One aspect of the Brexit process is establishing a role as a global player outside the EU. Ironically Britain might play a major, mutually beneficial role, for one country that is actually desperately trying to join the EU: Ukraine.
Ukraine has had a torrid time since the collapse of the USSR, whereas other central-eastern European countries have, with some difficultly, found their way into the European Union and the markets that membership affords. Ukraine has spent a large amount of its time being subject to a farcical process of predation, where previous big-whigs in the former communist party have been able to pillage the state of its major natural resources. They then use the political confusion, uncertainty and apathetic mismanagement of the state to ship these cheaply out of the country. Once out, they sell these Ukrainian assets at world-market prices, at the expense of the general populace. These oligarchs use the political puppets such as Yulia Tymoshencko, Viktor Yushchenko and the infamous Viktor Yanukoyvch to push the interests of different competing oligarchs. Ukraine’s problem is obvious: corruption. Corruption permeates the Ukrainian system. On the lowest levels policemen and doctors will demands bribes known as a “blat” in order to feed and support their families, and at the top, oligarchs will deliberately extract wealth from the state systems to line their own pockets. Ukraine has a history of corruption so embedded in the minds of the people that 65% of all Ukrainians believe that corruption is part of the culture. Corruption is as Ukrainian as horilka and borshch.
Although corruption is ingrained in the Ukrainian system, the Ukrainian people are some of the most politically active in the whole world. In 2004 we saw a general election dogged by corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud which resulted in Viktor Yanukoyvch claiming an illegitimate victory. Yet the people of Ukraine finally had had enough and marched on Maidan square in the tens of thousands, protesting there peacefully for months. The people of Ukraine had spoken and the polity listened. Sadly the desired constitutional changes never truly materialised as oligarchs moved to consolidate their power and in 2010 Yanukoyvch finally got his presidency. However, Yanukoyvch, a deeply-flawed figure from the East of Ukraine holding a strong affinity with Russia and a somewhat chequered past, took this predation too far isolating the oligarchs and drawing vast amounts of state money into the bank accounts of his own family and friends. He then went on to build himself a multi-million presidential mansion complete with his own personal zoo and hunting grounds. Once again, the people of Ukraine took to the Maidan, but this time things would not end peacefully. In 2014, Yanukoyvch ordered his police to use extreme force, including the use of sniper rifles, to disperse the crowd. This however merely strengthened the will of the people and after over 70 civilian deaths Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. For a time Ukraine was back in the hands of the people.
Since the so called “Euromaidan” protests, the populous has demanded that the government looks to increase ties with the European Union and distance itself from its often aggressive Russian neighbour. The Ukraine people believe in the goal of EU accession, and strive for it. The fact of the matter is though that accession doesn’t look to be coming any time soon. An Association Agreement has been made to give Ukraine greater economic ties but, especially with the rise of authoritarian unstable regimes in the EU itself, there is little appetite in the EU to make Ukraine a full-fledged member. This can be largely blamed on the poor institutional framework of Ukraine. The judiciary is not completely independent, and the oligarchs who benefit from the current arrangements push back at all times against meaningful reforms. Anti-corruption activists, such as Vitaliy Shabunin, have been subject to bizarre but damaging attacks. It has included the creation of a fake American news broadcast, circulated on social media that claimed irregularities in Shabunin’s finances had been found and broadcast by the fictional News24 in what the fake anchor assumed was some form of prank. The Ukrainian media enjoys relative freedom, but there is a supreme lack of trust in any political institutions.
So what is therefore the purpose of drawing attention to all this? Well, quite simply Ukraine and in particular, the Ukrainian people deserve better. After suffering at the hands of predation and corruption, Ukraine has a floundering economy and despite being one of the most agriculturally viable countries in all of Europe, it has long experienced poor economic growth. With Ukraine’s EU membership bid well and truly on hold Ukraine could really use some support to help attain western integration and the support of the IMF. Britain could play a vital role here. Ukraine is currently undergoing one of the largest judicial reforms in modern history and to create a higher likelihood of success Britain should offer its support. A form of “role-model” program will help to ensure the people of Ukraine that an external body, with an education, advisory and monitoring role will ensure that the reforms are appropriate and avoid the manipulation found in the past. Plus, crucially, Britain’s departure from the EU may actually provide greater room for manoeuvre when negotiating with Ukraine outside of EU regulations. Ukraine’s poor institutions need reforming, confidence needs to return to the people. And Britain claims it has ambitions to be a truly global country, what could be more global than becoming a world leader in international development? And forging an economic partnership in the process would be a clear example of Britain’s viability as a global player. Britain and Ukraine can benefit. Integration can be achieved. The passion of the Ukrainian people for a better future has never faltered, but if significant time passes with little progress the people may grow tired of waiting, and Russia, an ominous neighbour, would seize any opportunity to prevent European integration and halt EU expansion.
In 2014 over 70 protesters paid the ultimate price for their dream of the existence of a truly European Ukraine based on rule of law and freedom from corruption. Thousands more have died in the conflict with Russian-backed rebels to protect this dream. It is the duty not just of the Ukrainian polity, but of all of Europe to help Ukraine realise this dream, and it’s time for Britain to put its money where its mouth as a truly global nation.