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Europe-Russia Blog Series: Ukraine – Pursuing domestic reforms in the midst of war

The Europe-Russia Blog Series, “EU, Russia, and Ukraine: Managing and Moving Beyond the Stalemate”, disseminates research, analysis and commentary on issues relevant to contemporary EU-Russia and Ukraine relations. Launched in April 2016, the series publishes contributions by members of the Dahrendorf Russia and Ukraine Working Group, as well as guest contributions from academics and practitioners. In this blog post, Gwendolyn Sasse considers Ukraine’s domestic reforms.

Ukraine – Pursuing domestic reforms in the midst of war

Ukraine currently faces the challenge of simultaneously engaging in war, participating in internationally moderated attempts at conflict-resolution under Minsk II, and pursuing a wider domestic reform process that was revived in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests. The ongoing war overshadows the debate about reforms and constrains policy choices. It guarantees some issues a place on the official reform agenda, while deflecting other, equally important questions. It fosters zero-sum thinking that prioritizes short-term over long-term decisions and turns politics into a blame-game.

The Euromaidan and the war initially provided the glue for the broad ruling coalition around President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk; however, managing uncertainty and expectations while maintaining a broad political consensus has proven impossible.Ukraine could now find itself locked in yet another cycle of early elections without real political change. The question of what kind of an actor Ukraine is and will be in the war in the Donbas and any eventual settlement is closely linked to Ukrainian domestic politics, in particular the issue of constitutional reforms, which is tied up with the Minsk peace process.

There are three major pillars to Ukraine’s constitutional reform process: judicial reforms, decentralization, and the separation of powers. There has been some progress with regard to the first two. Policy-makers and external actors continue to provide incentives (e.g. through EU visa liberalization), financial support (in particular the EU’s new program aimed at local-level capacity-building) and legal advice (by the Council of Europe) to maintain the momentum behind the ongoing process of drafting and adopting the related laws and constitutional amendments and preparing for their implementation.

The breakdown of the ruling coalition has made obtaining a constitutional majority in the second reading of the decentralization bill unlikely and has also stalled the judicial reforms. The third constitutional reform issue – the separation of powers between the president and parliament and within the executive between the president and the government – has been completely side-lined from the start, although it is the key to Ukraine’s democratic consolidation and state capacity both internally and vis-a-vis Russia. The EU, Member State Governments and the US should focus on bringing this issue back onto the agenda through supporting a public debate that includes political parties, MPs, civil society actors, and legal experts.

‘Decentralization’ is currently rather narrowly focused on the organizational structure, tax base, budgetary powers and capacity of local government. The debate about the oversight function of the envisaged regional prefects to be appointed by the president has been cut short. The war has diverted attention from the importance of both local and regional governance for democratization by creating a close association between regional government and federalism and Russian leverage. Officially, the status of the occupied territories has been decoupled from the constitutional reforms on decentralization, in that resolving this status requires a law rather than a constitutional amendment approved by a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Politically, however, decentralization and the settlement of the conflict remain closely linked. Decentralization and constitutional reforms are generally more than a means of conflict resolution, and international actors should avoid holding constitutional reforms hostage to conflict resolution. The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 locked in an underspecified broader constitutional reform within a rigid temporal sequence that has proven to be unrealistic, as has the implementation of the law on the self-government arrangements for parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Peace processes are moving targets, and what might be necessary at one stage has to be adjusted as conflicts evolve.

The originally envisaged deadline of December 2015 for the completion of constitutional reforms in Ukraine underpinned a certain momentum for both the peace process and the reforms. Now it is time, however, to decouple the Minsk process from the wider constitutional reforms and focus on the OSCE SMM and a framework for local elections in the east, while also signalling to Russia under what conditions parts of the sanctions regime will be lifted. This could provide the scope for a renewed commitment of Ukraine, Russia and the separatists to conflict resolution, while also removing at least some obstacles to Ukraine’s internal reforms.

Gwendolyn Sasse is a professor in comparative politics at the University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.