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Building Justice in Ukraine: No Time to Waste

A woman at a rally
Demonstrators gathered on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the cold on December 11, 2013, in Kyiv, Ukraine, to protest the government’s move away from the European Union and toward Russia. © Daniel Etter/Redux Pictures

The future of Ukraine will not just be won or lost in the ongoing geopolitical crisis over Crimea. It will also be decided in Kyiv, by the new government’s response to the fundamental demands for justice that fueled the winter uprising against former president Yanukovych.

The protests that began Ukraine’s historic change last November were more than a demand for closer relations with the European Union. Ukrainians also took to the streets to denounce the country’s endemic corruption and the social injustice and disregard for Ukraine’s citizens it epitomized. 

The tipping point was the president’s sudden about-face on signing an association agreement with the European Union. But the protests became something larger: a rejection of injustice as a way of life.

Injustice exists at every level of life in Ukraine, from the grand corruption practiced by ex-president Yanukovych and his peers, to petty everyday unfairness. It is this everyday injustice—in education, policing, health care, and other public services—which has the most corrosive effect on the lives of Ukrainians. Parents must bribe teachers so that their children can have better conditions in the classroom; or bribe doctors to get an appointment; or traffic police to avoid hefty and unnecessary fines.

For most Ukrainians it is more surprising not to have to bribe someone for a public service, than it is to do so. Corruption has become a way of life. In one survey, over half of respondents were actually positive about paying bribes, saying it helped to resolve many of life’s problems.

Revolutions, as in Ukraine, are messy. They lurch from crisis to crisis. It is difficult to construct anything on this shaky ground, particularly in light of Russia’s actions in Crimea. But Ukraine’s new government must not use this as an excuse.

All of this does not undermine the importance of events in Crimea and those caught up in the crisis there. To ignore Crimea entirely is of course folly. It would be also folly to drop the entire reform agenda that brought this new government into being. Demonstrating the political will to undertake fundamental reforms will also bring geopolitical benefits, helping perhaps to win back Ukraine’s nervous Russian population, who also have a thirst for change.

Most in Kyiv have no illusion about the fact that the Russian government is trying to set up an intractable stalemate in Crimea—a frozen conflict—to suck up resources, attention, and political capital and stall legislative change. Russia has succeeded in doing this in Moldova, where the government has used the Transnistrian conflict to procrastinate on judiciary reform for over 20 years. A stalled reform agenda in Ukraine will play into Russia’s hands, as it has done in Moldova and elsewhere. The best way that Ukraine’s young government can fight back is by pushing reform harder and faster.

By decisively addressing corruption in both the east and west of Ukraine, the new government can show it intends to be a government for all of Ukraine. Following the government’s foolish, though now shelved, attempt to repeal the law allowing wider use of the Russian language, it must work even harder to prove it intends to promote the rights of all of its citizens.

The task at hand is daunting but not insurmountable. In the two decades since the end of communism, Ukraine has built a strong network of human rights and legal groups, policy think tanks and media freedom advocates, with a solid record of supporting genuine reform and transparency.

Consider the 2008 reforms of the previously corrupt system of state university scholarship exams; or a 2012 audit of procurement by 98 government agencies; or the new national legal aid network: all these projects were pushed through with support from local NGOs including the International Renaissance Foundation, part of the Open Society Foundations.

Investigative journalism and independent media already have a strong base to build on. Ukraine’s independent media was pivotal in exposing the corruption that eventually brought people onto the streets last November. Investigative reporting websites, including Nashi Groshi (Our Money) and Slidstvo.info, brought evidence to light of government corruption, which has led in some cases to legal challenges by another NGO, the Anticorruption Action Centre.  

Independent media can continue to monitor the new government’s financial dealings as well as the treatment of minorities, including Russians and Crimean Tatars.

The new government in Ukraine must initiate reforms now; it cannot allow the crisis in Crimea to completely divert attention from the appeal for justice and a better life that brought this government to power. Faced with a de-facto annexation, the new government’s choices are stark; civil society and the European Union must do all it can to help Kyiv kickstart reforms and share this burden.

We have seen disillusion and betrayal follow revolution in North Africa and the Middle East; with the help of civil society and European partners, Ukraine can avoid a similar fate.

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