Now that Attorney-General William Barr has released a statement vindicating US President Donald Trump, attention  turns to alleged attempts by Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections. According to Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), Artem Sytnyk, attempted to influence the vote to the benefit of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

This accusation comes at a time when US officials are becoming increasingly frustrated with Ukrainian failures to roll back the persistent corruption that threatens Ukraine’s national security, prosperity, and democratic development. More importantly, with less than a week to go before the Ukrainian presidential elections, scandals and controversies are piling on top of one another bringing into question whether Ukraine is on track to become the resilient, economically stable, liberal democracy that Canada and its allies are helping to shape.

For example, the decision to renew Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine carries a hefty price tag of 100 million dollars. But that amount pales in comparison to the loans from the IMF and European lenders Ukraine must pay back over the next couple of years; nearly $15bn in 2019, and another $21bn in 2020-21. Unfortunately the economy isn’t growing fast enough to pay off those debts. Coupled with weak growth and very low levels of Foreign Direct Investment, much of which is held in offshore accounts, there is a very good chance Ukraine will  default. Ukraine needs about 10 times current FDI levels to service its debt. When the Nord Stream 2 pipeline becomes operational in 2020, Ukraine’s chief gas supplier NAFTOGAZ estimates that Ukraine could lose up to 4% of GDP in lost transit fees. Ukraine’s standard of living is falling. Twenty per cent of the working population is using a visa treaty with the EU to leave for work in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Were it simply a case of building a sustainable economy in the face of obvious adversity, then staying the course is understandable. But it is not at all clear that Ukraine’s leaders are acting in the best interests of the people who elected them. Current President Petro Poroshenko’s popularity  has gone into precipitous decline standing at around 9%, as his associates  stand accused of embezzling budget funds in the defense sector. No wonder a recent Gallup poll found that less than one in ten Ukrainians trust their government; the lowest level of trust in the world and its lowest level ever in Ukraine. This is far below the regional median for former Soviet states (48%) as well as the global average (56%). Much of that distrust is associated with Poroshenko’s connection with purported arms smuggling from Russia as well his management of the economy. In fact none of the leading candidates in next week’s presidential elections have widespread popular appeal. No candidate has a chance of taking 50% of the vote in the first round, though it is anticipated that a second round will see Poroshenko face off against front runner comedian Viktor Zelenskiy.

At the same time, there are increasing reports of far-right violence, ultra nationalism, and erosion of basic freedoms for minorities. Mostly dismissed as pro-Russian propaganda a few years ago, the rise of the right now darkens Ukraine‘s political future. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House have all issued warnings that Kiev is losing its control as far-right gangs increasingly operate with impunity.

As ultra nationalism rises, there is the simultaneous curtailment of language rights and increased exclusion of minorities. For example, in 2017, a new education law required that Ukrainian be the only language taught in schools creating a deficit of qualified personnel in areas with minority populations. The Maidan was supposed to be about uniting all Ukrainians, regardless of ethnic identity, religion or language within a single nation.  Controversial language and memory laws are undermining that objective, raising questions about what exactly Canada is doing to influence the deteriorating situation there.

Ukraine’s population has become tired of old-guard politicians who promise a thriving economy and improved quality of life. Thus far, there has been much rhetoric, but few results. With a sharp rise in corruption scandals, economic decline and a disenchanted population, fear of Russian aggression alone is now insufficient to remain in power in Ukraine. This means whatever the election yields, Ukraine’s next leader should be ready to deliver real reforms to the country’s institutions and economy, while improving minority rights throughout the country.



David Carment is a professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Dani Belo is a doctoral student at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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