By Radu Magdin
In a recent public appearance, President Poroshenko referred in optimistic terms to the situation of the national army, as the former Soviet country continues to be caught in a prolonged war with the Russian-backed forced in its East. "We have a strong army so I am confident that we will achieve peace," he commented. As Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day, it is worth asking what are the major challenges the Eastern European state faces beyond the immediate security concerns. There are many reasons to believe that the resilience of the institutions, of the political system or the national economy will be further tested in the months and years ahead: an emboldened Russia is there to take advantage of structural weaknesses and to make the imperfections of democracy work in its favour.
Following the 2013-2014 events, Ukraine has assumed a central stage in global politics. Some fatigue then followed. Some described Ukraine as one of the battleground of the incipient 2.0 Cold War. Almost five years later, it makes sense to investigate how have the things changed and how the Western integration of the country has moved forward despite setbacks, inefficiencies, and inauspicious legacies.
My argument, which I have also defended in the past, is that strengthening military capacity and heavily investing in defence is necessary, but should not be seen as the only priority of the country. The war can unite people and benefit those who are able to ride the wave of patriotism and collective emotion, but an one-dimensional take on statesmanship will soon show its limits. Even in the context of its Independence Day, Ukraine should not avoid the hard questions and engage with the potential scenarios that are likely to cause a lot of pain in Kiev. As is the case for the oversized focus on enhancing military capacity, a blind faith in what the support of EU and the US could bring about to the country could be detrimental - it is how the society and institutions will respond to the looming risks that will determine how we will be talking about Ukraine in six months, one year or five.
Next year's parliamentary and presidential elections will be a test for responsible politics. In many parts of Europe, populism and untested solutions have captured the attention of those accusing the slow pace of reforms, a skewed economic system and a political class which is rather in service of the wealthy than defending the right of the worse up to rise up economically and socially and enjoy better living conditions.
Eastern Europe is known for the fact that, compared to the Western side of the continent, the appeal of populism and nativism has been stronger among the mainstream parties, which, by seeking to maintain their influence, sometimes take dramatic shifts in their positions. The radicalisation of the political mainstream is perhaps one of the main threats in Ukraine and the 2019 electoral moment can only exacerbate the tensions and the quest for easy choices. The Western fatigue - both the US and the EU are caught in messy transformation and rethinking/reshaping/rebuilding processes - could determine political entrepreneurs to look for other paths and to place the country in a geopolitical no-man's land. For the responsible politicians of Ukraine, the question is how they will ensure that, despite all challenges, the pro-Western centre will hold.
The disinformation war and the cyber techniques are the buzzwords in countries which are close to Russia's strategic orbit. With so much polarisation (one can start, in the Ukrainian case, by analysing the regional and language divides), Ukraine has been and will be a privileged target for Moscow. Putin has a point to make and to try to demonstrate that the 2014 Maidan was a mistake - expect to see Ukraine as the testing ground for different tools that will later be employed to destabilise more grounded, stable democracies. The potential narratives are not hard to image: the abandonment of Ukraine by the West, the promotion of cultural values that are not compatible with local people's mentality, the lack of economic and social progress in the lives of ordinary citizens as a result of seeking the Western path, the mistake of rejecting the Moscow's tutelage. Just to give an example, look at how the Ukrainian soldiers are directly targeted with demobilising messages or how the obsolete energy infrastructure is exploited to generate power shortages (and negative reaction among the population). Every weak point will be tested and, for obvious historical and strategic reasons, Ukraine badly needs the right strategy to build social cohesion at elite (a national crossparty pact would help) and general population levels. This can be done, but it needs planning and disciplined implementation, including smart iniatives and media nudges. Like in other countries in the region, political temptation is to ignore strategy and embrace tactics, which diminishes credibility at home and abroad.
Decisions which will not make everyone happy
The current and future agreements with the IMF and international institutions are a test case. Their success, on the substance, as well as style / spin, will be key given some stakeholders' reluctance to reform, among others, the energy system and to align the energy prices for domestic and industrial consumers to the market reality. With the elections approaching, it is no wonder that the government seeks to avoid unpopular measures. However, this affects the country's rating, the National Bank has had to intervene heavily to prop up the hryvnia, and future economic growth and investments are in doubt. The picture becomes even more complicated when we factor in the systemic corruption problems Kiev is struggling with - the new anti-corruption agencies and specialised courts can be only a facade if they cannot gain authority and independence from political actors. As a Romanian and an analyst, I have a historic regional deja vu. Reformers are not lacking in Kyiv, the important thing is their proper energy (individual and team) management and prioritization: not everything can be achieved before elections, do focus on some key substantial wins. And communicate that to the max afterwards.
State building and institutional building in challenging times require, once again, a good plan, a strategy, and the courage of making decisions which, as it is often the case, will have distributional consequences and will not make everyone happy. Economic choices have social consequences and, in the end, translate into electoral evaluations. But, more important than anything is, in my opinion, the battle for relevance and resilience and this confrontation can be fought only if the pace of reforms speeds up, not slows down. Enthusiasm and energy breed the same, but so does fatigue: if it wants to stay important on the Western agenda, Kyiv has to act -not just talk- bold.
These are hard questions to tackle for every Eastern European country, but, for a state in Ukraine's position, they are essential. I know that many of my Ukrainian friends are seeking to be on the right side of history and to move the discussion towards the appropriate tools for state and societal resilience. What better opportunity than the National Day to gain momentum for the conversation?
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant, former Prime Ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.
Opinions expressed in View articles are not those of euronews.