Post-Maidan Ukraine is at war. Not only against Russian invaders, but more generally against sovietism. This war has a military front in the East, but as important is the political, economic, social frontline in the rest of the country. Resisting the invaders and reforming the nation are two fronts of a same fight: the struggle for the emergence of a new, democratic, European Ukraine.
While receiving the chairmen of the Council of the EU and the Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, for a key summit in Kiev, President Poroshenko announced an ambitious plan, which he summed up as the Four Ds of a new Ukraine: deregulation, debureaucratization, deoligarchization, decentralization.
Overregulation is an essential characteristic of Soviet legacy, a powerful killer for investors and a perpetual generator of corruption. Today, getting a construction permit is an impossible challenge unless you bribe half a dozen useless agencies. According to World Bank Ease of Doing Business Ranking, you need a minimum of 21 days to open a company, you have to go through one of the longest custom procedures in the world and you’ll wait an average of 270 days to get electricity to your business. Ukraine has huge human potential, but who would invest in a war torn country that does everything to discourage you from investing? Licenses and permits are going to be erased and reshaped according to European standards. First steps had already been taken by the government, with the ministries of economy and justice scrapping a number of required licenses and permits, but it is only the beginning of the process and a vast amount of work still needs to be done.
One of the main features of post-Soviet societies is the inability of a plutocratic bureaucracy to take decisions. Built to implement orders coming from Moscow, the Ukrainian bureaucracy was left purposeless in 1991 and started to serve a local elite behaving as if it owned the state. Bureaucracy used to be an instrument to colonize the people. It is built according to the logics of feudalism. Every agency is a separate fiefdom that refuses to share its information with the others. There is no common database or decision-making process. The fiefdoms will be destroyed and the services merged. The Mexican Army of Ukrainian bureaucrats will be replaced by a young, dynamic, well-paid and clean public service. “Public service” is the key word here, and implies a mental revolution: Bureaucrats have to serve the public and not enslave it.
Oligarchs are the pleas of a post-Soviet system. Oligarchy is the main enemy of democracy, liberalism, and pro-market reforms. In a nutshell why did Poland succeed in the 1990s and Ukraine did not? Poland had no oligarchs, and Ukraine has plenty of them. As a result Poland built stable, transparent institutions and a booming market economy while Ukraine has an unstable political landscape and a shrinking economy. Oligarchs have turned elections into a farce by dividing candidates among themselves. The very idea of statehood became a joke, since public servants are on their payroll rather than a budget. Maidan was a revolution for Europe, but also — first and foremost — an anti-oligarchic uprising. Nobody should forget it, or history might repeat itself.
Oligarchs have controlled ministers, parliamentarians, policemen, journalists and tax inspectors for 20 years and this time has come to an end. New laws will be passed to separate business interests from politics and anti-monopolistic regulations will be enforced. Independence from Moscow and integration into the Euro-Atlantic space will never be achieved unless there is a radical change in the socio-economic structures in Ukraine. Western decision makers should have no illusions about it: No matter how much an oligarch spends on PR to convince them that he is pro-European, he will never gracefully accept the radical changes involved in European integration, first of which is the equality of all citizens under the law.
Recently, Poroshenko started to take realistic steps towards diminishing the influence of oligarchs in the energy sector, the largest black hole of the Ukrainian economy. This has traditionally been a sector, divided between several oligarchs who controlled government subsidies with their political leverage and refused to pay taxes or allow any competition in the field.
Ukraine is a very diverse country consisting of many different groups. We should look at this diversity as a tremendous opportunity rather than a threat. The emergence of Ukrainian national identity during the Maidan protests and the war should translate into a less centralized system rather than a more centralized one. A common European and patriotic vision should unite every region, but every region should be allowed to rule itself without having to rely on Kiev to build a road or change the roof on a school premises. From Lviv to Donbass or Odessa, the rule of law is non-negotiable, but local self-governance is the key to economic success and political stability. Every Ukrainian should finally feel they have a stake in the future of their nation.
Putin’s primary target in invading Ukraine is to prevent the Maidan revolution from turning into a successful experience of democratic, social and economic reforms on his doorstep. The only way to defeat his neo-imperialistic ambitions is precisely to make sure it happens. President Poroshenko understood it very well, which is why he keeps stressing that the war in the East cannot be a pretext to postpone reforms. Radical changes are the best way to counter Russian aggression. On this front too, Ukraine and its leadership need Europe’s full support.
Saakashvili, the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, is chairman of the International Advisory Council on Reforms for the president of Ukraine.