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Opinion The biggest challenge for Ukraine’s next president

The Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is running for president, after playing one in TV in the series "Servant of the People." He is currently ahead in the polls. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Christopher A. Hartwell is a professor at Bournemouth University and Kozminski University in Poland and former president of CASE-Center for Social and Economic Research. He is the author of “Two Roads Diverge: The Transition Experience of Poland and Ukraine.”

On March 31, Ukrainians will head to the polls to choose a new president. It is difficult to believe that five years have passed since Ukrainians swarmed the streets to oust corrupt, cruel and Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. In the interim, the country has endured an invasion from Russia that has left 13,000 dead and ripped Crimea from it, all while embarking on an ambitious series of reforms under President Petro Poroshenko to finally shake off its post-Soviet hangover.

This election, only the second since the Maidan protests, thus represents a crucial juncture for the country. Early indications are that Ukraine will likely continue to orient itself toward the West, but there is some worry about continued economic reform.

In a semi-presidential system like in Ukraine (and neighboring Poland), it is perhaps facile to wonder if the presidential election matters. It of course does, and a glance at Ukraine’s post-Soviet history proves that the Ukrainian president can do much harm if unchecked. The only progress in Ukraine’s economy came from (short-lived) reforms under first post-independence president Leonid Kravchuk, a representative of the western portion of Ukraine, and under Viktor Yushchenko, a president who “lost” the election in 2005 but was swept into power when the courts ruled that the election of Yanukovych was illegitimate. Under Leonid Kuchma and Yanukovych, however, many of these reforms were reversed and Ukraine became a highly corrupt state designed to enrich the political elite.

The current state of the presidential race has shifted in a manner as unpredictable as the voters. A previously discounted candidate, comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is the clear leader in opinion polls, overtaking former prime minister and political prisoner Yulia Tymoshenko, a populist campaigning on re-nationalization and concentrating power in the hands of the president. However, Zelenskiy, riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, may yet fade, resulting in a runoff between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. And no matter who wins, Ukraine’s notorious political system will remain a mess — either Zelenskiy will have to deal with an entrenched system as an outsider, Poroshenko will have to find a way to break the logjam that he has not yet been totally successful at, or Tymoshenko will have to overcome the bitter opposition to her contradictory policies and fiery personality.

But the key source of dysfunction in the country’s politics since independence has come not from the president’s office but by the fact that the Ukrainian government is far too involved in the economy. Foremost among Ukraine’s problematic institutions is the Verkhovna Rada, its legislature. Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-communist president, made a colossal mistake in 1992 by not dissolving the Rada: Having just had parliamentary elections in 1990, Kravchuk felt that the Rada should serve out its term for two more years, a move that ensured an obstructionist majority was in place not just at the time of transition but even beyond. Indeed, this move meant that the Communists (the only party with a functioning apparatus) were able to stymie transition, reverse needed economic reforms and lay the foundation for Ukraine’s kleptocracy.

Since Kravchuk’s fateful decision, the Rada has entrenched the political elite, making it also the economic elite. And the elites have jealously guarded their prerogatives and ground needed economic reforms to a halt. A case in point, the “temporary” moratorium on sales of agricultural land, remains in place nearly 20 years after it was first enacted, extended year after year and crushing the development of property rights in the country.

Beyond the parliament, independent agencies and even the judiciary have shown how ineffective the Ukrainian president can be, as the temptation of corruption is just too great and the ability to access it via the political system too easy. On Feb. 26, the country’s Constitutional Court voided the new anti-corruption law because it shifted the presumption of guilt onto politicians (not an unreasonable assumption). According to the court, the anti-corruption law, by making functionaries prove that their money was obtained cleanly, violated due process. The law was the centerpiece of International Monetary Fund demands in exchange for financial support, and it is difficult to say where the country goes from here. Corruption at all levels remains a problem, and there has been intense resistance within the police, the judiciary and executive agencies against expanded anti-corruption campaigns. No matter who the next president is, he or she will have to continue to struggle against what is actually a “deep state” clinging to a myriad of powers that it can use to extract rents from the private sector.

Come this April, Ukraine will either see a shift to a presidential outsider, a consummate insider shut out of power for several years, or else (less likely) it will see continuity with its current leader. However, confronting Ukraine’s next president will be the same issues as prior to the election, and thus it is imperative that the next leader of the country addresses the root causes. The next president will have to build up parliamentary support for reform but also must focus on limiting the power of government at all levels. If Ukraine can increase its move toward decentralization, removing power from Kiev, it may not actually matter who the next president is. And Ukraine can begin the process of revitalization that it has only previewed since Maidan.

Read more:

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Michael McFaul: Ukraine’s democracy is approaching ‘make or break’ — and the West is missing in action

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