Separating Ukraine’s numerous problems into coherent strands is the work of a lifetime: Does corruption cause economic self-destruction, or economic malaise cause corruption? Why does Ukraine’s economy struggle on when other, similarly-sized countries, equally distant from communism, prosper? Why is “politician” a well-established by-word for “thief”? Why would the average Ukrainian sell a vote that two and a half decades ago, he would have died to have?
The answers to these questions are much simpler than separating chickens and eggs. Ukraine’s economic woes and corruption are like tides that never truly ebb; the economy is in such awful shape because there is no incentive to modernize and numerous incentives not to; and the average Ukrainian would very likely not have died to have a vote two and a half decades ago, precisely because its governing class is incompetent and ultimately owned by the oligarchs that finance it and encourage broad corruption (which is how they make the leap between the public and private sectors themselves). As has been noted in this space before, somewhere on the order of between a third and two-thirds of Ukrainians would sell or would condone selling their votes.
Their political class gives them scarce reason to think otherwise. Kyiv might generously be called sclerotic and deranged in governance and administration. Every ten years or so, there’s a some-adjective revolution (this is how Western Ukraine traditionally takes power from more populous Eastern Ukraine), and then the whole thing lapses back into turgid corruption and inaction. There’s the occasional mass brawl in the Rada, a prime minister is forced out from time to time, the constitution is rewritten to make either the President or Prime Minister more powerful, and nothing changes. Somewhat amusingly and more than a little ironically, the last time Ukraine saw major structural reforms was under former President Viktor Yanukovych, who forced through those changes to bring the country closer to Europe … right before Europe abandoned him and the whole thing came tumbling down.
Today, the patsy of the moment is Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who just performed the traditional song-and-dance about resisting the oligarchs and sweeping reforms for Reuters. Groysman is a decent fellow, and a lot more charming in person than he appears elsewhere. He’s enjoying a lot of favorable press for being the first Jewish Prime Minister of Ukraine — a real accomplishment in a country where anti-Semitism can devolve into bloodshed quickly. He’s also ruthless as the day is long — this is how one becomes Prime Minister in Ukraine, regardless of the year — and necessarily beholden to some oligarchs (this is also how one becomes Prime Minister in Ukraine, regardless of the year).
He’s also in what might be described as an awful situation, except for the likelihood that he will be able to retire to a nice dacha in about five years. The Russians still hold the Donbass, there is no institutional will for ending corruption (efforts to accomplish that end are what killed the premiership of his predecessor), the economy is coming out of recession and will have to go through at least one more as the blood-price of an International Monetary Fund loan, and so on.
The dark and terrible secret of Ukraine — the real answer to all of those questions above, the answer to Groysman’s inevitably failed time in office, the reason Ukraine remains stuck — is that Russia cares about Ukraine (or more accurately, its control over and ties to Ukraine), while the West only barely and sporadically does. Groysman described Ukraine as the eastern boundary of Europe in that Reuters interview — a nice rhetorical touch — but no one in the West thinks so. Instead, Ukrainians are left to rot at Moscow’s tender mercies; their economy remains a shambles; European integration remains a pipe-dream; and everyone has accepted that what looked like a bright future was merely the last flash of light as the sun set on Ukraine, twenty-five years ago.
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