COMMENT: Turning Ukraine's ship of state around

COMMENT: Turning Ukraine's ship of state around
Ukraine's new crop of politicians are no experienced but they are dedicated to making a difference
By Eric Hontz senior programme officer Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) in Kyiv November 27, 2019

On one recent weekend I watched more than 30 new members of Ukraine’s parliament give up their precious time off to spend hours on end in a windowless room in Kyiv to learn more about the development of the rule of law, market institutions, and public policy analysis.

It was an impressive group, made up of members of three of the parliament’s leading parties of Sluga Naroda (Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People), Golos (Ukrainian musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk's Voice), and Batkivshchyna (Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland), that by the end of the programme were joyfully engaged in role playing anti-corruption case studies and openly, and respectfully, engaging one another on policy solutions and assumptions.

Watching the young parliamentarians engage with one another in smart, savvy dialogue was remarkable for anyone familiar with the level of parliamentary discourse during the years of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

If one word were to describe the group it would be “earnest”. The criticism by the media and some members of civil society of new parliamentarians lacking policymaking experience or a specific skill set rings of elitism and aloofness that does not resonate with the Ukrainian public. The parliamentarians I engaged with are sharp and knowledgeable on a variety of topics. These policymakers can engage an audience from multiple perspectives, from high-level withdrawn consideration to personal examples of how a given policy will benefit (or hurt) their own family members. This group of parliamentarians are resolved to make Ukraine a better place for the next generation of Ukrainians. As good a place to start as any for a legislative body.

While earnestness, youth, and smarts will carry this parliamentary convocation far it remains to be seen if it will be enough to turn the ship of state around.

Endemic corruption, government mismanagement, and endless layers of bureaucracy have strangled more than one team committed to reform in Ukraine. However, the trajectory and momentum for improvement in governance is in place and, while many of the same obstacles to reform also are in place, it seems that there will be a few leaps forward, and many smaller incremental changes in the coming years.

To be sure there are already changes underway to the way government is run and the level of dialogue and professional discourse between business and government.

Recently, the government appointed Oleksandr Starodubtsev as the head of the National Agency of Ukraine on Civil Service. If he is able to achieve a portion of his wide-ranging and deep cultural reforms to the Ukrainian civil service, business and citizens can look forward to more friendly and proficient state employees delivering higher quality government services. A liberal minded, market-oriented business community, led by associations like the American Chamber of Commerce, European Business Association, and Spilka Ukrains’kikh Pidpriyemtsiv (SUP), is finding allies in the government and in parliament to execute progressive market reforms that will increase competition, foster innovation, and bring about a more dynamic Ukrainian business community.

With every trip to Ukraine and every interaction with Ukrainian officials my hope for a continued liberal economic and political trend in the country is renewed. While this parliament is not perfect, and there are questionable actors with questionable motives littered throughout Ukraine, the progress is real. More importantly, the Ukrainian people still show real commitment to the path toward integration, both politically and economically, with the values and norms of the liberal west.