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It is easy to despair of Ukraine. The war-torn country has been engulfed by political crisis for nearly two months. The “Revolution of Dignity” that overthrew the corrupt, authoritarian government of President Viktor Yanukovych two years ago brought no revolutionary change. Corruption is still rampant. Key reforms are incomplete. The separation of powers between the president and prime minister remains vague. The oligarchs are still entrenched and the old political faces are having a makeover. The government is paralysed. Foreign aid is frozen. And the shenanigans around the formation of the new government seem painfully familiar.
On April 10th, after weeks of vacillation, the prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, whose popularity had plummeted along with Ukrainians’ living standards, offered to resign. His two-year term produced mixed results. His government managed to raise the absurdly low price Ukrainians are charged for gas, and reduce the country’s dependence on Russian supplies. Public procurement—a big source of corruption—became more transparent. But his administration was tarred by corruption scandals and stalled reforms. Mr Yatseniuk’s offer of resignation was followed by dissension and backroom horse-trading. The squabbling exemplified Ukraine’s lack of a responsible political elite. On April 14th the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted in a new government led by Volodymyr Groisman, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of President Petro Poroshenko. Oleksandr Danyliuk, a former consultant at McKinsey, is to be finance minister. The new administration is backed by a thin coalition between Mr Poroshenko’s bloc and Mr Yatseniuk’s party, which despite its miserable ratings will retain key cabinet posts, including the Ministry of the Interior.
Ukraine-watchers could not escape a feeling of déjà vu. Twelve years ago the Orange Revolution was followed by a period of misrule by then-President Viktor Yushchenko. At the time Mr Poroshenko, who was one of Mr Yushchenko’s lyubi druzi (“dear friends”), epitomised the betrayal of the revolution’s hopes. Yet in at least one respect the current situation is different: the energy of the Revolution of Dignity has not dissipated. Instead it has carried over into civil society. With international support, Ukrainian civic groups are trying to force the government to follow through on the promises of the Maidan uprising to reform a corrupt, oligarchic post-Soviet system. On a Kiev street parallel to the presidential administration building, dozens of young activists are shaping a new European-style state, building parallel institutions and drafting laws that are pushed through parliament. Some 50 of the leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have formed a coalition, oddly styled the “Reanimation Package of Reforms” (RPR) in English, that is pushing bills, staging protests, monitoring reforms and holding weekly meetings with MPs. RPR includes two dozen groups with expertise on reforms such as decentralisation and the fight against corruption. “We have real sway,” says Vadym Miskyi, a 26-year-old RPR organiser who was on Maidan two years ago. The network also includes independent media organs and some 40 young members of parliament who call themselves Euro-optimists. Many of the young activists, encouraged by the success of Georgia’s reforms in the mid-2000s, are rallying behind Mikheil Saakashvili, a former Georgian president and now the governor of Odessa, who is spearheading a national anti-corruption movement. Unlike the Georgian reforms, which were zealously enforced from the top, the changes in Ukraine are less visible. Yet they have broader support. Daria Kaleniuk, the head of Anti-Corruption Action Centre, one of the RPR’s member groups, says one reason corruption may seem to be getting worse is that it receives more media exposure than it did under Mr Yanukovych. “We have created a toxic environment for Ukraine’s corrupt officials, who have been stealing for the past quarter-century,” says Sevgil Musaieva-Borovyk, the editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an online newspaper.
But although civil society has scored important victories in the information war, the main battle is over law enforcement. Unable to break up corrupt structures such as the prosecutor’s office (which is even less trusted by Ukrainians than Russia’s propaganda-spewing TV stations, according to polls), Ukrainian civil society is helping to build parallel institutions. A number of cities have established new police forces to bypass the old corrupt ones. There is a National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) empowered to investigate high-level graft, a new anti-corruption prosecution service and a National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption to monitor the income declarations of government officials. Civic activists are trying to change election rules to limit the private funding of election campaigns and prevent political parties from serving as the oligarchs’ poodles. The victory of Ukraine’s civil-society movement is far from guaranteed. It will depend partly on the efforts of Western donors to enforce strict conditions for the funds they disburse in Ukraine. Establishing NABU was one of the main conditions the IMF attached to its $17 billion loan programme, which has been frozen over concerns about corruption. Desperately reliant on foreign aid, the Ukrainian government had limited wiggle room.
Inevitably, the civil activists and NABU investigators—rigorously selected, trained by Western anti-fraud services and well paid—are provoking resistance from the old system. The General Prosecutor’s office, headed until recently by Viktor Shokin, a protégé of Mr Poroshenko, has refused to pass information to NABU and attacked the Anti-Corruption Action Centre. “In a country where officials steal by percentage points of GDP, it was always going to be a struggle,” says Ms Kaleniuk. “We were ready for it.