Worldview: Ukraine has second chance for reform

Posted: May 27, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine - History doesn't usually offer second chances. But Ukraine got a big one Sunday when the pro-Western chocolate king Petro Poroshenko appeared to win a landslide victory for president.

Only weeks ago, as Russia gobbled up Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine, it wasn't even clear the election could be held. An interim government, installed after the previous president fled in February, was too weak to confront armed separatists acting as proxies for Moscow.

Now, with his strong showing, Poroshenko has a chance to thwart Moscow's expansionist ambitions. But that will require him to do the two things no leader here has done in the 23 years since Ukraine's independence: fight the staggering, mafia-style corruption that has crippled the country and opened the door to Kremlin intrigues, and reach out to a public that views its leaders as thieves.

Among voters leaving Grammar School No. 16 in Odessa, the legendary multicultural port on the Black Sea, the alienation was palpable.

"This vote won't make any difference. Nothing has changed in 25 years," one frustrated businessman spat out as he stalked off, unwilling to wait in line to cast his ballot. "Nothing will change now."

Conversations outside the school often returned to the disappointment after the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted a president who had won election by fraud. No reforms followed. Yet there is some reason to hope things will be different this time.

For one thing, a new generation of political leaders understands that economic reform is no longer optional, but required for the country's survival. Among them is Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who at 28 became the mayor of Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, where he became known for fighting corruption.

"People felt real patriotism in 2004, but politics destroyed it," he told me in his office. As mayor, he tried to keep that spirit alive.

"I did not take bribes myself," the 37-year-old, boyish-looking Groysman said. He created transparent administration processes that would end the standard practice whereby officials stole the city blind. For example, he required that, if city land was sold, it could be done only via public auction, rather than sold under the table by officials.

Such reforms brought him death threats, but he won a second term with 78 percent of the vote.

Now Groysman is trying to introduce transparency at a national level, with measures such as forcing the income and expenses of officials to be made public.

And he is spearheading the Kiev government's plan to decentralize power via local elections and returning taxes to local governments. While this may sound normal to Americans, it would be revolutionary in Ukraine (or in Russia). And it might ease the fears of Russian-speaking regions in the east, fanned by Moscow, that Kiev wants to strangle them.

Russia's Vladimir Putin has cynically demanded a form of federalization that would break Ukraine apart. But decentralization could hold Ukraine together.

"It is very hard to counter Kremlin propaganda," Groysman says wearily. But he tries.

Groysman is seeking to engage the public in dialogue through roundtables with leaders in each region. He recognizes that Kiev must do more outreach to ordinary citizens.

"Today, in my opinion, no one has the power to ignore public opinion," he told me, as his phone kept ringing. "We need to fight for the people's trust in a new way. We won't get that trust again. The moment is here."

Of course, cynics will note that many old faces still serve in the current government and that billionaire oligarchs have been appointed as governors and still control the economy. Poroshenko, too, is in that club.

But many of the activists who organized the protests last year at Independence Square, known as the Euromaidan, came of age during the Orange Revolution and now have the professional skills to press current leaders to do better.

Hannah Hopko, a Ph.D. in social organization, is a key adviser for a project known as the "reanimation package," which is gathering top experts to lobby on electoral-system reform, judicial reform, anticorruption laws, and government decentralization. Again, this may sound wonky and dry to Americans, but it is revolutionary in Ukraine.

"For 23 years the oligarchs stole lots of money from the government budget, which is now sitting in offshore banks," says Hopko, a slim woman who speaks with rapid-fire speed and is in perpetual motion. "I have no illusions. The oligarchs, although they now remake themselves as patriots, is the hardest issue."

As she runs from one meeting to the next, huddling with health experts, calling parliamentarians, fielding several cellphones, she insists this is the moment for changing the system. (She says the West should help by tracking the ill-gotten billions that some oligarchs have laundered in banks or property in Europe.)

"The best chance to unite Ukrainians from East and West is through reforms," Hopko said, "because they have the same economic problems."

That's advice Poroshenko should follow if he wants to succeed.

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