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Why Ukraine didn't follow the Polish model of development and its new historical chance to transform

Aurel Braun is currently a Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is also an Associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University. He is a senior member of the Centre for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and a Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Between July 2012 and June 2015 he was a Visiting Professor teaching in the Department of Government, Harvard University. Professor Braun has twice been appointed a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. In March 2009, the Federal Cabinet via a Governor-in-Council appointment made Professor Braun the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development (Rights & Democracy) for a three-year term. In December 2012, Professor Braun was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for services to Canada and for academic distinction by the Governor-General of Canada. Professor Braun has published extensively on communist affairs and strategic studies with a special focus on the problems of the transformation of the socialist systems in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. He is also a specialist in international law. He is the author and/or editor of several books. His latest book is NATO-Russia Relations in the 21st Century. His forthcoming book is on Russia, the West and Arctic Security.

1. Ukraine has had all prerequisites for economic growth (e.g., people’s capital, abundant natural resources, strong science research base) and was ahead of many Eastern European nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Why our political elites have failed so badly to transform our country into a prosperous one in almost three decades?

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, no other newly emerged independent state, with the possible exception of the Russian Federation, appeared to have a better prospect for political and economic success than Ukraine. A large state with a population of over 40 million, Ukraine possessed many key natural resources including coal, vast fertile agricultural lands, and a highly educated population. This positive assessment, of course, is not to minimize the problems and dilemmas of transition. Ukraine, if it were to successfully democratize and modernize - goals, at least formally, enunciated by its new leaders - had to move away from a disastrous command economy to a free market one, build fresh institutions that would promote and entrench democracy, would need to reorient its trade to Europe and the international system and would need to fundamentally change the old socialist political culture. These were indeed daunting tasks, but other countries in the region, such as Poland, faced similar problems and made enormous strides in the right direction, at least until recently. In fact, there are sufficient comparables between Poland and Ukraine that, roughly three decades after the transition, show just how disappointing Ukrainian lagging progress has been to date. There are three basic reasons that might help elucidate Ukraine’s particular problems.

First, elite persistence and corruption were significantly greater in Ukraine than in Poland. Even with the “Orange Revolution” socialist elite persistence in Ukraine left a very thick web of former socialist officials who too often lacked the will or the skills to bring the necessary fundamental changes in both the political and economic realms. Moreover, the elites in Ukraine proved too frequently to be deeply corrupt as well as incompetent. In certain distressing ways then the story of an independent Ukraine is also one of missed opportunities.

Second, independent Ukraine, from the very beginning, suffered from very heavy Russian interference and manipulation. Moscow rejected both Ukrainian identity and political independence, even if the Kremlin paid lip service to this. Consequently, Moscow sought strenuously over decades to undermine Ukrainian political and economic reforms by impeding economic progress through economic manipulation and exploiting energy dependence and played certain key Ukrainian political elites against others. The scale and intensity of Russian involvement to prevent economic independence in Ukraine, marketization and reorientation Westwards of Ukrainian trade was dramatically different both from the intent and the ability of the Kremlin to do the same with Poland. In short, Moscow could not tolerate the emergence of a successful, independent large Slavic state that would emerge within the former Soviet space and thus possibly “contaminate” its own increasingly authoritarian model of development and consequently the Kremlin invested enormous efforts, resources and time to prevent such a development.

Third, Ukraine did not benefit from the kind of large-scale Western help that was provided to Poland. Endemic corruption, Russian interference and very slow economic progress deterred Western investments on a large-scale. Additionally, Western political deference to Moscow in what the latter viewed as its “Near Abroad” meant that NATO was not willing to pursue the kind of encouragement for enlargement as in the case of Poland. In any comparison of Poland and Ukraine, the fact that the former has become a member of both the European Union and NATO starkly illuminates the major benefits that have yet to be offered to Kyiv.

What is your opinion on the newly elected President Zelensky and his team? Is there a possibility for effective reforms implementation with the newly formed government in Ukraine, and what obstacles can prevent it from doing so?

Both the elections of President Zelensky to the office and the decisive victory of his team in the Verkhovna Rada are remarkable achievements with enormous potential. Ukraine now has both a President and a Parliament who are committed to deep reforms and are not beholden to the old corrupt interests. As such, we now see the realization of a necessary condition for progress for the long-suffering Ukrainian people, but these are not sufficient conditions. Ukraine needs to play catch-up after three largely lost decades and should urgently confront the enormously difficult task of transition despite the added burden of relentless targeting and interference by Moscow. The Minsk II process is not working well, and at any rate, it would give Russia far too much power of interference. The Normandy Format that is pushed by French President Macron might offer some hope, but a new president like Volodymyr Zelensky would need strong American backing as well as support from the Europeans to face down Moscow. Domestically, President Zelensky needs to move quickly with economic and political reforms, for the lessons of Eastern Europe, certainly in the case of the most successful transitions, is that rapid implementation of reforms tends to be more effective than gradualism. There is no way of eliminating the “pain of transition,” but the rapid implementation of major changes, including dependable business law, offers a better prospect for success.

What do you think about the recent developments regarding the Donbas region?

The undeclared war in the Donbas presents a great danger to Ukraine. While it would be extremely difficult to get Crimea back, the peninsula can be contained, whereas the Donbas presents a key danger of spillover of conflict to the rest of Ukraine. Though recent developments, including the Normandy Four, offer some possibilities, American support now has been made more muddled because of the impeachment inquiry in the U.S. that so prominently features Ukraine.

Do you think Ukraine is successfully combating Russia’s information warfare and other techniques in Ukraine? What steps should Ukraine take to cope with them more effectively?

It is too early to know if Ukraine is successfully combatting Russian information warfare, as well as cyberwar. President Zelensky and his majority in parliament, however, will have the kind of credibility, at least for the time being, that places them in a much better position to confront and combat Russian information warfare. They need to take active steps to expose Russian manipulation of Ukrainian media, including social media. Further, Ukraine ought to invest significantly in cyber defense - here, lessons could be learned from the effectiveness of a small state such as Estonia, which has made very impressive progress in building cyber defenses.

What are the significant risks to Ukraine statehood do see right now, and how our country can address them?

The most significant risks to Ukraine statehood would come with the collapse of domestic confidence in the new President and government, a sharp downturn in the economy as well as continuing Russian hybrid warfare (that includes information and cyber war). Ukraine needs a great deal of help from the West, but first, it must effectively help itself by addressing corruption, building popular support for democratic institutions, and by making its military more effective in resisting continuing Russian aggression. These are all tremendously difficult tasks, but Ukraine has been given a remarkable opportunity this year - really a new historical window. It would be little short of tragic if Ukraine’s new government and Ukraine’s democratic allies fail to take advantage of what may be a last such opportunity.

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