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Ukraine Beyond the Impeachment Headlines

Ukraine’s image is suffering from negative coverage surrounding the impeachment hearings of US President Donald Trump. Yet, while the country remains poor and corruption is rife, voters have overwhelmingly backed far-reaching political and economic change, and a new generation of leadership is committed to delivering it.

CHICAGO – If there is one thing that American politicians on both sides of the aisle agree on about the impeachment hearings of President Donald Trump, it is that Ukraine is a corrupt country. But it would be unfortunate if what the public learns about Ukraine during this process is that it is an irredeemably lawless, poor, and desperate country, rather than one undergoing a sweeping transformation.

To be sure, Ukraine is still poor and, at times, desperate. But its citizens voted twice last year unequivocally against the corruption and incompetency that have epitomized the political class since the country’s independence in 1991.

In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian, entrepreneur, and political novice, was elected president with the support of 73% of voters. Then, in July, they gave Zelensky’s newly created party, Servant of the People (named after his hit TV series, Sluha Narodu), a parliamentary majority – making him the first Ukrainian leader in decades to control both the executive and legislative branches of government.

Zelensky’s emphatic victory exemplified a clear break with the past in another way. For three decades, presidential elections had featured an East vs. West divide, with Russia-oriented candidates dominating in Eastern Ukraine and pro-European candidates in Kyiv and Western Ukraine. Yet Zelensky, running his first political campaign, received overwhelming support in nearly all parts of the country against the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.

Ukraine, one of only a few post-Soviet countries to have elected presidents and parliaments in mostly free, competitive elections since independence, has become a textbook example of democratic dysfunctionality. Incumbents have lost more presidential elections than they have won, yet neither pro-Russian nor pro-Western presidents have brought economic prosperity. Corruption is rife and growth sluggish. Lacking the abundant natural resources of neighboring Russia, Ukraine has fallen steadily behind, to the point that Ukrainian GDP per capita is now more than three and a half times lower than in Russia. It is not surprising that Russian speakers in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have had second thoughts about Ukrainian independence, while Ukrainian voters of all stripes are fed up with their country’s political elite.

The challenges that Zelensky faces are enormous. Even setting aside Russia’s annexation of Crimea by force in 2014 and the government’s loss of control over parts of Eastern Ukraine to Russian-backed separatists, the implementation of much-needed economic reforms is proving to be a slow and painful process. Yet, in the months since his inauguration, Zelensky has demonstrated his commitment to reform, with sweeping personnel changes taking place at all levels of government. Oleksiy Honcharuk, the new prime minister, is 35 years old and, like Zelensky, has never served in government. The minister of economic development, Timofiy Mylovanov, is a former professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and current president of the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE), a small university that has established itself as a leader in economics education in Ukraine.

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It is conceivable that the reforms Zelensky and his government are pursuing will ultimately fail. In five years, we may find that cabinet ministers who were once young, idealistic, and full of reformist zeal have become creatures of the very swamp they are trying to drain: venal, entrenched, and, like officials in many ex-Soviet countries, scandalously rich. Yet, this outcome is by no means predetermined.

Following his party’s win in the parliamentary election in July 2019, Zelensky has required its members, most of them political novices, to attend classes at KSE, signaling that professional qualifications are more important than past experience in government. There is a sense of cautious optimism in Kyiv, across the country, and within the Ukrainian diaspora of the United States, which has its fair share of Ivy League professors and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Ukraine might indeed be a corrupt country, as both sides of the US political divide frequently note. Lurid stories about the lifestyles of the American-Ukrainian businessmen arrested on charges related to illegal campaign financing in the 2016 US presidential election certainly support this narrative of pervasive graft. Yet Ukraine has overwhelmingly voted for fundamental change and is now led by people who are committed to making their country a modern democracy committed to liberty and the rule of law. Ukrainian leaders’ efforts to make good on this commitment don’t make global headlines, but they deserve to be part of the story.

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