The passion and the spirit that energized Ukraine’s Maidan revolt in 2014 has been reduced to a remnant of temperate embers. Nearing seven years since the uprising began and Ukraine has failed, yet again, to transform itself into a dignity-based and rule-of-law society with the establishment of democratic institutions.
The Maidan era in Ukraine is over. Sadly, but unfortunately typical, another epoch for societal transformation was started, but not completed.
The Maidan was a wished-for revolution that actually wasn’t. The fundamental governing principles of the ancien regime remain. The practice of corruption still prevalent as an accepted way of life, though now even more secret, a new generation of leaders too inexperienced to take hold of and practice democratic power, while the use of fear and threats to manipulate personal behavior all still reign. Ukraine, however, continues to be a “bully” culture where the rule-of-law does not govern over individual human and institutional behavior.
The Maidan was an existential rebellion. At best, it was a revolutionary affirmation of individual dignity and a categorical rejection of the Marxian view of human nature. It was as much a spiritual statement as much as a political one. The dignity of life matters.
That said, Ukraine has failed to apply, for the purposes of societal transformation, the fundamentals of democratic values into a clear road towards a “just society”. This failure must be clearly stated and accepted. Excuses can no longer tolerated by Ukraine’s citizens and its partners in the West.
The time of continual incantation to the Maidan as some mythical mantra to which Ukrainian society aspires must be declared to be over. The time has come for a new, post-Maidan baseline that would be established that would act both as a critique of present government actions and as a basis for judgement of Ukraine’s progress towards establishing a modern functioning democracy.
Ukrainians talk too much. They make promises, with little or no intention to deliver, while at the same time singing its national delusionary tune that “everything will be good”.
There will only be a change in Ukraine when it is forced to provide results that can be measured and that the commitments to its people and to those who choose to invest within its borders are realized. In Ukraine, the situation is not good. Impatience at the lack of change is growing once again towards discontent.
Ukrainians still do not realize that they alone must bear responsibility for their ultimate national and individual fate and that an independent and sovereign country cannot thrive with its hand constantly outstretched to get, yet another, IMF loan.
Since declaring its modern independence in 1991, then experiencing the Orange Revolution and, a decade later, the Maidan, Ukraine continues to be mired in a middle world, psychologically and philosophically handicapped, making it unable to make a firm commitment and sacrifice to establish a viable democracy.
Ukraine remains psychologically chained to its past, tethered by a yet unbroken tradition of serfdom and oppression that perpetuates a continuing lack of societal wide confidence to believe that it can attain the promises democratic rule.
Its mediocre societal leadership continues to illustrate its unwillingness to pay the price for change and its moral corruption prevents it to commit to a path of building a functioning democracy that is inspired by individual dignity, legal justice and the pursuit of individual economic ambition.
Ukraine still does not have an effective governing elite that can define a vision of a democratic Ukraine. No leader has yet defined what a democratic Ukraine would look like and how it would function. Certainly, after all this time, an authentic democratic leader, would declare such a vision, lead an effort to attain societal agreement for such a cause, while proposing a comprehensive plan as to how to reach this goal.
After the tumultuous events of the Maidan and a number of fair elections, Ukraine has yet to put in place a ruling group of politicians, technocrats and effective civic society activists with proven fealty to a sovereign and rules-based democracy which sees its future in Europe. A group that will fight against corrupt authoritarian tendencies and Russian influence.
Ukraine still stubbornly clings to the familiarity and even misplaced comfort of the ancien regime because it is what they know and how they have been conditioned. Change is a source of trepidation when there is a hunger for societal and economic stability and consistency. Though one may not agree with this assessment, nonetheless, Ukraine doesn’t have the mature wherewithal, or the national self-esteem, to make the supposed changes it has promoted to itself and to the world.
Ukraine remains a country of failed promises led by nonsense speaking pretenders, who make promises only to then break them. Two presidents have promised to prosecute the perpetrators of the Maidan, but after nearly seven years this has not yet been done. The legal system is not strong enough to assign responsibility and demand accountability.
The stranglehold of oligarch influence remains because its values system has not been replaced and institutionalized. Stealing, scheming, fraud and the siphoning of money, in business, government and government-led corporations remains the natural condition of practice.
Ukraine does not have the ability, nor the institutional courage, to prosecute its most notorious criminals. It must rely on its Western partners. If they knew how to do it and had the institutional and individual courage, then the greatest act of murder in Ukraine’s modern history would have already been judicially adjudicated.
The strength of Ukraine’s civil society is weak and its ability to pressure for democratic change remains ineffectual. Ukrainian society does not have a strong and sustained moral voice that can daily affect public behavior. Sadly, Ukraine is bereft of moral leaders who enjoy a reputable public standing.
Ukraine still has no ideological-based political parties, which are the foundation blocks of democracies. Parties are personality-based and so open and easily influenced by monied and corrupting interests. The country is still run by the rules of the old politics, even though many faces have been changed in the countries daily discourse.
The justice system remains corrupt. Sustained western efforts constantly being challenged, their suggestions either put off or deliberately undermined. Many proven corrupt judges who had been dismissed have been restored to their positions.
Former President Petro Poroshenko had the opportunity to make transformational changes. He did not. His reasons and excuses no longer matter.
The reasons for Volodymyr Zelensky’s election were only shocking to those who had become personally invested in the pro-Western Poroshenko regime. Still, the best answer for Zelensky ‘s massive electoral win over Poroshenko was uttered by a flower seller in Kyiv just before the election, “He had his chance to make changes. He didn’t. Next.”
Now, with over a year in power, the second president elected after the Maidan has also failed in changing the fundamentals. In addition to the above, Zelensky has, as promised, failed to recruit and empower members of the Maidan generation into his government.
Even when appointed in his initial attempt to form a government, he failed to protect effective reformers. As one ex-minister recently said, “In Ukraine, excellence is punished and it seems that the way to lose your job is to succeed in applying reforms in your department.” The Zelensky administration continues to support a “zeitgeist of mediocrity”.
Zelensky has failed to stand up to the internal pressure within his government from the brokers of the past. A number of prominent ministers who served in his administration have said that the president continually fails to recognize the mendacity of how Russian interests are promulgated by their Ukrainian partners in an attempt to influence his government.
“Reform” efforts will be constantly stymied if he continues to fail to recognize that Ukraine has entrenched “enemies” from within and that if they are not publically identified, isolated and confronted, Ukraine will not be able to assert its political, economic and societal sovereignty.
But perhaps most unfortunately, Zelensky has failed to articulate a democratic vision of how a Ukrainian democratic society would actually look like and what would be the actual benefits of establishing a democratic society.
Though Zelensky’s electoral rhetoric convinced the citizenry to hope for some semblance of democracy, there is still no idealistically inspired vision that dominates the political discussion as to how Ukrainian society should transform itself and no established viable plan as to what has to be done to achieve this democratic vision.
That said, there is grave doubt that this can actually occur because very few actually know what it means and what it takes to build a rules-based democracy. There remains an intellectual, moral and a knowledge-based deficit that would inform this quest.
Is Ukraine solely to blame for its present predicament? Honestly? Yes. Nonetheless, it must also be asked: in what way have Ukraine’s Western partners failed to influence Ukraine?
The period after the Maidan offered Ukraine a historic opportunity at democratic nation-building. The exciting talk of reform, at least in its rhetorical form, in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion has proven to be hallow and the leading assumptions that would establish the direction of work for changing Ukraine proved to be wrong.
Ukraine was not in need of reform. Rather, it needed to focus on transformation. This meant “making better” what already existed. The country needed to have the ground of its political and social polity seeded deeply with democratic values that would have a chance to develop into democratic fruit.
Ukraine needed these values to be injected into the genes of its society for it would only then have the power to be transformed, meaning that the very nature of the country would have become different. If the authentic seeds of democratic values had taken root within the country’s major institutions, then they would have fundamentally altered the nature and appearance of Ukrainian society.
Talk of reform, rather than transformation, brought no sustainable or fundamental change. The belief that individual reformers could make fundamental inroads in the quest for “reform” also proved to be a misplaced tactic. It is too easy for the entrenched system to quash individual efforts, to intimidate individual ministers, thus thwarting change efforts.
The focus should have been more “institutional”, particularly on key ministries like the prosecutor general’s office and the justice ministry and its high echelon leaders. If wholesale cultural changes would have been established, a proven case would have been made that change was actually possible and that entrenched, and still Soviet-minded bureaucracies could indeed be made to heed to a democratic direction. A determined reduction of ministry personnel would have signaled an intention to change the form of governance.
The failure to organize and nourish an effective grassroots civil society movement also was a missed opportunity. The existence of non-governmental watchdogs, who could put on sustained pressure on the government was also a road to have been best taken. This lack of non-political opposition was a weapon that should have been more developed.
The lack of effort in pressuring political forces to become ideologically, rather than personality-based, has resulted in a continued deficiency in the country’s political culture. Without ideological political parties being forced to be accountable to electors, a sound and stable political environment cannot be established.
Though a new reform generation had ascended to political power after Zelensky’s election, they did not, and could not, exercise independent decision making because of immense pressure from the head of the presidential administration. The majority of the members of the Oleksiy Honcharuk government were soon replaced. Not because they weren’t reformers, but rather because the people were losing confidence in the government.
Simply put, the wrong people were chosen. Recruitment and the proper vetting of ministers and high-level officials remains inadequate.
Those that were originally chosen, and those that followed, speak of being morbidly frustrated and with a deep sense of melancholy at the slow pace of change and for not being allowed to implement promised changes.
In numerous personal discussions with representatives of the democratic-inspired Maidan generation, they spoke of fear to their persons. Ukraine remains a “fear society”.
Those that served in government spoke of the president’s unwillingness or inability to protect them from revanchists or to provide them with public support when they were publically attacked and their reputations maligned. Those unafraid of being intimidated were frustrated by the president’s inability to pursue a course for sustained institution building.
More simply said – they could not trust the president.
By March of this year, it became clear that that the best and the brightest of Ukraine’s political elite would find no places in any future Zelensky government. Zelensky is attempting to govern and change Ukraine without the support of the cream of the Maidan generation. This begs the question: can, or will he, be able to govern to the end of his term?
Zelensky is unaware that without a massive effort to consolidate democratically inspired impulses into Ukraine’s governance that latent authoritarian-inspired forces will continue to stymie Ukraine’s quest for a rules-based government. The president has not shown any evidence that he appreciates the mendacity of these forces and that they just might successfully thwart the country’s democratic and free-market development.
This scenario will continue to be played out as long as there is an absence of a justice-based vision for Ukraine that is borne out of a mentality of uncompromised Ukrainian independence and sovereignty.
Will this situation change? Not likely.
In the present circumstances, to continue to believe in Ukraine’s “change” and in the fulfilment of its “potential” is a perpetuation of a wishful myth peddled mostly by in-country Western cheerleaders. This must stop, but likely won’t because it would be an admission of failure to have affected transformative change.
Of course, changes have occurred, but they have been peripheral and minuscule as opposed to transformative. There are no signs of fundamental transformative change happening in Ukraine. This hoped-for narrative has effectively been extinguished. If anything, political mediocrities will dominate political life for the foreseeable future.
Ukraine’s Western partners must stop taking Ukrainians at their word. They must demand measurable results. The truth is that Ukrainians will promise and say what they will to ensure a revenue stream, whether in government or in business.
The stubborn reality is that Ukrainians will change only if they are either forced or put into a situation where they economically will have no choice but to ascend. One need only to examine the country’s behavior and tactics when confronted with the need to obtain IMF monies.
At best, individual ministers will be appointed and then replaced if their performance reflects negatively on the president’s public rating or if they obtain a certain level of success that is contrary to the values of entrenched self-interests.
Where to for Ukraine?
The Zelensky government has run out of reform energy and steam, let alone any attempt to govern towards transformative change. As mentioned above, there is no established “transformation” narrative. This is due to his inexperience in government and his lack of strength to impose his will on his government’s direction. He neither has the aptitude, nor the ability and courage to incorporate the country’s best and brightest into its governing structures.
Zelensky’s administration continues to fail in identifying and attracting the most competent people in the country. His presidency has not escaped being ruled by the mendacity of the mediocre. He presides over the government, but it is no secret that the most powerful man in Ukraine’s government now is the interior minister, Arsen Avakov.
But in what may prove the president’s worst decision to date is the prosecution of his predecessor, former President Poroshenko. This was a deliberately chosen course of “revenge prosecution” and a major mistake because it is hardening opposition to his government, and this, with a politician whose untrustworthy rating hovers around 70%.
Poroshenko is Ukraine’s consummate political Zelig. Zelensky’s prosecution of him will only benefit the political rehabilitation of this man of yesterday, who is clearly on a personal path to rehabilitate his political career.
Any overreaction – a physical display or even errant gunshot – by Avakov could possibly trigger another public revolt. This time though, there will be much shedding of blood for the insurrection will be armed.
As discontent with Zelensky’s leadership continues to harden, Ukrainians now wonder when the promised changes will occur.