When I first arrived in Kyiv six months ago, I looked out over the city from the hilltop near the office of the EU Advisory Mission for Ukraine (EUAM) where I had just started a job as Coordination and Cooperation Officer. It became immediately clear why the city came to be founded here over 1,000 years ago and why it today is the capital of Ukraine. The mighty Dnepr River splits the city in half, flowing from north to south and dividing Ukraine itself into western and eastern halves before emptying into the Black Sea not far from Crimea. The oldest parts of Kyiv sit on the western side, perched on a series of hills that look especially impressive compared to the flatness of the land to the east. Indeed, standing on top of the hill under the Soviet-era Arch of Friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian people (pictured above and perhaps in need of renaming), the horizon to the east seems to stretch into infinity. It is a good place for a city, a strategic place in a strategic country, in what are, currently, interesting times.
If you’ve followed Ukraine during recent years, you will know that it began an entirely new chapter in its post-independence era after the events of the Maidan protests in 2013-2014. President Yanukovich’s sudden rejection of a promised association agreement with the EU, after intense pressure from Russia to reject said agreement, set off violent protests in Kyiv (where over 100 civilian protesters were killed in clashes with security forces) and in other Ukrainian cities. This led to the eventual retreat and flight of the president from the country, to Russian military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and to a painful conflict which has now led to over 13,000 deaths and many more displaced and injured. Five years later, Ukraine remains a country in conflict, stabilized but vulnerable, still trying to take control of its future.
The other, constant theme in this story is the frustrated demands of Ukrainians to achieve the kind of progress they have seen among many of their post-Soviet neighbours; reformed institutions, improved government accountability, reliable and responsive rule of law and justice systems, economic stability and growth, and a closer relationship with the norms and institutions of the EU. Ukraine’s path along these lines has been an especially difficult one (the average monthly salary here is around 350 euros). Attempts at lasting reform have not been helped by Ukraine’s volatile politics, dominated by a dozen or so powerful oligarchs exercising influence over the political scene and competing with each other over access to political power and influence over legislation and institutions affecting their ability to hold and expand their power. It all leads to very messy battles of patronage and power, which have slowed Ukraine’s progress to reform since it gained independence in 1991.
In the middle of this scene is where the EU Advisory Mission, here since 2014 with 300 international and Ukrainian staff (including 15 Swedish police and civilian advisors), fits into the story. EUAM aims to assist Ukraine with the reform of its civilian security sector – meaning agencies responsible for law enforcement and rule of law like the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the national police and security service, border guards, prosecutors, local courts, and anti-corruption bodies. By providing expert advice and practical support to these institutions, the end goal is to achieve a civilian security sector that is efficient, accountable, and enjoys the trust of the public. Indeed a goal that, if reached, benefits both Ukraine and the EU.
So how far has Ukraine gotten in the five years since its new chapter begun? While some would say that the post-Maidan government led by President Poroshenko was able to accomplish more in its five years than in the previous 25 years since independence, the real verdict on progress was delivered by frustrated voters, who took a chance on new leadership back in April this year. They did so by electing 41-year old Volodymyr Zelensky, the former actor who has, conveniently enough, played the president of Ukraine on screen for several years already, on a promise of swift and radical reform. Just as importantly, a few months later in July they gave control of the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) to Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party as well, meaning that policy can now be made with president, government, and parliament acting together.
Indeed, within the first month of the new parliamentary session, that is exactly what they have done. The parliament has been legislating at record speed in the weeks since new government ministers were confirmed, starting with enacting the president’s promise to clean house. Members of parliament (MPs) have voted to remove their own immunity to criminal prosecution while in office, reduce the number of MPs from 450 to 300, and enact a fully (rather than partly) proportional election system. A flurry of legislation to overhaul judiciary, prosecution, and law enforcement agencies are also promised, including the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), the security/intelligence agency which succeeded the Soviet KGB. By all accounts, the president, government, and parliament are moving quickly to deliver on promises made, knowing that public enthusiasm can swiftly turn to disappointment if they don’t.
So indeed, these are interesting times, for Ukrainians, for the EUAM, and for me. But is it clear what will happen? Not necessarily. Reactions here were mixed when the president came to power, knowing that he is not without connections to one of the powerful group of oligarchs. Public scrutiny of his hiring choices have also led to reactions ranging from relief to disappointment, as some figures associated with Ukraine’s long history of corruption have either been hired or retained in the new government, while other choices have gained praise for their reformist credentials and youth. It will take time to see exactly how promised reforms are implemented, and whether new security sector agencies are restructured in a way that strengthens their independence and mandates rather than reshaping them in a way that only serves the interests of the central government and the agenda of the president and his friends.
After only six months here myself, I wouldn’t pretend to know how things will go, and whether the combined variables of political will, international support, competence, sincerity, and luck will play their part to create a sustainable reform process. I can only think back to my job as security sector reform adviser in Kosovo, where I learned that reform is neither a marathon nor a sprint, but both. When you think you will be walking slowly and that nothing will change, you may in fact need to run when an opportunity to make a decisive difference presents itself. And just when you think you are coming into the home stretch and everything is possible you may be forced to slow down again. For myself and my colleagues at EUAM, police, prosecutors, legal specialists, human rights, gender, and civil society experts, the best advice might just be to be prepared for anything and surprised by nothing.