Ukraine is making progress against tough odds. It deserves US support.
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Building a democracy isn’t easy, even in the best of circumstances. As a diplomat for over 40 years, I have seen firsthand how difficult it has been for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to overcome the legacy of Soviet authoritarianism, root out corruption, and establish free societies and market economies based on the rule of law.

No country in this region has faced more formidable challenges than Ukraine.

In the 25 years after achieving independence in 1991, Ukraine squandered many opportunities for reform, disappointing the aspirations of its people for a European future based on justice, prosperity and accountable leaders and institutions. When former President Viktor Yanukovych, yielding to Russian pressure, suspended Ukraine's negotiations on partnership with the European Union in late 2013, the Ukrainian people made it clear that they had had enough.

Their frustration led to the Revolution of Dignity on Kyiv's Maidan square, Yanukovych's flight to Russia and, a few months later, the election of new, reformist leaders led by current President Petro Poroshenko.

Since that time, however, Ukraine has had to continue the reform process with a gun to its head, both literally and figuratively.

It has not been easy for Ukraine to start a reform process from the ground up, especially while it has been fighting to protect its freedom and independence from Russian aggression.

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Russia has worked to undermine Ukraine through its illegal annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of an armed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, coupled with economic intimidation and misinformation campaigns. Russia's actions are designed to portray Ukraine as a failed state that doesn't deserve support from the larger international community.

 

Yet, remarkably, Ukraine has persevered and is on the right track. Ukraine has embarked on a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign to dismantle the institutional roadblocks that have thwarted reform in the past. With a focus on law enforcement, the civil service, public procurement and the energy sector, more institutions have been reformed in the last two years then in the preceding 23.

Addressing one of the most troublesome aspects of its own government, a new Ukraine National Police was formed in an effort to completely restructure an institution previously known for its corruption. The new police force has been launched in 32 cities thus far, and includes over 12,000 new officers.

Coupled with legal reforms, Ukraine has established new professional and ethical requirements, requiring evaluations of the performance of judges and consistent and secure handling of judicial files. Ukraine has also established several new institutions designed to investigate cases of corruption.

And to ensure its National Anti-Corruption Bureau, National Anti-Corruption Policy Council and National Agency for Prevention of Corruption serve the public interest, the country has conducted an open hiring process meant to give priority to true reformers.

Ukraine has also worked to hold its own politicians accountable to their constituents by instituting a mandatory online assets declaration. Officials from Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman down to lower-level civil servants are now required to publicly declare and describe all assets they possess inside and outside of the country, as well as assets officially registered in the name of relatives. Attempts to conceal finances over the equivalent of $14,000 carry criminal liability.

The country has also cut its bloated civil servant corps, reducing its ranks by 16 percent, which in turn has increased efficiency, curbed graft and reined in government procurement, saving the country $1.2 billion to date.

Equally important as government reforms is Ukraine's effort to strengthen its economy through energy independence. By establishing an independent regulator, Ukraine has adjusted its utility rates to market levels, and slashed energy subsidies by 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

Not only has this saved the country billions and closed loopholes previously used for corruption; it has also ended Ukraine's energy dependence on Russia.

While collectively, these reforms have brought a much higher level of transparency and scrutiny to the country, democracy in Ukraine is still a work in progress, with more still to accomplish. Decentralization of power to the regions must still be carried out, and inter-institutional scuffles and remnants of the old guard must still be overcome.

But with continued encouragement and engagement by the international community, Ukraine can succeed.

It is of paramount importance that Ukraine be given the support it needs to foster democracy and overcome its post-Soviet legacy. The United States has been a leader in this regard, thanks to strong bipartisan support for Ukraine within Congress. Ukraine deserves continued political, economic and military support, including the possibility of lethal military assistance should Russia and its separatist proxies continue their aggression in Eastern Ukraine — a conflict that has claimed the lives of 10,000 Ukrainian citizens.

A sovereign, democratic Ukraine finds itself undermined at every turn by a provocative Russian neighbor desperate to see it fail, yet Ukraine is moving forward against all odds.

The Ukrainian people know firsthand how hard it is to build a democracy. They deserve our reassurance they are not in this alone.

Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and an adviser to Rasmussen Global. He was NATO deputy secretary general from 2012 to 2016, and previously assistant secretary of Defense and U.S. ambassador to NATO, Russia and South Korea.


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