In the early days of the Trump Administration, the outlook for Ukraine could hardly have been bleaker. The United States had just elected a man who pledged to overturn decades of foreign policy precedent, casting doubt on the alliance system that has underpinned the postwar order in Europe, and who promised to make nice with Russia. In that grim moment, prominent Ukrainians began to think the unthinkable: that Ukraine may have to compromise on Crimea or abandon its EU and NATO aspirations.
Eight months later, circumstances have changed, and largely to Ukraine’s benefit. President Trump, acting on the advice of his more experienced aides, has shifted to a more conventional foreign policy, while a skeptical Congress has tied his hands on resetting relations with Russia. Trump and his subordinates have repeatedly affirmed U.S. commitments to Ukraine and promised to restart the peace process. In his recent visit to Kyiv, Defense Secretary Mattis strongly hinted that the Trump Administration would provide lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, a move that the risk-averse Obama Administration had refused to make. And on the economic front, Ukraine appears to be on the mend: output is increasing, growth forecasts are trending upwards, and inflation is falling.
But these sunny data points obscure a darker truth: Ukraine remains a deeply dysfunctional country, and its leadership is getting to be as corrupt, self-dealing, and nakedly authoritarian as the one uprooted by the Maidan protests. In recent months, activists and journalists have been increasingly harassed, while President Petro Poroshenko has consolidated his patronage network by sidelining reformers, kicking rivals out of the country, and surrounding himself with loyalists. Meanwhile, familiar characters like Yulia Tymoshenko plot in the shadows.
The greatest danger for Ukraine today, therefore, may not be being overrun by Russia or abandoned by the United States. Instead, the danger lies in Ukraine’s gradual backsliding into bitter patronage politics and soft authoritarianism—twin scourges that could put out the promise of the Maidan just as surely as they extinguished the Orange Revolution.
Ukraine’s predicament is, in some ways, not unique. Like many post-Soviet states, it is burdened by an elite oligarchic structure that has proven difficult to shake off, despite the hopes of the activists and reformers who led the Maidan movement. As Andreas Umland argues in a piece for Open Democracy (with a nod to the political scientist Henry Hale), Ukraine still represents a classic case of “patronal politics,” where power is distributed through clientelistic networks rather than official political processes:
In patronal political regimes, power is accumulated and exercised through more or less successful building, maintenance and interaction of distinctly informal and frequently interlocking pyramid structures headed by men (and sometimes, women) at the helm of large economic conglomerates, regional political machines, or central state administrations. […]
Typically, the most powerful of these networks reach into a broad variety of social institutions ranging from ministries, agencies and parties to companies, media outlets and NGOs. The glue that holds these complicated coteries together are less institutional hierarchies than familial ties, personal friendships, long-term acquaintances, informal transactions, mafia-like behaviour codes, accumulated obligations, and withheld compromising materials (kompromat).
Patronal systems like Ukraine’s are difficult to uproot, Umland suggests, because they are much more nimble than most people understand. A government’s stated values may change, but its underlying clan structure does not. “Within a patronal political regime, officially pro-Western foreign policies may easily co-exist with hyper-corrupt policies at home,” Umland argues, “as long as this tension does not touch upon the ruling clan’s financial and other interests.” Moreover, such regimes can implement Western-style reforms in order to secure foreign support, even while manipulating those reforms at home to undermine their intent or selectively target opponents of the regime.
That path is precisely the one that Kyiv has chosen to pursue. President Poroshenko has a track record of unveiling laudable reforms for his Western audience, and then subverting or twisting them upon implementation. In March, for instance, after Ukraine adopted an asset disclosure law to reveal the wealth of public officials, the law was amended to make the same demands of anti-corruption NGOs. Ukraine’s Western allies saw the move as a transparent attempt to selectively target activists, journalists, and NGOs whose investigations came too close to comfort for the authorities.
Poroshenko has since worked to re-draft the measure, but activists like Vitaly Shabunin—a frequent critic of the President and head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center—allege that the new amendment is a sham. Shabunin himself has become a prominent target, one of several activists who claims to have been illegally wiretapped and otherwise harassed by the state. In May, his organization was accused in Parliament of embezzling American aid money—charges leveled by a mysterious rival NGO that appears to have been created overnight to lead a smear campaign against him. Soon afterwards, the tax police launched an investigation of Shabunin’s organization. There is also evidence that Ukraine’s security services have orchestrated protests against him.
But as the Kennan Institute’s Kateryna Smagliy argues, some civil society groups have left themselves vulnerable to exactly these sorts of attacks by integrating themselves into existing patronage networks, both domestic and international. Some Ukrainian NGOs are more focused on writing reports to please Western donors than addressing the needs of local Ukrainians, while others are indebted to major oligarchs like Viktor Pinchuk or Ihor Kolomoisky. When these anti-corruption NGOs target the government, then, it is all too easy to discredit them as just another tool that rival oligarchs are wielding in order to advance their own interests.
Ukraine’s struggle to deliver on the democratic promise of the Maidan has not diminished the public’s appetite for reform. A recent poll showed that 51 percent of Ukrainians consider state corruption to be a top priority for Ukraine—more, even, than cited the war in the east with Russia. But few believe that either the state or civil society is successfully rooting out corruption. Approval ratings for all of Ukraine’s leading politicians are dismal: the most popular one, Yulia Tymoshenko, enjoys a mere 22% approval. Another reshuffling of the country’s loathed political elites will hardly fix the underlying pathologies of the Ukrainian state. A deeper reckoning is needed, one that takes into account the West’s own culpability in propping up Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchy.
Western countries have all too often been the enablers of Ukraine’s kleptocratic ruling class. Tax havens like Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Cyprus are welcoming destinations for oligarchs’ ill-gotten gains. The laxly regulated London real estate market provides a convenient mechanism for laundering such dark money through shadowy shell companies. And as the Panama Papers revealed last year, the rot extends to the top of Ukraine’s current leadership: President Poroshenko has a tangled array of undisclosed offshore companies that hold his immense wealth far from the jurisdiction of the country he rules. Despite the West’s reluctant embrace of Poroshenko, he remains a product of the old system, a longstanding member of the oligarch class for whom such behavior is standard.
Apart from money laundering, the West is also complicit in laundering reputations. Every Ukrainian oligarch or politician worth his or her salt has lawyers and lobbyists on hire in Washington, working to advance his or her interests on K Street, Capitol Hill, and among the Ukrainian diaspora. In this way, the lobbying industry in Washington profits from, and perpetuates, Ukraine’s patronal political system, with American firms acting as just another asset in their patrons’ networks. The problem is a longstanding and bipartisan one: as a recent Daily Beast story points out, Democratic firms were just as willing as Republican ones to work for scuzzy figures like Paul Manafort to whitewash the crimes of the Yanukovych regime. And in the public sector, American administrations have often downplayed the democratic shortcomings of Ukrainian governments that publicly profess Western ideals.
In short, Western willingness to launder oligarchs’ money and whitewash their reputations allows the current system to flourish. Tackling this problem in its full scope would take immense political will and coordination of the sort that the West seems incapable of summoning at the moment. But there are smaller measures that the United States and EU can take in the short term to address its own deficiencies and steer Kyiv in the right direction.
Ukraine’s allies can and should put further pressure on the Poroshenko government, tying economic assistance to substantive reforms, like the anti-corruption court that Ukraine’s embattled reformers have long demanded. Many of Ukraine’s most significant recent reforms only passed because of such conditions from the IMF and EU; further aid should not come freely. Similarly, the Trump Administration should designate a point person on Ukraine—similar to the role Joe Biden played in the Obama Administration—to hold Kyiv’s feet to the fire in the fight against corruption. And it should expand law enforcement exchanges, like the one between the FBI and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, to assist Kyiv in pursuing prominent kleptocrats and recovering stolen assets.
If the West does not exert such pressure, familiar patterns will continue to reassert themselves. Anti-corruption investigations will stall, held up by the authorities. Presidential power will grow, as Poroshenko acts with impunity to sideline political rivals (his parliamentary allies are already calling for a criminal investigation of Tymoshenko). And as the ruling class prepares for elections in 2019, the country will devolve into the factional infighting and corrupt deal-making that have long been hallmarks of Ukraine’s patronal politics.
We’ve seen this movie before, and it ended with Viktor Yanukovych taking power after the Orange Revolution failed to deliver on its reformist promises. Ukraine has already blown one chance at real reform. It can ill afford to lose another.