Where are the transformational leaders of Ukraine’s Maidan generation?

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Almost seven years after Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Revolution, the continuing promises of changing Ukraine’s political and governing elites have not materialized. Even after the clarion call for systematic value changes were democratically affirmed by electors in two elections, the essential values informing governing fundamentals have not occurred.

Despite public rhetorical dronings that are directed at both audiences at home and abroad, which state that anti-corruption mechanisms either have or are in the process of being implemented to combat the corruptive nature of Ukrainian governance, the country remains mired in the governing traditions of a post-Soviet and oligarchic world.

As a result, it is must be asked: what are the results of these efforts?

Ukraine remains a corrupt country and it operates as such at every level of societal transaction, be it political, judicial or economic.

It is stuck. Its politicians and technocrats remain in possession of an unreformed and unrepentant kleptocratic mentality pervaded by the traditions of Soviet bureaucratic inefficiency, favoratism and nepotism.

In addition, the so-called elite suffers from an unfathomable ignorance of Western governing principles and best practices as to how to run a modern government and an alleged contrarian force that has largely been made impotent and frustratingly bereft of the initiative to combat the essential nature of the corrupt system.

Of course, the essential question that must be asked of Ukraine is: How have you made the fight against the partnership of politicians and technocrats and criminal interests?

Needless to say, this fundamental question is not asked in Ukraine. One reason being, that there is absolutely no concern over the moral imperative of this question. And second, those in positions of power and influence have no interest in having this question asked, let alone answered. It is because a vast majority of individuals who seek out and enter the ranks of bureaucracy and politics enter because it is an opportunity to make money.

It has always been thus, and this tradition has not been broken in Ukraine’s post-Maidan world. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, where are the country’s post-Maidan transformational leaders?

With the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a new generation of leaders entered politics. Many old political faces were replaced. However, the Maidan generation, many who have experienced life in the West’s democracies and who have been exposed and formed by the experiences of Western governing styles and business practices and those who were emotionally and politically formed by the hope for democratic change during the EuroMaidan Revolution, have been deliberately excluded or have been thwarted by the malignant and soul-destroying anti-change agenda of unreformed influencers.

As individuals and as a group, many have been frustrated by the deliberate effort of Ukraine’s major political leaders and influencers at the lack of change. A recent example includes the story of a deposed minister who was accused of crimes connected to money laundering and terrorism by the SBU, Ukaine’s intelligence service, with whom he had been working in an effort to expose corruption in the ministry that he headed.

Rinat Akhmetov, who continues to have close connections with his counterparts in Moscow, remains one of Ukraine’s most powerful oligarchs nearly seven years after the EurMaidan Revolution aimed to oust his type of political influencer. EPA-EFE//DANIEL NAUPOLD

Many in the reform movement, especially those who are around forty years of age, are now out of government and are overcome by their sense of deepening frustration. They have been let down and their morale diminished because there was a failure to be protected by the higher-ups, including both post-Maidan presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Zelensky, who had publically stated their commitment to change.

One such example is that of an ex-deputy minister, an acknowledged expert in her field, whose attempts at reforming the processes in her ministry were so emphatically thwarted by the bureaucracy that she had to leave in frustration.

Such reformed-minded individuals have not been incorporated into the country’s high-level political and management leadership. This is because their sheer presence represents fundamental change to the status quo.

Far too many stories exist about how they remained constantly susceptible to the pressures of intransigent corruptionaires who constantly fought their reformist tendencies at every step. When asked why they had been stonewalled, they were told it was because the bureaucrats feared that if proven and capable reformers were to ascend to any position of influence, or to even actually take control of the leadership from within ministries, that the reformers would become ‘a clear and present danger’ to the entrenched system.

The constant refrain of political rhetoric towards a commitment of change from national politicians has become a hollow and boring refrain, in action, a continuing charade of posturing that is endemic of all corrupt societies. In Ukraine, after so many years without tangible success, a storm gathering cynicism regarding the governing class is once again darkening Ukraine’s environment.

After such a long period since the Maidan, it is clearly evident that the establishment of the Western values and governing ethos which would guide and inspire the fortitude that would give Ukrainian politicians the courage to make systematic changes has failed.

Up and coming politicians are not protected by courageous political leaders who would eschew ‘dirty’ money. They face daunting temptations because there are no effective monitoring systems of how monies are expended during campaigns. Those who want to run on a ‘change’ agenda often cannot obtain financial support for their political campaigns from impoverished citizens and cannot pursue their political activities because they don’t want to be beholden to oligarchic sponsors. They also refuse contributions because they are unwilling to participate in ‘quid pro quos’ in addition to believing that taking money from oligarchs is morally wrong.

This is most perfectly illustrated by the story of a young civic activist who wanted to run for municipal office in western Ukraine. When this person’s intentions became known, they were targeted by the security services who attempted to bribe the individual by offering business opportunities and money, and using various pressure tactics to dissuade them from running. When these entreaties were refused, and in classic KGB style, the activist was placed under constant surveillance.

Maidan generation politicians also routinely face electoral failure in Ukraine because they do not have the resources to mount effective campaigns. The country’s financial monitoring authorities continually fail to apply spending rules. Granted, there are exceptions, but the exceptions don’t and cannot change the rules. Instead, the unreformed system is based on political parties led by personalities who have proven be more easily bought and manipulated, which prevents potential change from occurring because of the limiting of political success by reformed minded newcomers.

Needless to say, efforts to introduce reforms into post-Maidan Ukraine’s political realm have largely focused on the championing of individual reformers. Ironically, such a strategy has actually made it easier to thwart actual reform in Ukraine because it is easier to intimidate, legally threaten, bribe and bureaucratically single out individuals than it is to fight against a highly organized and society-wide, Westernized anti-corruption movement.

A particularly sad development has become evident especially over the last year – the Maidan generation has not become fully cognizant that it is being called out to truly fight for Ukraine’s democratic future. Unfortunately, they have not shown any awareness, nor the effort needed, to take control of the country’s democratic agenda.

Poroshenko’s efforts stalled because he failed to overcome his oligarchic, Soviet-bred mentality and he lacked the essential courage needed to succeed. Zelensky is failing because he neither has the political know-how nor the personal expertise needed to effectively govern. Instead, he will continue to use his will to impose his huge electoral mandate on the country’s governing system. In addition, he remains unknowingly blocked because of his advisors’ fealty to an unreformed system and its most malicious practitioners.

It is now abundantly clear that Zelensky has governed Ukraine assuming that he cannot govern without the support of the oligarchic system. His performance as president reveals the truth that he is failing in the implementation of the change agenda to which he was overwhelmingly elected. This strongly suggests that he will be a one-term president.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wearing a protective face mask during an extraordinary parliamentary session in Kyiv. EPA-EFE//STR

If the Maidan generation is to effect the transformation of Ukraine into a modern, functioning and democratic society, it should consider the following:

1) The ‘rebellion’ against corrupt practices and the work of Ukraine’s broken institutions, which inspired the EuroMaidan Revolution, has not been completed. Continual and ever-growing discontent strongly suggests a potential revolutionary effort could arise in the future.

This lack of completion is one major problem contained within the essential national character. Ukrainians talk a lot, make many promises, begin a project, but after much-expended effort, they fail to complete what they have started.

The Maidan generation must first realize that this attitude is unacceptable and that this practice must change if Ukraine is to enter into the community of democratic European nations. They must realize that a free and democratic system is not a given. They cannot assume that a rules-based democracy will come into existence based on a wish or by waiting or by attending a Western-sponsored political governing seminar where they can make contacts with European and American representatives.

They must ascend to an understanding that a free and just society is built as a result of personal sacrifice and a commitment towards obtaining an idealistic goal that would create the foundations of democratic rule and values-based institutions. They must first ask, and then answer: “If not us, then who?”

A ‘change’ revolution occurs and is only defined by its ability to first destroy and ‘deconstruct’ old and corrupt governing values and practices and then create, assemble and erect a new governing framework. In Ukraine’s case, a structure that is influenced by such fundamental democratic values and an effort to forge a societal agreement and full societal acquiescence to the rule of law that is inspired by the principle of individual and sovereign dignity and the belief in the potential to build a society that would be led by a political and governing class that would be informed by economic and legal justice, does not exist.

Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, during the annual State of the Nation Address on October 20, 2020. EPA-EFE//PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE

2) The Maidan generation must realize that they are ‘at war’. At the very least, the can be guaranteed a conflagration, to be sure, or a fierce competition against Ukraine’s entrenched corrupt class. Young Ukrainians simply don’t fully comprehend or act like they realize how serious the stakes for the citizens of the country.

This war against entrenched interests cannot be fought individually, but rather as a unified force. Not only do personal ambitions have to be put aside for the sake of the country, but the old adage, “when there are two Ukrainians, there are also three generals”, must be dispelled.

They must first form a unified ‘opposition’ and ‘alternative’ that is defined by the primary aim of defeating the corrupt and revanchist forces now reasserting their power in light of a weak and relatively ineffective president who does not have the chutzpah to confront criminal oligarchic interests and impose his will on society.

What’s paramount, however, is that they must also understand that this ‘opposition’ and ‘alternative’ force must not be limited to or defined strictly through political expressions.

3) The Maidan generation must realize, along with Ukraine’s Western partners, that their strategy and implementation plan for changing Ukraine, of better yet, a plan to transform Ukraine from a post-Soviet society into a modern state, cannot be limited to what has until now been limited to a strictly political critique of society.

Ukraine’s problem has been that it lacks the moral leaders and a freedom-based values agenda which can both access and speak to the spiritual, philosophical and psychological aspirations of a people who are seeking to define their quest for freedom in a modern world.

Whether understood or not, Ukrainians are a people who aspire for concrete answers for their existential angst and access to an alternative moral vision to lingering Soviet/Marxist and oligarchical values. Most Ukrainians believe, and want to live in a just and free society even though many cannot fully define what this means.

It is incumbent on the Maidan generation that it must develop and then effectively communicate an idealistic vision for Ukraine’s long-term future that more than transcends the rhetorical barrier of the meaning of corruption and the institution of political reforms. Ukrainians know corruption when they see it, and they are against it. The question that they themselves must ask and answer is: “As Ukrainians, what are we for?”

The generation that was shaped by the historic events of the Maidan, as well as Ukrainian society as a whole, have still failed to fully understand the true meaning of the country’s corruption. It cannot be defined in strict economic terms, but rather, in the true Western sense – it is the absence of an ‘ideal’. Fundamental change hasn’t yet occurred in Ukraine because it still operates on the assumption of a discredited and rejected set of values.

The Maidan generation has the responsibility to establish a societal vision that will present a picture that shows how Ukraine can look when the values of rule of law, justice, freedom and fairness are applied. Only then will there be a possibility for the transformation of Ukrainian society. That will come when there is a recognition that such values have the power to change the nature of their corrupt society and that in such a transformation is contained the energy to transform the very nature and appearance of their society.

And last, the Maidan generation must develop a document, a “Statement of Principles” or something of the kind, that will act as a code and guidance for the development of a democratic future. It must attract the best and the brightest in the country to contribute their ideas and aspirations for the transformation of society.

This effort will provide the country with a way forward and it will provide Ukraine’s Western partners with a list of leaders, show who has leadership credentials and who can be trusted, and who has exhibited the competence to institute change.

In addition, it will eliminate Ukraine’s heretofore piecemeal approach towards reform, providing Western institutions and organizations with a long term strategy which would guide their partnership with Ukraine.

If the Maidan generation is to distinguish itself in Ukraine’s modern political history, the politicians and governing technocrats of this generation, must exhibit courage, commitment and resolve at this moment. They cannot sit on the sidelines even though they might not be elected officials or hold government positions.

They must both individually and corporately prepare in these years before the next presidential and parliamentary elections and muster the courage to plan and ultimately lead a societal rebellion against Ukraine’s corrupt governing nature.

Ukraine’s Maidan generation must establish a road to freedom. It then must become prepared to govern a society based on individual dignity; a “just society” which will allow Ukraine to finally become a democratic and modern European state.

A Ukrainian woman holds a placard reading ‘We are for Ukrainian schools!’ during a rally in front of the Parliament building in Kyiv. EPA-EFE//SERGEY DOLZHENKO

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