A man walks near Ukraine’s Supreme Court on April 5 in Kyiv. (Volodymyr Petrov)
Photo by VOLODYMYR PETROV
Here’s another of the revolutions that have yet to happen in Ukraine: The elimination of the anti-competitive and oligarchic stranglehold over the economy, impunity, lawlessness, plundering and blundering, lack of rule of law and the other obstacles to this nation’s prosperity.
On our way to work with everyone else, we see fellow laborers heading out every day with dignity. We are in league with them. They put on their best business clothes, maybe carry a briefcase, frequently with a look of grim determination mixed with resignation on their faces.
Too many of us in Ukraine have too little in pay to show for our labors. It’s inherent in the human race to want to worthwhile work, to strive, to challenge one’s intellectual capabilities, to contribute to society, to be appreciated — and to earn a proper salary to support a family, buy a home and raise children.
Young are fleeing
But this is not happening in Ukraine on a scale that a thriving nation needs. This is why our population is falling, drastically close to 40 million people, and many of the best young minds are fleeing.
But instead of fixing the problems that stifle foreign investment and economic prosperity, too many of Ukraine’s leaders and assorted PR professionals have taken to cheerleading — and criticizing journalists, civic activists, reformers and anyone else who points out the obvious.
The latest in a long line of wishful thinkers is someone who knows better, Daniel Bilak, the Canadian lawyer who left private practice for a year to direct UkraineInvest and who serves as chief investment adviser to Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.
Just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, carping about unfair news media is the last refuge of those who understand the investment climate is bad, but can’t — or won’t — improve it.
“The current media narrative — that while some changes have taken place, reforms in the country have stalled — disregards the scale of achievements since 2014,” Bilak recently wrote in an op-ed published by the Atlantic Council.
Not so, Bilak.
We know the magnitude of the changes. We lived through them. Ukrainians, their civil society and journalists demanded them, despite all-too-often successful obstruction by those in power.
He cites a litany of real, promised and imagined changes for the better, and of promising new investments, although not on a scale, as he admits, that will offer Ukrainians a brighter future soon.
The biggest problems with his essay are these: Ukraine has “reformed its notoriously corrupt police force, public procurement system, and gas sector.”
Reforms under threat
Actually, all three accomplishments are under threat — and the police force, sorry, has not been reformed except at the patrol level.
Bilak holds out hope for rule of law, which he knows well hasn’t happened. He should also know that serious reform isn’t on the horizon in the near future, if at all.
“The country’s greatest challenge remains to strengthen the rule of law and transform the relics of the Soviet system that hinder business: the courts, the prokuratura (all-powerful prosecutor), various security and law enforcement agencies, and numerous administrative bodies,” Bilak wrote. “While much remains to be done, a recent high-profile arrest shows that Ukraine’s new Western-backed anti-corruption institutions are beginning to succeed, and the current reform of the Supreme Court, involving civil society oversight, may facilitate the reform of the country’s judiciary as a whole.”
In this, Bilak skips over the fact there’s been no police (except patrol police) reform. There’s been no prosecutorial reform whatsoever — the all-powerful office is still in charge of the criminal justice system, overseen by a political hack with no legal competency and no qualifications for the job other than loyalty to President Petro Poroshenko. Yes, I am talking about Yuriy Lutsenko here, the former interior minister and political prisoner under ex-President Viktor Yanukovych. Despite his two-and-half years in prison for no reason, Lutsenko — whose freedom the Kyiv Post championed relentlessly — is a major disappointment. He wants to be an insider more than he wants justice for Ukraine.
What court reform?
Bilak also ignores the very serious evidence piling up that the new Supreme Court will not be much different from the old one — that is to say, corrupt and politically subservient — although at a vastly higher pay scale. At best, a reshuffling of the same old judges is taking place. I expect they will be less loyal to Yanukovych and more loyal to Poroshenko. This is not an improvement.
The Western-backed anti-corruption institutions that “are beginning to succeed,” as Bilak wrote, are running into a brick wall of old judicial corruption, understaffing and attempts at trying to undermine their independence.
He cites the “high-profile arrest” of State Fiscal Service Chief Roman Nasirov as a success story.
First of all, it’s not yet a success story.
Secondly, Nasirov so far stands out as more like a sacrificial lamb. The fact remains: Nobody has been tried and convicted for the multibillion-dollar financial fraud and high profile murders since Yanukovych fled power. This includes no one punished for the nation’s $20 billion in bank fraud, paid for by Ukrainian taxpayers.
Memo to Ukraine’s leaders and cheerleaders: Nobody wants the nation to succeed more than us. We are, after all, the Kyiv Post, not the Washington Post or the Prague Post.
Why investors stay out
But businesspeople, good ones, don’t spend their hard-earned money because of PR spin or negative media “narratives.” The good ones, as Bilak knows, perform their due diligence and make their decisions after a deep and broad assessment of the economic opportunities, risks and realities.
As for Ukrainians, they are still fleeing abroad.
To say this is happening because of a hyper-critical media is an insult to their intelligence and factually incorrect. Studies have shown that Poroshenko enjoys flattering media coverage, especially on television, even as his popularity and support sinks to single-digit levels. The bullshit detectors of Ukrainians are higher than the elite give them credit for.
If Ukrainians felt they had opportunities to advance their lives in their native land, more of them would stay.
Instead, many of them have left and continue to leave or to look for opportunities abroad.
Only changing the reality — not trying to alter the perception with clever but ultimately ineffective PR — will stop them.