Supporters of Ukrainian opposition figure and Georgian former President Mikheil Saakashvili take part in a procession during a rally against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, February 2018.
Supporters of Ukrainian opposition figure and Georgian former President Mikheil Saakashvili take part in a procession during a rally against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, February 2018. 
Gleb Garanich / REUTERS

“We are sliding back,” the Ukrainian journalist turned parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko warned a year ago about the arc of political reform in his country. At the time, his assessment sounded alarmist, but it rings true today. Since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, reformers in and out of Ukraine’s government have tried to remake a fiscally troubled and deeply corrupt country into a Western-oriented, rules-based one, but have only partially succeeded.

Ukraine’s future as an independent and sovereign state will depend as much on winning its internal war on corruption and fixing its broken government as on keeping Russia contained in the east. If Kiev emerges as a reformist success story, its example will send shock waves through the post-Soviet space and signal that the Kremlin’s neoimperial and rule-breaking project of maintaining control over its former colonial satellites is not sustainable. If it fails, however, the EU-border state may collapse, creating a major security threat for Europe and beyond.


Last year saw mixed gains for Ukraine’s reformers. Parliament passed health, education, and pension reform, but those with vested interests in preserving the status quo, including President Petro Poroshenko’s party, known as Petro Poroshenko Bloc, tried to undo progress on anticorruption reform. In December, the Bloc-managed parliament attempted to sack Artem Sytnyk, director of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and removed Maidan leader and parliamentarian Yegor Soboliev from chairing its anticorruption committee. Parliament only backed down on NABU after Kiev received dozens of angry phone calls and threats from international donors and embassies, threatening to pull aid. Throughout all of last year, the Security Services of Ukraine or its proxies harassed anticorruption activists, prosecutors opened trumped-up cases against crusading nongovernmental organizations, and the presidential administration threw its resources behind a campaign to undermine the mayor of the historic city of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, a reformist rival with a national profile and a sterling reputation up to that point. Yet in spite of all this, Poroshenko recently boasted at the World Economic Forum that he was the one behind Ukraine’s anti-graft drive.

By late 2017, many in the West had finally had enough of Poroshenko’s reformist doublespeak and started to play hardball. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund suspended funds after Ukraine fell short on a number of promises. What they want to see established, and what Poroshenko keeps fighting, is an independent anticorruption court. Since Euromaidan, no high-level criminals have been put behind bars. Charges have been brought against several, but they all have been released on bail. Since 2015, NABU has sent 107 investigations to court, but has been unable to obtain any major convictions. Judges regularly pass cases back and forth and cite large backlogs as the reason for the lack of progress. As a result, polls show that Ukraine’s judicial system is the country’s least trusted institution, even after the government rebuilt the Supreme Court from scratch in 2017. Experts say the process failed to cleanse the courts and rebuild trust.


As anticorruption efforts stall, the country of 45 million faces two big elections next year: a presidential race in March and parliamentary elections in the fall. Even though the elections are 14 months away, experts are already analyzing how today’s decisions will be seen by voters next year.

To judge from the polls, Ukrainians are not happy. Ordinary citizens feel they are getting poorer. The economy just returned to feeble growth after years of recessions—a period dubbed the “lost decade”—and even now Ukraine has one of the highest inflation rates in Europe (13.7 percent in 2017) and stagnating incomes. This makes the ground fertile for populists such as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose party tops the polls at eight percent. Her political appeal is a shadow of what it once was—after years in jail stemming from a politically motivated conviction engineered by disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych, she’s out of touch with the post-Maidan political reality, and her ties to some of the country’s most prominent oligarchs are seen as toxic by most voters. Still, with her charisma and talent for exquisite political maneuvering, a comeback is not out of the question. But she will have to align with other opposition forces, or share space in her Fatherland party with younger reformers such as post-Maidan newcomers Alex Ryabchyn and Alyona Shkrum. 

Meanwhile, experts say that Poroshenko’s bloc may once again form a coalition with former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party. The public loathes Yatsenyuk, however, as they perceive him as arrogant and think his policies failed to tackle poverty and corruption. He polls between one and two percent. Thus, a ticket with Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov, Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov—combined with the People’s Front’s deep election pockets—would make for a hard-to-beat but status quo outcome.


In contrast, the short-term electoral prospects for pro-reform Ukrainians are dim. For more than a year, many voters have hoped that rock star Slava Vakarchuk would run for president and turn things around. Vakarchuk spent the fall at Stanford University studying democratic theory, but it is not yet clear whether he intends to seek office. But the question of whether he runs is less important than what the popular enthusiasm for him says about the electorate. In Ukraine, there’s been a persistent hope that one individual can singlehandedly tackle corruption and fix the country’s myriad problems. Yet time and time again, voters are disappointed when such “white knights”—former President Viktor Yushchenko, the darling of the Orange Revolution, for example, and now Poroshenko—invariably fail to transform Ukraine.

In Ukraine, there’s been a persistent hope that one individual can singlehandedly tackle corruption and fix the country’s myriad problems.

Rather than place their hopes in a charismatic individual, Ukraine’s pro-reform voters should focus on party building and supporting the country’s dynamic civic organizations to develop institutional strength. Honest, Western-oriented politicians and parties do exist, although there aren’t enough of them in Parliament yet to make a real impact. Party building is not easy in Ukraine. Thomas Carothers, an expert on democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in Confronting the Weakest Link that “the post-Soviet soil is unusually inhospitable to parties,” and identifies the profound cynicism of post-Soviet culture and a web of passivity and disorganization as an explanation. Unlike in the West, voters display little party loyalty and don’t have developed party identities. Carothers thinks reformism is the ideology that works best in post-authoritarian countries such as Ukraine, and it is a platform that the country’s pro-Western, democratic political parties, including Self Reliance, Democratic Alliance, and Silya Liuday, have embraced. Each will compete in the 2019 elections, although only Self Reliance has a possibility of crossing the five percent threshold necessary to win seats in parliament.

Democratic Alliance, which was originally registered in 2011, suddenly gained notice when Mustafa Nayyem, Svitlana Zalishchuk, and Serhiy Leshchenko—former journalists and activists well known for their crusading stance against corruption and activity in the Euromaidan protests—put their weight behind it. The party got a splashy reboot in July 2016 when the three joined and Zalishchuk was elected co-chair, and turned heads as it launched a fundraising campaign attempting to collect donations from ordinary Ukrainians. Despite this publicity, however, it has not given enough attention to building up a grassroots base and is thus unlikely to make the five percent threshold. 

Another small party to watch is Power of the People, which is headed by Mayor Yuriy Bova of Trostyanets in Sumy Oblast. It currently focuses on local as opposed to national politics. Many praise its slow but democratic approach to party building. Although the party only polls one to two percent nationally, it is gaining ground across the country. It has factions on city councils in the east and south and it won the mayor’s seat in Chortkiv in the west. Power of the People’s slow and steady approach may eventually pay off, but not in time for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

Self Reliance, a party based in Lviv, grew out of a regional nongovernmental organization, which wasn’t explicitly political at the beginning, into a nationwide political party that says it shares former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s liberal conservativism. Over the past two years, the party took an electoral beating over a trash scandal after the Poroshenko administration ordered all waste facilities to refuse Lviv’s garbage to punish the party. The national press highlighted the city awash in trash all summer, making Mayor Sadovyi, Self Reliance’s leader, look incompetent. When pressed by us in a September 2017 interview on how the scandal affected his shot at the presidency, Sadovyi ignored the question. And Oksana Syroyid, the deputy speaker of Parliament and Self Reliance deputy, dismissed a poll that shows a 19 percent drop in Sadovyi’s numbers as “biased.” The party also boycotted trade with the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which caused the country’s GDP to decline by more than one percent in 2017. In the last year, numerous observers have expressed dissatisfaction and disappointment with the party to us in interviews. “I think it would be hard for [Samopomich] to break out of their regional orientation, though it’s possible if they stress national issues like corruption rather than identity issues,” Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama said. The party’s Kiev branch is doing just that—the Kiev faction is the second largest in the city council and five of its members took polygraphs twice before elections to show voters they are different—and could perhaps gradually move this conservative party in a slightly more liberal direction, broadening its appeal.  


Self-Reliance, Democratic Alliance, and Power of the People all have the right ideas, but all are still politically immature, and in a country of mostly impoverished people, economic anxieties and patron-client relations still outweigh ideology at the ballot box. The country’s bleak demographic outlook compounds the problem: with a graying electorate and a large number of young people moving abroad, many older voters want candidates who will keep the handouts coming. For a new generation of politicians who came of age during the Maidan, compromise is still a dirty word, and it will take years for them to learn how to talk to regular and often older voters.

In the meantime, Western institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, must stay focused on Ukraine’s internal war and hold the government accountable through loans, programs, and aid for the promises that its leadership has made. They should also loudly denounce its backsliding and harassment of activists as it happens. Reformers, meanwhile, must continue their work and concentrate on the next round of local elections and the 2024 national elections. Doing so is the only way forward to lasting change.


You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MELINDA HARING is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. MAXIM ERISTAVI is a Nonresident Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Co-Founder of Hromadske International, an independent news outlet based in Kiev.
  • More By Melinda Haring
  • More By Maxim Eristavi