Anders ÅslundSenior fellow at the Atlantic Council
Ukraine has carried out impressive economic reforms, but judicial reforms have failed. A particularly disturbing case was when President Petro Poroshenko stripped Mikheil Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship on seemingly illegal grounds.
Rather than going through the ordinary boring legal processes, Saakashvili turned this into a civil society event—crossing the border into without going through passport control.
In doing so, the former Georgian president drew far more attention to Poroshenko’s malfeasance than he could have done in any other way, while simultaneously drawing on Ukraine’s very strong civil society for support. By trying to prosecute Saakashvili for a minor misdemeanor (even though people often aren’t prosecuted for serious crimes), the Ukrainian justice only ridicules itself. At the same time, Saakashvili may have started the process of unifying the Ukrainian liberal opposition.
In one stroke, Saakashvili has put new life into Ukraine’s democracy, which is likely to revitalize the opposition and civil society, while exposing the flaws of the country’s law enforcement. This is a great new beginning.
Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Ukraine is not a lone hiker who can stumble and get lost. It’s a country of more than 40 million people with very diverse views.
The row between current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian president and governor of Odessa Mikheil Saakashvili is unfortunate and disappointing. But it should be put in context. Both have done positive things for Georgia and Ukraine (although Saakashvili’s main achievements are now a decade old.) However, neither man is a natural democrat and we should not be too surprised that these big political egos have finally collided.
A highly personal fight between two former allies said to be “reformers” takes Ukraine back to a well-rehearsed script, made all the more familiar by the involvement of the country’s most skillful political operator, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Meanwhile, the country gets on with life. In the far-flung regions, trust in Kyiv is low. The economy is growing again, if slowly. Decentralization reforms are finally sending money to local budgets which, in some cases, is delivering new roads and healthcare facilities. Most Ukrainians think of national politics as a soap opera and will continue to tread their own ways forward.
Magdalena GronoEurope and Central Asia program director at the International Crisis Group
The “battle against corruption” is shorthand for many big issues, and references to it can elicit a skeptical, or even cynical, reaction among many in Ukraine. Anticorruption initiatives, such as judicial and police reform, have in some cases opened doors for more malpractice. Anticorruption civil society groups increasingly see President Poroshenko as the problem—and, judging by the government’s reactions to them, the feeling is mutual.
But Misha Saakashvili’s border escapade should not be taken as a straightforward indicator of Ukraine’s right or wrong direction. Saakashvili’s reform efforts between 2004 and 2012 in his native Georgia largely modernized the country, but were marred by a severe crackdown on rights, including property rights, and an unhealthy reliance on power structures. His tenure as the governor of Odessa in Ukraine won him a mixed track record at best.
Ukraine should of course not risk making anyone stateless, least of all an inopportune political actor. But while Misha—with his reputation for being intensely personal about his friendships and nemeses alike—will attract the spotlight, Kyiv should not be distracted from what is really needed: a resolute untangling of politics from business, for which courage to deprioritize self-interest is required. Whether Poroshenko has the courage to do this is increasingly unclear. But the international community should also beware that if its calls for reform become too formulaic, they risk losing traction altogether.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The feud between Poroshenko and Saakashvili is a result of Ukraine’s personalized and polarized politics. It also hints that the country’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary election campaigns are going to be long and dirty.
By crossing illegally into Ukraine, Saakashvili managed to defy Poroshenko’s arbitrary and unlawful, decision to strip Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship. The president’s move could be viewed as a preventive step that was taken to micromanage the 2019 votes. It has backfired. Saakashvili— who had minimal public support and whose political future in Ukraine was fragile, at best—has seized the chance to depict himself as a victim of the “Poroshenko regime.”
This does not mean that Saakashvili now has a bright future in Ukrainian politics. But he has become a (temporary) cause for the opposition to use to rally against Poroshenko, whose own ratings are in decline. The social populist Yulia Timoshenko, whose “Fatherland” party is currently ahead in the polls, is using the Georgian to widen her lead.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian society doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to these antics. Low level of trust in central authorities is unlikely to improve. The good news is that increased patriotism no longer means participating in feuds in Kyiv, but engaging in local issues connected to ongoing decentralization reforms.
Jana KobzovaPolicy director at Rasmussen Global, which works in an advisory capacity for the Ukrainian president
Ukraine’s reform road was always going to be bumpy—Kyiv is trying to undo the combined legacies of its Soviet past and two decades of failed transformation. This will take more than three years. Yet the Ukrainian leadership needs to prove to the electorate that these challenges can be overcome within one electoral cycle.
Much has already been done in sectors seen as hopelessly corrupt, such as energy. But anticorruption institutions do not yet work properly, the pension system needs an update, and the land market needs to be liberalized, to name a few.
Ideally, all of this would happen in the lifetime of the current government. But the 2019 elections loom ever closer. Reforms often hurt before they bear fruit: in the preelection period, they could amount to political suicide.
So while Kyiv needs to keep up the reforms process, the pace of change is bound to slow as we approach 2019. This has little to do with the latest unfortunate developments with Saakashvili, where a solution needs to be found in the courtroom. Like other democracies, Ukraine has lively—if sometimes wild—domestic politics. The West needs to take this into account and prioritize critical systemic reforms rather than expect the moon.
Anna KorbutDeputy chief editor at Ukrainian Week
The scandal—Poroshenko stripping Saakashvili’s citizenship and then Saakashvili illegally crossing the border into Ukraine —is part of the battle for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Most local commentators describe it as “embarrassing,” and a “disgusting” disregard for the law by the President, top law enforcement officials, and by Saakashvili.
The preelection dispute between Poroshenko and Saakashvili, and many other political figures, shows that the mainstream players continue to play the same familiar games: the consolidation of power between those perceived as tolerably loyal. They are unable to win a competition, either serious or not, in a civilized manner.
There are some objective reasons for this. Political figures act in an environment with no transparent rules, where most participants will play dirty to preserve their own interests. They compete for an electorate that is debilitated by a weak economy, negative news, and a weak political culture. The danger is that they risk losing power to a range of populists—from irresponsible opportunists to pro-Russian actors. Were that to happen, even the changes that are taking place under the current fragmented coalition (repair of roads, energy independence, health care and pension reforms, combatting corruption, and decentralization) are likely to stall.
The people at the top thwart the developments that are key to Ukraine’s future: independent institutions and an accountable elite. As a result, Ukraine takes one step forward and two steps back on its way, stepping on the rakes of its past mistakes.
Stefan MeisterHead of Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations
Mikheil Saakashvili did a great job for his home country, Georgia, with his substantial reforms and by accepting democratic change. But the former Georgian president failed to realize that he had already reached his peak some time ago. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to win international attention for his reform policy when he hired several foreigners, including Saakashvili, for key government positions. When these people started to question the rules of the game, Poroshenko preferred to let them go.
Ukraine is not known for low-hanging, easy reforms—as Saakashvili aimed for—instead, it is a country where long-term challenges lie ahead for all relevant domestic players who are willing to change the rules of the game. Neither Poroshenko nor Saakashvili are the right person to do the necessary job. While the Ukrainian President was an important transition figure in stabilizing Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity, he is too much part of the old system to be able to change it. Saakashvili, first of all, has become a PR person who gambled away the credit he built during his presidency.
Ukraine needs new people to return to the long, rocky path of reform. The fight between two men of the past only distracts from the real future needs of the country.
Eugene RumerSenior fellow and the director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
For longtime observers of Ukrainian and Georgian politics, last weekend’s mini-crisis involving former Georgian president and governor of the Odessa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, comes as no surprise. Saakashvili—a wanted man in Georgia on charges he claims are politically motivated—is unwanted in Ukraine, where he managed to antagonize his erstwhile patron President Petro Poroshenko who stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili’s flare for the dramatic and ability to antagonize potential allies are well established. His ultimately successful attempt to cross the border into Ukraine from Poland—literally propelled by a band of supporters—looked like a deliberate public relations stunt. He claims he wants to totally change the rules of politics in Ukraine, but that is highly unlikely to happen.
Ukraine is hardly losing its way. In fact, it appears rather set in its ways. The race for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary election is already on. According to a recent poll, at 73 percent, Poroshenko’s negative ratings are even worse than Saakashvili’s 69 percent. With a long list of problems facing the country and a much shorter list of accomplishments to his name, Poroshenko does not need Saakashvili to make more trouble for him, as he—probably—prepares to run for reelection. He has the so-called “administrative resource” at his disposal and he has used it against a bothersome critic. That is still very much the way of Ukrainian politics. Anyone who thought that “administrative resource” was gone from Ukrainian politics should think again. Change is happening in Ukraine, but not so fast.
Gwendolyn SasseNon-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin
Ukraine is not losing its way, but the current political leadership is. The reform process has been progressing, but at a slow pace and only in selective areas. This is, in part, due to the fact that there are no reforms left which could produce quick results. The most pressing issues now go to the heart of the Ukrainian political, judicial, and administrative system. Among them are the unresolved separation of powers between the president, government, and parliament; the electoral system, functioning of the courts, and anti-corruption bodies; and the full implementation and constitutionalization of the decentralization reforms.
The fight against corruption has been stalling most visibly in recent months. There is a widespread sense of déjà vu when faced with the resilience of oligarchic influence, including the president’s own circle. It’s obviously a challenge to pursue consistent structural reforms whilst a war ravages on in parts of the country; but the war is being used by the power elites to justify the delay of reforms. The EU and the United States should not accept this logic tacitly, but rather step up their efforts to convince the president to fully commit to uncomfortable reforms. He may prove prudent enough to understand that yet another cycle of protest and political turnover is not in anyone’s interest—apart from Russia’s.
Andreas UmlandSenior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation
The recent debates around Saakashvili—the stripping of his Ukrainian citizenship and the legality of this act, as well as, his return to Ukraine—are symptoms of a larger confrontation which has been heating up in Kyiv over the past few months.
Many of those reforms that were particularly urgent after the victory of the Revolution of Dignity, and have not been existentially threatening the typically post-Soviet Ukrainian patronalistic regime, are now being implemented.
Now the more threatening reforms—in particularly those regarding the fight against corruption—are on the top of the agenda.
On the one side, the pressure on Ukraine’s government to show some real results in the persecution of bribe-takers, limitation of backdoor deals, and extinction of nepotism is enormous. On the other side, many beneficiaries of the old system are still in power and idiosyncratically defending their turf. As Poroshenko currently appears to be siding with the latter group, he is becoming more and more vulnerable to the critique of politicians like Saakashvili and various anti-corruption campaigners strengthened by wide societal support. If the current conflict continues heating up and Poroshenko does not manage to change the public perception of his preferences, we might be in for a new major political confrontation in Kyiv in the election year of 2019, if not before.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
One should not read too much into Mikhail Saakashvili’s bumpy return to Ukraine. This saga may have inflamed domestic politics in Ukraine, along with offering an insight into the skirmishes of the next presidential election, yet the attempt to present the former governor of Odessa as the victim of corrupt elites sounds far-fetched—especially when looking at Saakashvili’s uncertain track record in the region.
The overreaction in Ukrainian political circles to Saakashvili’s recent initiatives is a testament to the shaky nature of domestic politics in Kyiv. But if it is to be said that Ukraine is losing its way, this assessment should be applied to other more crucial fields. On the economic side, the substantial and often impressive reforms launched in the first years following the Euromaidan revolution seem today to be deadlocked. Then on the diplomatic Minsk process, Ukrainian leadership is increasingly criticized for preferring the status quo to compromise—all the more so as Russia has recently shown some flexibility on the matter.
As much as these criticisms may be unfair, they reflect an absence of vision from the authorities in Kyiv. This is something that may have significant repercussions in the future, more than the former Georgian president’s tribulations in Ukrainian politics.
Yulia YesmukhanovaDeputy chief of party at the Decentralization Offering Better Results and Efficiency Program (DOBRE) in Ukraine
It depends on how you define “its way.” I would define Ukraine’s “way” as a muddling through the economic interests of oligarchs in power in order to make progress on reforms. This has never been a smooth, linear, or organized process. Current events remind one of previous government attempts to maintain a facade as a democratic regime: attacks on anti-corruption fighters, the enforcement of income declarations for NGOs and investigative journalists, and undermining the work of institutions aimed at preventing corruption is a well-established “way” for oligarchs to fight the reform process and remain in power.
Yet progress is being made. Advances, however, are often very technical and not as media friendly as the Saakashvili story. For example, Ukraine’s decentralization process has empowered local communities to take on a prominent role in local governance. For the first time, villages and towns are investing in infrastructure projects to enhance the lives of their residents. Decentralization brings the government closer to the people and, by giving citizens control of local resources, will eventually lead to improvements in anticorruption efforts.
Is Ukraine losing its way? No. The country continues to struggle along its own unique path, on which reformers and civil society groups oppose oligarchic interests and power push for change.