Aivaras Abromavičius’ resignation as economy minister earlier this month suggests that a coalition in Ukraine between reformers and members of the old guard is breaking down.
The Lithuanian-born investment banker quit before accusing supporters of both President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk of meddling in the running of state-owned companies and attempting to block anti-corruption efforts.
He told the Financial Times that a technocratic administration was now the best hope of making good on the promises of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovich and his cronies.
Leonid Bershidsky writes at Bloomberg View that Abromavičius did have some success.
He cut the number of superfluous licenses, introduced electronic, competitive procurement, inventoried state enterprises and started replacing their managers with professionals from the private sector.
But Abromavičius could only go so far. When an ally of the president’s “recommended” he appoint a deputy minister, even though there was no vacancy, the reformer had enough and stepped down.
“My team and I have no desire to be a smokescreen for open corruption or puppets for those who want to restore old-style control over government finances,” he said.
In Bershidsky’s view, reformist ministers like Abromavičius have been the public faces of a little-changed corrupt system in which Poroshenko, a former confectionery tycoon, and Yatseniuk have divided up control of government revenue streams between them.
That may be a little unfair.
Joerg Forbrig, a transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund, argues at Politico that Ukraine could only make progress in the last two years because modernizers did not insist on uprooting the entire political system.
Ukraine’s economic reconstruction, he writes — at a time when the country needed to simultaneously fend off a Russian-backed insurrection in its southeastern Donbas region — “was made possible by a broadest-possible coalition of pro-European forces, which placed a minority of reformers, civic leaders and committed democrats alongside a majority of old political hands that clung to their influence and vested interests.”
The latter grudgingly agreed to some changes, mostly those called for as a condition for financial aid or visa liberalization by Western partners. But the former mostly hit a wall when it came to pursuing structural reforms geared toward fixing Ukraine’s deeply corrupt political economy.
Ukraine specialist Alexander J. Motyl has similarly argued at World Affairs Journal that both the economy and the political system are stabilizing.
Under assault from their former Soviet master Russia, Ukrainians have developed a stronger sense of nationhood that ever before. The far left and the far right are weak. Poroshenko and Yatseniuk may be unpopular, but “virtually no one wants to replace them with radicals or bring back Yanukovich.”
“True, many, perhaps most, elites are corrupt,” Motyl admits, “but corruption isn’t instability.”
Forbrig is less sanguine. “Reformers are exhausted and feeling desperate in the face of the seeming futility of their efforts,” he writes. Abromavičius’ resignation could be a sign that the coalition is coming apart at the seams.