The Ukraine: Unfinished Business and Uncomfortable Truths

When not teaching graduate students at Carleton University’s School of International Affairs, much of my practical work abroad has focused on deeply divided societies experiencing protracted conflict and sporadic bouts of violence. The bulk of my efforts in these fragile states, entails training organisations in conflict early warning, conflict resolution and conflict prevention. This practical work means engaging local civil society organisations who are the focal points of activity when government institutions are weak, divided or incapable of acting on behalf of the public interest. Sometimes, I have the opportunity to work alongside representatives from governmental and intergovernmental agencies whose analytical needs are much different than civil society organisations. Whereas civil society is often seen as using conflict analysis as part of their advocacy toolkit, pushing for specific policy options, policy makers are expected to use their information gathering and analysis for public administration purposes; to determine how a particular policy choice might play out within their constituency for example, or to establish if a religious or ethnic minority within their group is at risk so appropriate action can be taken in advance of the outbreak of conflict. These mechanisms and the training efforts that go into them have been applied in Bulgaria, Kosovo, and Serbia among other places with a reasonable degree of success. However, such a forward looking, preventive approach assumes that government actors are both willing and able to use evidence to advance the public good and that they stand above parochial interests.

It was against this backdrop a few years ago that  Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) recommend me to the UNDP to lead a team of trainers and analysts to the Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea. There, the ostensible objective was to engage all the various stakeholders in the Crimea including leaders of religious and ethnic minorities, elected officials and leading civil society organisations in a dialogue on Crimea’s political, social and economic future. Collectively we would identify some common issues and then work our way through policy options. Since the process was formally sanctioned by Crimea’s religious and political leaders, our goal was to directly influence the public service and to work with them to design a  programme that would make  better use of analysis for informed and balanced decision making.

I have noted trust issues in all of Ukraine here, but the Crimea posed a number of major challenges to effective dialogue including deep divisions among its ethnic minorities, radicalism on the far right, an increasingly disillusioned youth, and a dysfunctional economy. The single largest deficiency was the fundamental lack of trust between its Russian speaking majority and the Tatar peoples, so much so that Tatar parliamentarians refused to be in the same room with Russian speaking nationalists and apparatchiks. Another key issue was the radicalization of Tatar youth who were increasingly looking to  Saudi Arabia for an education. But there were other problems as well including a negligible understanding of property rights, alongside a massively large informal sector, limited community development in the areas of health and education, an ineffective press that was not free, and a limited capacity for meaningful  and open dialogue in official circles.

Despite long-standing  international support, Crimea’s parliament was failing to meet its responsibilities to improve the socio-economic conditions of the population, and was not working to sustain positive collaborative experiences between different ethnic groups. Its leaders had only a limited interest in developing tolerance in education and minority language rights, and in supporting mechanisms for dialogue and consensus-building. In the aftermath of the global recession, Ukraine suffered more than any other country in Europe and Crimea was especially hard hit because of its deep ethnic divisions. Despite these pressing challenges, the Canadian government chose to redirect its funding, focusing instead on small and medium business development and food security. Funding for the Crimea governance initiative was wound down. The  gains in dialogue and trust-building, though small, would go unrealized.

I am not going to pretend that  Crimea’s problems capture in a microcosm all the core challenges that the Ukraine now faces, but there are some important parallels and lessons learned.  Even before the Harper government came to power in 2006, the promotion of  democracy in Ukraine  was a long standing area of focus for the Canadian government. As the only European country deemed  essential to Canada’s bilateral aid programme, Ukraine has been the recipient of targeted funding to support and improve the public service and to grow small businesses. The latter initiative was partly intended to counterbalance the sizeable impact of  Ukraine’s large informal economy. In April 2009, about 31% of   Ukraine’s economy was considered to be part of the informal sector. Surveys in 2006 revealed that 16% of Ukrainian households rely primarily on informal employment for their standard of living. An additional 25% reported that informal activities supplement their primary income.

Let me be clear, the intertwining of democracy promotion and the rise of private economic activity are going to be of fundamental importance to Ukraine’s future. In order to build a trust-based society, which is the basis for a fully functioning democracy and economy, Ukraine must be weaned away from its dependence on the  informal economy.

To be sure,  an untaxed  informal economy is one way of cushioning the impact of economic hardship on Ukrainian households. But it also guarantees that the corrupt practices of its leaders – regardless of which party they represent – will continue unabated. Part of this reasoning relates to the low expectations that Ukrainians have of their government to provide services, but as the Crimea case shows it also means perpetuating the absence of accountability that is systemic at all levels of government from the community to the region, to the leadership in Kiev. The dynamics of a thriving informal sector and the failures in building accountable and good governance are apparent for all to see as claims of corruption have been levelled against the current leadership (while ignoring identical behaviour from its previous leaders).

There are other important lessons to be heeded from the Crimea situation, not the least of which is finding lasting solutions that incentivize civic over ethnic nationalism while providing support and autonomy for religious and ethnic minority rights. Crimea’s ethnic divisions mirror on a much larger scale  the ethnic divisions that separate Ukraine’s  east and west and north and south. When the protestors speak of building a new Ukraine, it’s not at all clear how inclusive they imagine their country should be. The single largest threat to Ukraine right now is not outside interference but a lack of trust. Trust is the essence of a fully functioning market economy and it is the foundation of representative democracy.

In the absence of a full understanding of how democracy promotion is effected through private sector development it is  possible that Ukraine’s (and by extension Canada’s) development goals will not be met and worse may be undermined. Considering that Canada’s foreign ministry has sent repeated messages of solidarity in support of political protests it would be prudent to not pull back but to invest and invest heavily. Election monitoring won’t cut it and closing our Embassy down is not  the answer either. Prevention is the key. Canada has two essential ingredients working in its favour: a highly motivated and effective Ukrainian diaspora with active and prolific economic interests and a large and highly motivated civil society that is willing and able to provide the kind of real training  and educational support that is needed to sustain Ukraine’s transition to  an open, tolerant and democratic society.

By David Carment

3 thoughts on “The Ukraine: Unfinished Business and Uncomfortable Truths

  1. Dear Prof. Carmet,

    Thank you for the insightful article. Very good points, especially on the process you went through in Crimea, informal economy and trust issues. I would like to make few brief remarks.

    1. First of all, “protracted conflict and sporadic bouts of violence” are not general characteristics of Ukraine (up until recently) and hopefully Ukraine will be able to curb the tensions that have always been there and avoid violence.

    2. The article says: “In the aftermath of the global recession, Ukraine suffered more than any other country in Europe and Crimea was especially hard hit because of its deep ethnic divisions.” Somehow it implies that economic hardships were result of ethnic divisions. This is not entirely true. Crimea was especially hit because it is highly reliant on budget transfers from the capital, as two thirds of its regional budget is supplied by Kyiv. It was inevitable that economic hardships and resulting budget cuts hit Crimea hard regardless of its ethnic composition.

    3. Then it says: “The dynamics of a thriving informal sector and the failures in building accountable and good governance are apparent for all to see as claims of corruption have been levelled against the current leadership (while ignoring identical behaviour from its previous leaders).” Who is ignoring? Mass media? I think it is premature to make such claim. From what I see, many people were disillusioned with the way things progressed after the Orange revolution and are skeptical about its leaders now too. Many want to see new politicians entering the arena with a narrative that unites Ukraine rather than plays a regular West/East dividing card.

    4.”Crimea’s ethnic divisions mirror on a much larger scale the ethnic divisions that separate Ukraine’s east and west and north and south.” Crimea’s situation is very unique within Ukraine and it does not reflect the situation in other parts of Ukraine. Almost 80% of Ukraine are ethnic Ukrainians and they are a majority population in each region of Ukraine except Crimea. Ethic Russians constitute about 17% of population in Ukraine and are concentrated primarily in Crimea and also have notable presence in East of Ukraine. To me, the key divide in Ukraine is between those that are oriented to West and those that are leaning to Russia. The border is primarily historic between the regions that used to be under Russian Empire and went through centuries of forced russification and those regions that had a very different historic experience. You have large number of ethnic Ukrainians in both camps with majority leaning West. So. is it really the ethnics divisions that separate Ukraine?

    5. “The single largest threat to Ukraine right now is not outside interference but a lack of trust.” I would not downplay the role the outside interference plays in what is happening now and always in Ukraine and how specific geopolitical interests contribute to deepening of the above mentioned divisions. Following independence Ukraine has been pulled into opposite directions by both internal and external political and economic interests that use this division. This by no means facilitates the trust building and the kind of dialogue that is needed for “Ukraine’s transition to an open, tolerant and democratic society”.

    Thank you.


    Inna Platonova

  2. Pingback: Going into Greater Detail: Developing Trust in Crimea | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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