On meeting Ukraine’s president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, in Warsaw on Wednesday, President Obama said the United States was “absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people … not just in the coming days … but in the coming years.”
That commitment is important because Ukraine has become the symbol of whether Russia can get away with destabilizing its European neighbors. Poroshenko must not only reform a sinking economy but also combat armed pro-Russian militias that have grabbed chunks of eastern Ukraine.
So Obama wasn’t kidding when he said, “The challenge now for the international community is to make sure that we are supporting Petro’s efforts.” The question is whether Washington and the European Union will rise to the challenge, which will become more acute in the coming weeks.
Having just returned from Ukraine, I believe Poroshenko and the current Ukrainian government are finally ready to start the economic reforms so vital for the country. They understand that Ukraine will no longer tolerate the massive Russian-style corruption practiced by the previous president, Viktor Yanukovych, who stole billions before decamping to Russia in February. That was the message of the middle-class Euro-maidan revolution that filled Kiev’s Independence Square for months, and ultimately led to Yanukovych’s exit.
“Ukraine has one-quarter of the Polish economy, even though we started at the same level 30 years ago,” says Ukraine’s impressive minister of economic development, Pavlo Sheremeta (who has an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta). “So it is absolutely understandable why people went out on the streets. If the president and parliament don’t deliver by 2015, the people will be back. I would expect another maidan. People don’t want to live like this.”
In addition, the Kremlin is waging a propaganda war of epic proportions – beamed in via Russian TV to Russian-speaking Ukrainians – that falsely brands the Ukrainian government as “fascists.”
Like Russia, post-communist Ukraine witnessed a sell-off of key state-owned resources for a song to well-connected individuals, often former party members, the richest of whom became known as “oligarchs.” Several oligarchs are now serving as governors, and Poroshenko – the chocolate billionaire – is sometimes considered in their number.
I asked Sheremeta how his country could reform if the oligarchs were still omnipresent. His reply: “Poroshenko has promised to sell his assets and not use his wealth for economic gains while he serves as president.”
Moreover, says the minister, the government also knows, given its geography, it has “to deal with both the European Union and Russia. Both sides must understand that solutions of ‘either-or’ can’t be good for us.”
But an openness to Russia does not mean that Ukraine will abandon its efforts to implement rule of law or cease its efforts to join the European Union.
And it doesn’t mean that Ukraine will, like Russia, clamp down on the civil society that went to the streets. On the contrary, says Sheremeta, “It is absolutely vital that civil-society activists keep an eye on the economy.”
Talking to the minister, it is possible to imagine that Ukraine could emulate Poland and become an economic success story over the next decade, in agriculture, IT, and industry – were Moscow not so determined to prevent it. Helping them get there will require Western resolve.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.