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Ukrainians threaten to take to the streets once again

Ukraine is commemorating the first anniversary of the beginning of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, which eventually led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich. One year and two elections later, Ukraine finds itself fighting on not one, but two, fronts: on the military front in the Eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists continue to threaten the unity of the Ukrainian state, and on the reform front, where the current government is expected to deliver on its promises of major structural and political changes, writes Alina Inayeh.

The Yanukovich regime left Ukraine weaker than ever, with state institutions unable to perform their basic functions. Political and economic processes were perverted by systemic corruption. For Ukraine to survive as a state, let alone advance as a country, major political, social, and economic reforms were imperative. The war in Eastern Ukraine brought everything to a halt. But as soon as Ukraine elected a new president in May, both Ukrainian society and the international community started demanding reforms.

Implementing major structural reforms in wartime is a daunting task. Yet President Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government began with one major asset: the wholehearted support of the Ukrainian population, which was by and large ready to endure hardship to save the country. Six months later, an increasing number of citizens are disappointed by the pace of reforms. They doubt the good faith of the government and threaten to take to the streets again. The increasing sense of betrayal by Ukraine’s political leaders has been bolstered by the results of the recent parliamentary elections, which saw the election of a good number of old politicians — or people closely connected to them — as well as those closely linked to powerful oligarchs, and by failure to start prosecution of those responsible for the death of 110 people in the protests on Maidan one year ago.

At the same time, change has happened. In the past six months, the government has, to its credit, pushed through 18 pieces of legislation laying the basis for much-needed reforms. Governmental institutions are changing their composition and behavior, albeit at a slow pace, and the policymaking process is now permeated by and accessible to NGOs, who do a commendable job at pushing their recommendations through. The media amply covers the political process, criticizing all of its participants, and offering time and space to civil society to express its opinion.

But there are still problems. Some of the laws passed have flaws, the government is unnecessarily timid in some areas of reforms, and certain people connected to the old regime are still trying to stage a comeback. As experiences in the region show, transitions generally take more than six months and are never linear.

While angst, impatience, and frustration are intrinsic parts of the transition process, Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government are definitely guilty of not adequately communicating with their citizens. Information about the pace of reforms, about the rationale for changes, and about current challenges are rarely communicated. Even when they are, they are discussed in technical terms. For their part, the Ukrainian NGOs now involved in the policymaking process have proved very good at analysis and lobbying, yet are very poor at relating to their constituents. Both the government and NGOs risk keeping citizens outside of the political process — as ignored as they have always been — leaving them to wonder why they made sacrifices.

Ukraine will not succeed without reforms, and reforms will not succeed without citizens’ support. The president and the government need to take seriously the communication of their successes and the explanation of any failures. To prove their goodwill, they need to keep citizens informed of any and all moves to fight corruption, the reform citizens most desire. Ukrainian NGOs have to act less like experts and more like NGOs: relating to citizens, seeking their input, and making good use of the fervent civic spirit that has been generated by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Donors to civil society can also help the process by funding activities that require less technical expertise and more grassroots work.

Good communication can never replace the actual implementation of reforms, but remains a basic requisite. Giving Ukraine’s citizens a voice will not give the government the ability to counter the insurgency in the East. But it will create a formidable weapon that is needed to win on the reform front.

Alina Inayeh is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Bucharest office. The Fund first published this article as part of its Trans-Atlantic takes series.

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