Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and host of the podcast Global Impact.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden picked up the phone to call Russian President Vladimir Putin and, in addition to warning him that there would be consequences for harming U.S. allies – something Donald Trump never managed to bring himself to say – reaffirmed America’s “firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Of all the foreign policy challenges facing the Biden administration, Ukraine may top the list. But the file shouldn’t just be marked as urgent. It should include an additional warning label: Proceed with caution.
That’s because in the almost two years since Volodymyr Zelensky won Ukraine’s presidential election by a landslide, the country has fallen into a dangerous backslide on the very reforms it signed up for in return for multibillion-dollar financing from multilateral donors.
The crisis, sparked by the notoriously corrupt Constitutional Court’s October, 2020, decision to curb the powers of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention and suspend some anti-corruption legislation, prompted the U.S. embassy in Kyiv to issue a statement saying that Ukraine’s partners, including Canada, were following the developments “with growing concern.” The agency’s powers were subsequently restored by parliament, but other key measures – such as requiring elected and public officials to file asset declarations – remain in limbo. As such, lying about assets or failing to file those declarations are not punishable by jail time.
Swept into office on an anti-graft platform, Mr. Zelensky seems to be drowning in the face of the very forces he campaigned against. The political stench is starting to waft into his offices after the Prosecutor General’s Office transferred the jurisdiction of a bribery case against Oleg Tatarov, Mr. Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff responsible for law enforcement, sparing him from arrest. And recently the administration said it would abandon pledges to donors to deregulate natural gas prices.
The country’s oligarchs are probably quietly toasting their weak showman president, who hasn’t found a way to rein them in. Chief among them is Igor Kolomoisky, a former business partner of Mr. Zelensky’s, a part-owner of Ukraine International Airlines (which lost Flight 752 when it was shot down over Tehran last year, killing 176 people including 138 people travelling to Canada) and one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men. He has been accused by the U.S Department of Justice of money laundering.
Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora, which has considerable influence in Ottawa and Kyiv, should resist the temptation to give the Zelensky administration a free pass to ignore agreements designed to push Ukraine toward a future within the rules-based multilateral system – and out from under the influence of capricious oligarchs.
For its part, the Zelensky administration should prove to its allies, donors and supporters that it intends to stay the course with the very reforms it promised.
First, the government should demonstrate concrete progress on reintroducing anti-corruption measures that have been suspended. Getting rid of tainted officials in his circle, including Mr. Tatarov, would be a good way to assure international donors that Mr. Zelensky is serious about his work.
Second, Mr. Kolomoisky should be prosecuted. Ukraine cannot take action – its justice system is too broken – but there are numerous ongoing investigations involving him in the United States that could strip him of all his U.S.-based assets and see him locked up. This is a necessary move that would send a message.
Third, Mr. Zelensky should push back much more strongly against the pro-Russian and oligarch-controlled members of parliament who are stymying reforms. The feeling among this group of bandits seems to be that it’s time to turn things in their favour, especially with a government distracted by one of the bloodiest wars in Europe on its eastern front with Russia, as well as a worsening pandemic. Tackling this sentiment will mean removing the corrupt judges who contribute to the oligarchs’ personal enrichment. “The old guard wants to drag Ukraine back to the times when they could siphon public money off with impunity and play Russian-style politics. We will not let them succeed,” Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote in an Atlantic Council blog.
This will be a challenging year for Ukraine. Having contracted COVID-19 himself, Mr. Zelensky has bungled the response to the pandemic, with Ukraine now in 17th place worldwide for confirmed cases. Its economy contracted an estimated 5 per cent in 2020.
Ukraine is fighting a battle on three fronts: in the east, against Russian-backed rebels; nationwide, in trying to crush the COVID-19 curve; and pushing back against corrupt forces. If it wins the latter, it will be in a much stronger position to claim victory over the first two.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.