Ukraine’s Reform Landscape and the Role of Civil Society

In holding the government accountable to its citizenry, Ukraine’s civil society actively advances reforms across a number of sectors while simultaneously monitoring dubious legislative proposals that stand to stall the implementation of new laws and threaten the public interest. Experts from civil society also play a key role as interlocutors with government and members of parliament, not only amplifying the voice of their constituents, but contributing important knowledge, research, and data on a range of specialized spheres, from healthcare to criminal justice, environment to pension issues, and decentralization, among many other regional issues that are important to the everyday Ukrainian.

What Are Ukraine’s Top Reform Priorities in 2020?

Writing in a recent post for the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert blog, Ilona Sologub, CEO of VoxUkraine (a USAID/ENGAGE activity partner), highlighted what she sees as Ukraine’s top five key sectors for reform in 2020.

  • Firstly, Sologub identifies the ongoing efforts to reform the judiciary. Indeed, the rule of law is considered to be “the biggest single concern for both domestic and international investors,” the largest obstacle to economic growth, and a major source contributing to the lack of trust in state institutions.
  • Relatedly, a second key area for reform is law enforcement, including both the police and procuracy, which provides essential pieces of investigatory and prosecutorial powers for the country’s rule of law architecture. An emerging source of controversy and concern, agricultural land market reform is the third key issue identified by Sologub.
  • As one of a few countries in the world that prohibits the sale of agricultural land, reforming agricultural laws would surely be controversial. That has proven to be true as the reform has attracted 4,000 amendments, deeming it “one of the great political battles of 2020.”
  • Healthcare inefficiencies and an outdated system warrant largescale reform in Ukraine. New reforms will move from patient payments to healthcare at the secondary and tertiary levels.
  • Lastly, continuing efforts to ensure regional progress through decentralization was named as a top priority for 2020. To continue progress, one aim will be fostering grassroots democracy and encouraging public participation between elections.

Monitoring the Implementation of Reforms

Since last year’s parliamentary elections, new reforms have moved at an incredibly fast pace. As a result, keeping a close eye on the progress, implementation, and effect of reforms is crucial. VoxUkraine has been providing regular updates of reforms via the iMoRe project. The iMoRe project has produced an index for monitoring the status and value of reforms. Additionally, the index tracks the status of reforms given the “turbo mode” speed of rapid reform that risks violating legal procedures.

In its most recent iMoRe analysis, Turbo-mode of the Ukrainian Government: Reforms in the 4th Quarter of 2019, highlighted key reforms. The analysis showed that the reforms mostly affected the business environment and public finance, while the energy sector had the fewest number of reforms. With the goal of moving Ukraine up fifteen levels in upcoming Doing Business rankings, one reform created new corporate and business incentives. Yet another positive reform receiving points from the iMoRe index was a law that eases business regulations that require paper receipts by now allowing electronic services, along with stiffer punishment for violations of receipt provisions, which could carry spillover effects in the tax system. Several reforms received negative rankings. For example, a law on the legal status of energy was criticized for lowering transparency of energy regulators while another law raises concerns about the immunity of members of parliament.

The Economic and Political Significance of Reform

As the iMoRe analysis implies, the role of reform is incredibly important to Ukraine’s economy. The current administration’s goal of attracting 50 billion USD in foreign direct investment, as outlined in its Action Program for 2024, will depend heavily on the progress of reforms. Targets of reform within the plan include improvement to public services, human capital development, support of anti-corruption institutions, the judiciary, and energy, security, and defense.

Outside of investment, reform is key to Ukraine’s political aspirations. These issues and the importance of civil society actors are discussed in a New Eastern Europe article, Increasing the power of civil society in Ukraine, written by Oksana Khomei. An ambitious reform agenda connects closely to the implementation of commitments set by the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Civil society continues to push reforms that are vital to Euro-integration. For example, sixty-eight NGOs (including USAID/ENGAGE partners) within the Reanimation Package of Reforms has produced an agenda and plan for the new administration to guide it in security, economic, and foreign policy related to Euro-integration. With concern over progress in human rights and anti-corruption, a number of additional CSOs have called on the administration to review and speed up judicial reform, electoral reform, and law enforcement as outlined in the Association Agreement.

A related issue concerns international actors’ role in reform and the support they may or not provide in this process. According to Lidia Powirska, Weatherhead Scholars Program Fellow at Harvard University, the new administration and new parliamentarians create a set of circumstances that are less beholden to corrupt forces and oligarchs and more favorable to reform; however, she cautions that the role of international donors in supporting those reforms is of the highest importance. More specifically, she encourages a “cohesive response from international donors” and a consolidation of efforts aligned with the cooperation of state authorities.

Writing for Harvard’s Epicenter Blog, Powirska urges Ukraine’s new government to “not lose focus on implementing reforms initiatives by their predecessors.” In addition to the challenge of maintaining parliamentary support and unity for the reform agenda, support from Ukrainian people can surely bolster or jeopardize the success and implementation of reforms, especially if peoples’ voices and concerns are not considered or addressed, as is the case of the recent moratorium on trade of agricultural land, which raises fears that Ukrainian people will be deprived of their livelihoods and pushed off of farm land by large corporations.

While reforms continue to provide both challenges and opportunities for growth, along with many uncertainties, it is clear that the leadership of Ukraine’s civil society will play an important role. As Oksana Khomei notes, “the challenge here lies in developing a proper level of understanding between the NGOs that only through establishing relationships based on trust, partnership, and dialogue, and in co-operations with the state, can solutions to socially-important challenges be tackled.”

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