Politicians do the right thing when their political future relies on accountability to the voters
Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, the Director of the Europe Center, and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Her research focuses on the historical development of the state and its transformation, political parties, religion and politics, and post-communist politics. Other areas of interest include populism, informal institutions, and the role of temporality and causal mechanisms in social science explanations.
She is the author of three books: Redeeming the Communist Past: The Regeneration of Communist Successor Parties; Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Development in Post-Communist Europe; and Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics. She is also a recipient of the Carnegie and Guggenheim Fellowships.
1. Ukraine has had all prerequisites for economic growth (e.g., people’s capital, abundant natural resources, intense scientific research base) since independence in 1991. Why do you think our political elites have failed so badly to transform our country into a prosperous one in almost three decades?
Political elites do the right thing when their political future depends on accountability to the voters. If a politician’s career depends on the favors he does to oligarchs, opaque economic dealings, and preserving the status quo instead of improving it, reforms become very difficult. This is not a problem unique to Ukraine: politicians everywhere respond to incentives, and unless they are held responsible and accountable by voters with the power to end their careers, they will pursue other goals.
2. Do you think president Zelensky has moved Ukraine in a positive direction?
In general, yes. He’s shown commitment to the laws and procedures of liberal democracy and the rule of law, which is a vast improvement. He’s also been put in a very difficult geopolitical situation, both with Trump and with Merkel (in very different ways, of course.)
3. Do you think that Ukraine’s closer integration with the EU could make a vast difference in our country’s gradual transformation towards a more inclusive society in the foreseeable future?
Integration with the EU will open up enormous new opportunities (economic, educational, societal) for both partners—but opportunity is not the same as achievement. Several of the newer members of the European Union have shown that EU membership is no guarantee of integrity or inclusion.
4. How can Ukrainians make politicians and the bureaucracy more accountable? Do you think there has been any substantial progress in this direction since 2014?
One critical aspect would be to articulate public support for transparency, constraints on conflict of interest, clear property rights. If politicians know that voters do not tolerate self-serving behavior, either in their elected representatives or their bureaucrats, and if their misdeeds can be publicized and made publicly known, then the incentives exist for accountable and responsive behavior. This, of course, is why would-be autocrats want to control the media and distract the voters—again, everywhere, not just in Ukraine.
5. What are the significant risks to Ukraine statehood you see right now, and how can our country address them?
Russia, of course. There is both the direct risk (if Putin’s polling numbers take a plunge again, the temptation to heat up the conflict also increases), and the indirect risk (Nord Stream 2, and the steady Russian efforts to extend influence in the EU and elsewhere, not just by buying off former German politicians, but through misinformation and influence peddling.)