Why Ukrainian democracy matters

Why Ukrainian democracy matters
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The investigations into the telephone conversation that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Trump administration planning to crack down on 'birth tourism': report George Conway on Trump adding Dershowitz, Starr to legal team: 'Hard to see how either could help' MORE had with President Zelensky and the possibility of impeachment have dominated the American media. This singular focus could have harmful consequences for both Ukraine and United States. The strategic location of Ukraine has put it at the center of transatlantic security. To contribute to peace and stability in Europe, the United States has for more than two decades sought to assist Ukraine in establishing itself as a sovereign and prosperous democracy. It is essential for the United States to continue helping Ukraine to end Russian military intervention, enhance economic performance, bolster national unity, and resolutely fight corruption.

Ukraine has struggled mightily in its transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country has worked to overcome great challenges, including an oversized government role in the economy, intraelite and oligarch battles for control over state enterprises, internal political and social divisions, as well as Russian diplomatic pressures, efforts to exploit corrupt officials, politicians, and businessmen, and Russian seizure of its territory. Ukraine has not done everything it could to address its domestic problems, including corruption, which has been a continuing obstacle to necessary reforms as well as a source of vulnerability to Russia. While their task has not been an easy one, and Moscow has made it more difficult, Ukrainian leaders are responsible for these shortcomings.

But today, Ukraine is in an unprecedented position to move forward with reforms. After a decisive victory over his predecessor Petro Poroshenko in the election this year, winning 73 percent to 24 percent, Zelensky secured a parliamentary majority. Holding more than half of the 450 seats in the Ukrainian legislature, his party was able to form a government on its own, avoiding messy coalition politics. Significantly, 79 percent of ministers are new and the average age is 39 years old, so most were not yet in their teens when the Soviet Union fell. One party holding the presidency, the government, and the parliament simultaneously is a historic first after 1991 and presents a rare opportunity to push forward with important reforms.


Zelensky appears to recognize this. The parliament has passed dozens of reform laws, most of which are useful but a few are flawed, in the months since the election earlier this year. From this perspective, the Ukrainian government and parliament are working hard to address the extensive challenges facing the country. Importantly, they are doing so under the scrutiny of an engaged and skeptical public. The Ukrainian government and the parliament are under political pressure to correct mistakes.

The three greatest challenges will be more difficult to fix. The first, which is entrenched corruption, has stifled efforts at economic and political reform for decades. Government and business elites see liberalization in either area as dangerous to a comfortable status quo. The relationship between Zelendky and Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky has received considerable attention. Any signs of favoritism toward Kolomoisky or his interests could swiftly undercut the image of Zelensky as a reformer and, perhaps more critical, his ability to secure Western support for Ukraine.

The second huge problem is, of course, Russian occupation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky has repeatedly promised to find a satisfactory settlement with Moscow, both during his campaign and as president. Although his stated acceptance of allowing elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions worried some, and resulted in massive protests in Kyiv, Zelensky has since clarified his position and made clear that elections could not take place until Russian troops have withdrawn, militias have given up their weapons, and Ukraine controls its border with Russia. Notwithstanding efforts by American allies to resolve the dispute through the Normandy Group of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia, it is unlikely that talks will succeed. Western sanctions on Russia have not caused enough change in the behavior of Moscow.

The way that Zelensky has handled the third problem, which is national unity, has been promising. The seizure of Crimea and the brutal combat in eastern Ukraine over the last five years have done much to unify Ukraine in opposition to Russia, but this will not do much to reintegrate the conflict territories. Nonetheless, the inaugural address given by Zelensky earlier this year marked a powerful call for national unity across his country.

The political divisions in the United States remain a potentially crippling obstacle to seizing this moment to advance American interests in Ukraine by helping Zelensky and his government. The United States needs to do more than sanction Russia and sell arms to Ukraine. A successful policy must also include incentives for Moscow to acquiesce in a satisfactory resolution and steady pressure on Kyiv to fight corruption and improve other governance practices. Ukraine is now at a critical juncture, and the United States cannot accept paralysis as policy. If Zelensky fails, the costs to Ukraine and to broader American interests in Europe could be high.

Paula Dobriansky is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and served as undersecretary at the State Department. Paul Saunders is a senior fellow with the Center for the National Interest and a former senior adviser to the State Department.