Will Ukraine Ever Change?

Mikhail Palinchak/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters
President Petro Poroshenko with soldiers in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, April 2017

Denis Voronenkov, a former member of the Russian parliament, was walking out of the Premier Palace Hotel in Kiev on March 23 when he was killed in a hail of bullets. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko immediately blamed the Russian state for his murder. Voronenkov, a former supporter of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine who was accused of corruption in Russia and then fled to Kiev last year, had been a controversial figure. After his defection, he was given Ukrainian citizenship, denounced Putin and his policies, and, perhaps crucially, testified against Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president, who had fled to Russia when he was driven from power during the Maidan revolution of 2014.

Russian officials denied involvement in Voronenkov’s death, but made clear they had little sympathy for a man they regarded as a traitor. He was just one more casualty of Ukraine’s revolution and its continuing war with Russia.

Three years after the uprising in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, much remains uncertain. Under Poroshenko, who has led the country since June 2014, the post-revolutionary government has done more than many at home or abroad give it credit for. Though his popularity has declined steadily, Poroshenko stabilized an economy in freefall, secured loans from the International Monetary Fund, prevented Russian-backed rebellions in vulnerable regions such as Odessa, and above all created a serious military force out of the weak and disorganized one he inherited. Russia, via its proxies, still controls parts of the east, but Ukraine’s soldiers have managed to stop them from taking more territory.

Meanwhile, closer relations with the European Union are beginning to yield rewards. On April 6, the European Parliament approved a bill that will allow Ukrainians to travel visa-free to Europe’s Schengen zone. If, this summer, Ukrainians do indeed begin to travel freely to most of Europe for the first time in their lives, that will be seen as a huge achievement of the revolution—and something to be envied by the ordinary citizens of Putin’s Russia.

Yet in other ways, the country has not moved on. Though the revolution was set off in part by disgust at the corruption and systematic abuses of power of the Yanukovych government, no senior officials from before or after the revolution have been tried for misusing funds or for the deaths of those shot during the revolt. In 2016, in Transparency International’s ranking of countries from least to most corrupt, Ukraine was tied with Russia in 131st place; it had hardly budged from the dismal position it occupied before the revolution. And now the Ukrainian authorities, led by Poroshenko, have begun a crackdown on anticorruption NGOs, calling into question how committed he and they are to deep and…

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