Ukraine anti-corruption protests signal growing discontent

Ukraine anti-corruption protests signal growing discontent

The stagnation of political and economic reform in Ukraine has resulted in opposition groups once again staging demonstrations in Kiev. The anti-corruption protests are unlikely to turn into a full-scale revolution, but pressure is growing on the president and his cabinet.

Disunited opposition in Ukraine, but with clear demands

It has been nearly four years since mass protests in Ukraine brought down the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The man who replaced him, Petro Poroshenko, was hailed as a progressive and EU-oriented president. However, corruption has once again brought Ukrainians onto the streets. This time, they are dissatisfied with stalled anti-corruption reforms.    

On 17 October, a demonstration took place for “Great Political Reform”. Attendance was diverse, attracting a rather motley assortment of social groups. This included reformist parties and marginal one-leader parties, civil society movements, anti-corruption organisations, members of military battalions and non-affiliated MPs. Later, the rally was joined by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s “Movement of New Forces”, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, and the civil movement “Avtomaidan”.

Although 10,000 were expected, the number was considerably less. Only around 4,000 attended the protests, half of whom were supporters of Saakashvili.

Despite the absence of a single leader, the protesters had clear demands: lifting MPs’ immunity, the creation of an anti-corruption court, and changing the electoral system to proportional representation with open-party lists.

Waiting it out

With uncanny timing, on 17 October, President Poroshenko submitted a proposal to abolish MPs’ immunity, thus addressing one of the protesters’ demands. The proposal satisfied most civil society actors, who announced a break in their activism until the next parliamentary session on 7 November.

In contrast, Saakashvili and his “Movement of New Forces” set up a tent city in front of the parliament and announced the continuation of peaceful campaigning. Saakashvili plans to tour Ukraine in search of greater support. However, it is questionable whether he can achieve a broad-based movement: he is a polarising figure, whom Poroshenko once invited to be governor of Odessa region. Saakashvili subsequently accused his former ufriend of doing nothing but preserve the old system, resigned as governor, and had his Ukrainian citizenship revoked.

While other activists are waiting it out, Saakashvili has turned the protests into his de facto personal revenge campaign against Poroshenko. His rhetoric and political style significantly differ from those of the civil society groups, including demands to impeach the president. These divisions in terms of goals and tactics are another factor that make it unlikely the recent wave of protests will turn into an outright revolution.

Insufficient reforms

However, the protests do indicate growing dissatisfaction in Ukraine with protracted reform progress since early 2017. To its credit, the current government has managed to implement – despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea and proxy war – more reforms since 2014 than any other government during the country’s 26 years of independence. A recent report from Chatham House assessed that remarkable progress has been made in stabilizing the economy, reforming its energy and banking sectors, establishing anti-corruption agencies, improving transparency in the public sector and implementing decentralization reform. Ukraine signed a ground-breaking Association Agreement with the EU and was granted a visa-free regime. Nevertheless, the old system has only been cosmetically modified, rather than fully scrapped. Vested interests are still the core of Ukraine’s political and economic system, and the wrongdoers of the former Yanukovych regime are not being prosecuted.

On top of this, an alarming trend of backsliding can be detected in the government’s resistance to implementing reforms. Recently, the activities of civil society organisations have increasingly come under scrutiny, and court cases have been opened against their members. Facing resistance from the old guard, a number of reformist ministers left the government, while six reform-oriented mayors have been removed.

Room for maneuver

Wishing to avoid the fate of the former president, Poroshenko is likely seeking to appease the protesters. His proposal regarding immunity is already in parliament, and a new proposal about an anti-corruption court is on its way.

Poroshenko is in somewhat of a bind, however: if he were to address the protesters’ demands fully, the president would effectively dismantle the system on which his power rests. Therefore, by initiating the amendments, he is taking control of the reforms to ensure they do not undermine him or his government. If successfully adopted, the immunity proposal will only come into force in January 2020 – after parliamentary elections in 2019 – and will thus not affect sitting MPs.

The proposal regarding setting up an anti-corruption court is also likely to be carefully controlled, with the president able to restrict the participation of international donors in its drafting. This would create room for maneuver in the selection of judges and limiting the functions of the court.

However, the protesters’ demand to create an open-list proportional system will be highly problematic for this government to meet. If implemented before the 2019 elections, the old guard would almost certainly be putting itself out of a job. According to the latest poll, the president’s “Solidarnist” will have only 13.6% support, while the population’s mistrust of the president is at 68%.   

Despite the prospect of half-measures, it is unlikely that the latest protests will turn into another Euromaidan. However, popular dissatisfaction with the incomplete reforms points to growing social tension. This risks exploding if demands for more transparency and less corruption are not met. Perhaps most worryingly, populist forces might use this social discontent to destabilize the situation in the country and make gains in the next elections.


Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Maria Shagina

Dr. Maria Shagina specializes in European and post-Soviet politics with a particular focus on Eastern Partnership and Russia. She was previously a visiting fellow at the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies, University of Birmingham and is currently affiliated with the Geneva International Sanctions Network. She holds a double PhD degree from the University of Lucerne and University of Zurich and a M.A. from the University of Dusseldorf.