By Hannah Thoburn
This piece was originally published in The American Interest
Volodymyr Groisman, Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, owes his political career to President Petro Poroshenko. He will have trouble pushing through important reforms if his mentor does not allow it.
After over two rocky years as Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk is out of office. Though he enjoyed some early popularity as a politician who stood with the protesters on the Maidan, his support among voters had long dried up, and his party had become so unpopular that it could not even scrape together plausible candidates to stand in recent local elections.While Yatsenyuk’s tenure did see some much needed reforms pushed through the Parliament, there is much more that was not done. The lack of progress in the sphere of anti-corruption was particularly egregious.
In a recent poll by the International Republican Institute, 45 percent of respondents mentioned “corruption within state bodies” as one of the most important issues facing Ukraine. Only the “military conflict in Donbas,” which daily claims the lives of Ukraine’s sons and daughters, friends and spouses, was ranked as more important. In response to another question—“Which of the following areas should be a priority for the national authorities of Ukraine?”—the top response was “anti-corruption reform.”
For many who took part in the Maidan protests over two years ago, the government’s lack of response to issues of corruption is a personal insult. Many have come to call those protests the “Revolution of Dignity,” as they were a response to the constant humiliation of being shaken down for bribes at every turn, all while the governing elites lined their own pockets. While ordinary citizens struggled to pay the bribes necessary to get medical care or a driving license, well-positioned politicians and businessmen siphoned money out of the national budget and into offshore accounts.
And though some progress has been made towards rooting out this kleptocratic system, much of the work to reform the system has been consistently stymied. Many in Ukrainian civil society place blame for the inactivity in snuffing out institutionalized corruption squarely on the shoulders of President Petro Poroshenko. It was Poroshenko who, despite months of international and domestic calls for him to dismiss the obstructionist and sclerotic Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, insisted on dragging his feet. In the months before he was finally dismissed, Shokin was able to purge the prosecutor’s office of the last few of its reform-minded officials, launch an investigation into a reformist Deputy Prosecutor General who had resigned in protest, and put various roadblocks in the way of the new National Anti-Corruption Bureau.
Poroshenko himself is of the oligarchic class and does not seem willing to push his fellow businessmen to reform themselves into productive citizens. While running for the top job in 2014, Poroshenko had promised to sell his candy company Roshen, telling Bild that “If I get elected, I will wipe the slate clean and sell the Roshen concern. As President of Ukraine I plan and commit to focus exclusively on welfare of the nation.” He has not kept his word: He has neither sold Roshen nor has he focused on improving the lot of ordinary Ukrainians. Instead, the hold of oligarchs over Ukrainian politics is as strong as ever.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, the new Prime Minister they are getting is not likely to alter this grim, stale reality. Volodymyr Groisman, the 38-year-old former mayor of the central city of Vinnitsya, has very close ties to President Poroshenko. Roshen, for example, has a major factory in Vinnitsya. Groisman does have a relatively good reputation from his stint running Vinnitsya: elected at the age of 28, he pushed through a number of notable reforms, including the creation of a “Transparent Center” in the Vinnitsya City Council to help citizens quickly and efficiently take care of important but mundane tasks like car registration.
In his speech immediately after taking office yesterday, Groisman promised a strong fight against corruption in Kyiv, and to quickly scale up such efforts to the national level: “I want to pay attention to the themes of the prevention of and fight against corruption as one of our key priorities. The corrupt system of government management is like a sieve. As soon as we fill up the state coffers, it all comes leaking out. The new cabinet will not tolerate any form of corruption. … We will practice the principles of maximum transparency in the executive. My previous experience has shown that the introduction of electronic technology is one of the most effective means of increasing transparency and preventing corruption.”
But Ukrainians have heard similar talk time and again, and the results rarely come. Though Groisman may indeed have good intentions, he is unlikely to have the political clout to force through any truly game-changing reforms; Groisman is Poroshenko’s man, beholden to the President for his position and career. Of course, there is a silver lining of sorts: As Anders Aslund has argued, Yatsenyuk’s departure also means that Poroshenko’s stalling corruption reforms can no longer be blamed on an unpopular Prime Minister. Groisman represents Poroshenko’s party, has long been a protégé of his, and will be seen by the public as an extension of Mr. Poroshenko.
But therein also lies a danger. Twice in recent memory—the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014—ordinary Ukrainians have taken to the streets to protest the rampant and unrepentant corruption of its elites. Only by bringing down governments through violent social unrest have they been able to force through even small changes. Should he maintain obdurate insistence on dragging his feet over one of the issues most important to the Ukrainian people, Poroshenko risks teaching them that such protests are the only way that Ukraine can ever see change.
Hannah Thoburn is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she focuses on Eastern European politics and the transatlantic relationship.