraine’s political reformers into a massive comprehensive force which understands that they must fight a philosophical, legal and bureaucratic battle within the halls and backrooms of governance as a unified group. Not to be apocalyptic, but the battle for the soul of the country is not even close to having been won. Ukraine’s potential transformers have yet to be fully engaged.

The assumption that supporting individual reformers in their efforts to make changes has been proven to be ineffectual. If there is to be hope for change, Ukraine’s civil society must become unified and understand that the pursuit of a simple strategy of continual criticism will lead to continuous political failure. Nonetheless, the chance of this happening without outside political pressure is virtually none. The conditions themselves must be changed.

At present, rumors in Kyiv suggest that Zelensky is contemplating yet another change in government. It would be his third major pivot since his election. This move can be characterized as the result of a half-hearted commitment by Zelensky’s team towards democratic transformation, which is the result of internal anti-democratic pressure and an inability to identify, attract and appoint the best individuals to lead the country’s essential political institutions.

So far, the president has failed to form an effective and transforming government. This raises the question of competence and the lack of professional skill and governing experience, and Zelensky’s inability to exert his presidential power and to grow in office.

To do so, and for the sake of his presidency, Zelensky must finally take individual charge and assert himself in the process of appointing the best personnel available, and not rely on those who clearly represent vested interests and who litter his inner circle.

He must be widely advised and pressured by Ukraine’s Western partners to appoint Western-orientated technocrats who have established experience within Western institutions, and managers with proven “change agent” status, who have the ability to conceive of and develop strategies and who know how to implement and manage transformational plans while not being afraid or intimidated in the fight against an intransigent corrupt governing tradition.

Within this process, Zelensky must be made aware that continued financial, business and infrastructure investment from the West depends on his commitment to make these critical personnel appointments. It is time for the “stick” to be applied to Ukraine.

Accepting Ukraine’s promises at face value must finally be rejected. Instead, it is time to make demands of Ukraine towards clearly defined institutional changes with strict timelines. Ironically, the independence and sovereignty of the country and its fealty to its chosen European course depends on this.

To reach this end, Zelensky must be guided by two essential principles. The first being a commitment to individual dignity-based and rule-of-law “institution building”. The second, a commitment to establishing a new tradition for governance by appointing the best and most experienced individuals to contribute to the leadership of the country.

Zelensky is a weak president who doesn’t assert his personal will nor the extent of his constitutional power on Ukraine’s politics. His leadership reputation within Ukraine’s governing circles is not respected. It is unfortunate that he has never had the support, nor earned the trust, of the democratically inspired activist elite of the Maidan generation. However, if he commits to uniting those committed to democratic transformation with Ukraine’s European partners, Canada and the United States, there will still be the opportunity to salvage his presidency and fulfill his promises to Ukraine’s electorate.  He must transcend Ukraine’s internal political provincialism.


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