Monday, 3 March 2014

Absence of trust in government helped fuel Ukraine's protests and challenges its future

by Marc P. Berenson

Just after Ukraine experienced its worst violence in its rather peaceful 22 years of independence and quite possibly the worst in the country since World War II, a new government was selected last week in an unprecedented manner by both the Maidan (Independence Square) protest members and the Ukrainian parliament. New presidential elections are to come on May 25. 

So, what has been at stake in Ukraine? 

While a complicated story, at the heart of the dispute these last several months has been a struggle over which form of governance Ukraine should take up – a post-Soviet model, founded on coercion and corruption where individuals seek government positions in order to enrich themselves and where the rules of the game are changed to suit those in office, or a rule-of-law model, which protesters believed was exemplified by the West, which is founded on trust, compliance, institutional checks and balances, and where no one, including the president, is above the law.

Now, efforts by the temporary, pro-reform (but not national unity) government, led by new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, is taking on the tremendous challenge to re-create the Ukrainian state along the lines of the rule-of-law model.

But it is doing so under some pretty hefty constraints—namely a poor economy, a struggling currency, a state that needs some USD $36 billion to avoid defaults and, perhaps, above all, now a takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea by Russia, which seeks to overturn the outcome of Kyiv’s February revolution. (For an insight into Russia’s perspectives, see for example, the speech on 1st March, by Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin to the United Nations Security Council.)

Focusing just within Ukraine, the winter’s dispute and the current governance challenge has not been and is not about an internal disagreement dividing East from West. Ukrainians in both East and West have been unanimous on their support for independence. By January and February, calls by opposition protestors were not for President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an EU trade agreement even if that sparked the protests back in November (and even if an agreement now comes as early as March), but were calls for him to leave office. Nor has this been a Civil War, at least not yet, as civilians have not fought civilians, but protesters against the government.

Finally, while ethnically diverse, Ukraine is not the Balkans, as there is much mixing of ethnicities within families and as Russian and Ukrainian speakers accommodate each other. Of course, some of this could change on the margins especially as the Russian state media, which is watched significantly in eastern Ukraine and even more so in the Crimea, has been broadcasting a perspective on Ukraine events that labels those in charge now in Kyiv as “fascists” out to harm the interests of Russian speakers, most likely causing fear as it does so.

Ukraine is experiencing the result of long-term distrust in government 

Throughout the country, Ukraine today is experiencing the result of long-term distrust in government. Ukrainians have had exceptionally low levels of trust in their government.

In 2005, 2010 and 2012, I surveyed the Ukrainian population together with the Razumkov Centre for Economic and Political Studies. Ukrainians do not believe that they get much from their state. Across these years, only some 9 to 12 percent of Ukrainians felt that the state fulfills its obligations to its citizens and similarly only 9 to 10 percent of Ukrainians agreed that their state can be trusted to do what is right. Hence, as trust in the state involves both a material trust that the state will continue to provide goods and services as well as a moral trust that the state will treat its citizens fairly, Ukrainians appeared to be stating flatly from one year after the 2004 Orange Revolution that they cannot trust their state to do either.

This lack of trust as well as a lack of fear in the state also has accounted for far lower support among Ukrainians for paying taxes than their neighbours in Poland or in Russia. My own research, based on my survey work from 2005 and 2010, has shown not only that the Polish polity is far more willing and compliant in its attitude towards paying taxes than the Russian and Ukrainian polities. I also found that Russians respond to their state with greater fear of deterrence while Ukrainians, showing the lowest levels of support for obeying the law, react to state efforts to increase tax compliance with less fear and little trust.

It is also extremely important to note that the first survey in Ukraine came exactly one year after the Orange Revolution, after which the country was given a rare second shot at rebuilding the state’s relationship to taxpayers. Indeed, preliminary reports stated that tax and customs revenues were significantly higher than usual there in the first months of 2005, only to plummet in the late summer when the two Orange leaders, President Viktor Yushchenko, and his prime minister, Yulia Timoshenko, had a falling out.

This suggests that the efforts to re-make the citizen-state relationship in Ukraine towards more mutually constructive ends for both state and society was a tremendous challenge for Ukraine’s political leaders just after the unfinished Orange Revolution and as it, undoubtedly, will be today.

Post-transition governments must find ways to create and build up levels of trust on the part of citizens in their state. And, yet, in the current transition, regardless as to who is in government, bridging this “trust in government” gap in Ukraine is going to be an extreme challenge, given the drastic economic reforms needed and the Eurasian neighborhood.

So, what must a new government do to create a new system of governance and gain citizen trust? 

The economy, of course, plays a huge role in all of this. Ukraine is one of the very few countries in the world that have not yet reached its 1989 high in growth per capita. And despite being a lower middle income country and in Europe, a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey found that Ukraine was the third worst country in the world to be born in. But, beyond seeking out external aid and embarking on economic reforms that Yatseniuk has stated will be like“hell,” the government needs to strive for unity and inclusivity both internally and within the country as a whole.

Post-Orange Revolution, two grave challenges to President Viktor Yushchenko’s gaining the trust of the country in his first year in office were the emergence of a bitter dispute between himself and his prime minister and former Orange Revolution co-leader, Yulia Timoshenko, and a change in language laws that made Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine feel like second-class citizens.

On the language front, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has vetoed an attempt by the current parliament to throw out a Yanukovych-era law that allowed Russian to be an official language at the regional level—an attempt, which, before the veto, undoubtedly left eastern Ukraine less confident in the new government. Ultimately, the language issue needs to be resolved in a manner that gains the trust of all Ukrainians, and both state and private media may well need to come up with a competitive alternative for eastern Ukrainians, who get a good share of their news from Russian state television.

Finally, building trust with the public means credibly and visibly severing the incredibly close ties between business and the state. And, once the crisis with Russia stabilises, the government will no doubt seek out those foreign aid organizations that once “graduated” Ukraine from its aid lists—like the UK’s Department for International Development—to return.

Dr Marc P. Berenson is Senior Lecturer at King's College London Russia Institute and was formerly Fellow with the IDS Governance research team. 

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