Kiev, Ukraine – Ruslan Boldyzhar stands outside Ukraine’s parliament, among a crowd of protesters and flags, demanding that those inside be scrutinised for links to corruption from the old regime.
Boldyzhar expressed frustratation with the slow pace of change and does not believe the politicians who were in the limelight during the country’s bloody uprising from November to February are committed to real reforms.
“They [said] a lot to all of us, that ‘We will support you, we agree with you,'” he said. “But during this time they didn’t do anything … [to assure] us that they’re working for Ukraine but not for themselves.”
Boldyzhar arrived in the capital Kiev last Thursday morning from the southern city of Odessa, where he was involved in demonstrations during the revolt that ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovich. The protests, initially over Yanukovich’s rejection of closer ties to the European Union in favour of Russia, grew into a movement against what demonstrators saw as corruption and abuse of power.
Corruption is notoriously widespread in Ukraine, Transparency International rated Ukraine 144 out of 175 countries on a corruptions index, just behind Nigeria and Iran.
It's not just because you need to change one law, you have to change the whole culture, you have to build the institution, you have to bring new people. It takes years and years.
The crowd of protesters, luxury cars, and black SUVs filled the side street and parking lot of the parliament last week. More demonstrators could be found on nearby Institutskaya Street, which saw some of the worst violence during the deadly protests, and where memorials still stand for those killed during the uprising.
In one building on the street, activists gathered to discuss reforms by the government to try to ensure the changes demanded during the protests would become reality.
‘Change the whole culture’
Like Boldyzhar, Svitlana Zalishchuk said she’s disappointed that more hasn’t been done.
As an executive director for the Centre of United Actions, which fights for legal reforms, she helped organise protests at the main demonstration site Maidan Square from the very first day.
“It’s not just because you need to change one law, you have to change the whole culture, you have to build the institution, you have to bring new people. It takes years and years.”
She said one reform politicians have been reluctant to tackle is greater independence of the judiciary from the executive branch and parliament.
Some significant improvements have been implemented, however. Zalishchuk said one of the most important reforms has been setting up an independent body to look at public broadcasting to make it independent of government control.
A seeming conflict of interest still stands in Ukraine’s media landscape, though. President Petro Poroshenko refuses to let go of his ownership of the news station Channel 5, despite saying he will sell his other businesses.
The executive director of Ukraine’s Anticorruption Action Centre, Daria Kaleniuk, has also struggled to get reforms passed.
One of the biggest challenges is attempting to create an independent agency to investigate possible corruption of senior-level government officials. She said some politicians have written alternative draft laws that would take away the independent aspect of such an agency.
“The parliament of Ukraine consists of those people who were voting for dictatorship laws back in January 2014, and a lot of those people in parliament are potential clients … to be investigated.”
Both Kaleniuk and Zalishchuk blame the slow pace of change on current members of parliament linked to Yanukovich, who came to power in the old system that stalled reforms. Even Poroshenko, himself an oligarch, was once a minister in Yanukovich’s cabinet and helped found the Party of Regions, which the former president belonged to.
|Workers take down posters and flags at Maidan Square put up during the revolt [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]|
Poroshenko has also given successful businessmen top posts in his administration. He recently appointed the former general manager of Microsoft Ukraine as deputy head of social and economic reform.
Yevhen Bystrytsky, head of the philosophy department with a focus on politics at the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, said such appointments raise concerns. However, Bystrytsky said when he met some of the new people in charge, he felt assured they would work in the interests of the country. But even if politicians are genuine about making changes, the structure of the government limits them, he added.
“The ministries have been built in such ineffective ways … It’s very difficult to [proceed with] reforms without radically changing the very ministries.”
Kaleniuk said her organisation is following the appointments closely. She concedes that the experience of financially successful people could benefit Ukraine, but it could also backfire.
“They sound a little bit … suspicious for us sometimes because there are a lot of people coming from [these] businesses,” Kaleniuk said, adding they understand how corrupt the country’s economy is and could use that for their own personal gain.
Good managers required
Sitting down in an upscale restaurant in the government quarter of the capital, Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, said such successful businessmen are needed to run the country.
“Lenin once said that even a housewife can rule the country and so that’s what he did, he started putting random people in power, some people couldn’t even read,” Gerashchenko said. “We need someone who’s experienced, who can think and who can analyse – a good manager.”
Gerashchenko admitted that reforms have stalled, blaming the conflict in the east, in which rebels allegedly backed by Russia have tried to split Ukraine and gain autonomy from Kiev.
He held up a helmet of a fighter from a pro-Ukrainian battalion who was recently killed, pointing to what looked like a bullet hole on the side. Gerashchenko argued the conflict has forced the government to put money towards fighting the rebellion, diverting it away from reforms – something he said Russian President Vladimir Putin wants.
“He understands that if we are going to push all the reforms … we are going to build a strong state, and that means his regime will look more miserable.”
… who are striving to enter the parliament to represent the people, and the interests of the people.”]
Zalishchuk is more sceptical. She said MPs have been using the conflict to delay real changes.
“I’m sure that politicians are using, in many cases, this situation in order to say ‘Ok, it’s not time, we don’t have resources, we don’t have … political will, we don’t have [enough] votes.'”
However, with parliamentary elections expected in the next couple months, Ukrainians may have the chance to force out the politicians connected to the old system and bring in reformists. The problem is the system that brought in the politicians who angered so many protesters is still firmly in place.
Half of those elected into parliament are voted in by constituencies, which Zalishchuk said are corrupt because voters are bribed to cast ballots for certain politicians. Gerashchenko agreed that this happens. A proposal to change that system, supported by Gerashchenko, failed to be passed by parliament.
While much of Ukraine is still in chaos, signs of normalcy are quickly coming back to Kiev.
On the city’s main street leading to Maidan Square, workers are laying bricks back down – once used as weapons against security forces. For the first time in months, cars are allowed to drive through the square after the protest barricades were finally removed.
Ukraine’s challenge now is to move away from the system that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets in the bitter cold, some of whom never returned home.
Kaleniuk said the parliamentary elections will be crucial to build a new Ukraine. “We hope that there will be new faces in the [parliament] … who are striving to enter the parliament to represent the people, and the interests of the people.”