With so much stuff going on I found it hard to concentrate on writing articles, not to mention that I lost a lot of my English-language audience. Incidentally, this is my new Twitter account, so run, do not walk, and sign up for more scathing critique of Ukraine’s media establishment than you could shake a stick at.
Back in January, before the recent bout of crisis, I had an opportunity to read an op-ed piece by Alexander Paskhaver, a Ukrainian economist and presidential advisor, aptly titled ‘Why Are The Reforms So Slow‘, available, sadly, only in Ukrainian and Russian. In this article, Mr. Paskhaver not only summarized that Ukraine’s current government is, essentially, a transitional one between the old Ukraine and the new Ukraine, but had also noted that one of the factors actually slowing down Ukraine’s reforms is the European Union.
In Mr. Paskhaver’s opinion, the EU views Ukraine as, essentially, any other Eastern European country – a second Poland, if you may. Instead of radical reforms, they advocate gradual change; laws should be improved, not changed. Given how much effort is required to pass any reform legislation, and how many Ukrainians demand radical change, this may be responsible for much of Ukraine’s reform faults, perceived and otherwise. For example, the EU pretty much nixed radical judicial reform (summed up as ‘fire ’em all and let God sort ’em out’) and radical deregulation efforts – both of which are much demanded by both ordinary Ukrainians and foreign interests. In fact, not a day goes by that I don’t hear some Western official or other talking about the progress they expect from Ukraine in judicial reform and fighting corruption. And although Ukraine’s new Anti-Corruption Bureau is busy working at the moment, it can’t do much without a judicial corps that would actually convict crooks, rather than let them off with a slap on the wrist.
Naturally, since Ukraine’s goal is to eventually join the EU, and since sanctions against Russia and monetary aid to Ukraine depend on EU’s political goodwill, Ukraine has no choice but to knuckle under Europe’s demands. For the record, I’m not sure the US has a different view, which can’t be said of some US-based financial interests. But there you have it: that Ukraine is reforming slowly isn’t solely the Ukrainians’ fault. Perhaps, the West is to blame, as well.
However, let us return to the crux of the problem: that is, the Poland comparison. If anything, I find it favorable, because Poland twenty years ago was, in fact, a lot more miserable than Ukraine. Twenty years down the line, however, it is a thriving economic powerhouse. Ukrainians tend to fetishize Poland the way they do Georgia: a rich country of instant success due to ‘radical reforms’. The historic ties and a shorter language barrier probably help, too. With the last two years in Ukraine being what they are, a sizable part of the population, especially out West, are pining for Warsaw or Krakow, and who knows how many Ukrainians have a Karta Polaka in case things go south.
Most Poles will probably laugh at the Ukrainians’ view of Poland as ‘rich’, although it sure is compared to Ukraine. Most older Poles will probably remember how miserable their life was in the 1990s, especially in 1990-1992; i.e. the years when most of Poland’s celebrated reforms actually took place. C’est vrai! reforming Poland from a bankrupt post-Communist country into a EU member nation did not take nine months, contrary to what many Ukrainians actually believe. Instead, it took ten years, the first three of which were the hardest.
Whenever I hear Ukrainians complain about inflation and exchange rates (and that’s pretty much everyone except IT specialists), what I think is a number. That number is 640%, and it is Poland’s inflation rate back in 1989. The zloty was effectively worthless back then – not to mention that you couldn’t buy anything, the shelves were empty. Even tourists from the USSR, famous for its shortages and queues, were honestly surprised back then. Poland’s GDP dropped by 9,68% that same year. It took until the very end of 1990, the next year, for enterprising Deputy Prime Minister Balcerovicz to do what made him famous: propose a radical reform package to limit the state’s influence over the economy, combat hyperinflation and stabilize the country to put it back on track. This was the Balcerovicz Plan.
Ukrainian pundits and critics tout the Balczerovicz Plan as an admonition to Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk for being ‘too slow’ with reforms; or, at least, they did a year ago. What they conveniently forget to mention, however, is the time it took for Balcerovicz’s reforms to actually bear fruit. GDP growth only resumed in 1992, at a modest rate of +2.51%. The collapse of Poland’s state-regulated economy left 20% of the nation unemployed. Inflation fell to merely 40% by 1992. Popular support for reforms plummeted almost instantly, with the populist slogan of ‘Balcerowicz musi odejść’ – ‘Balcerovicz must go’. Short-term gains were sacrificed in favor of long-term growth, and instant success was pretty hard to come by. Meanwhile, Poland was wracked by political infighting, as the former Solidarnoscz members turned on each other; in fact, the first Polish parliament to serve a full term was elected in 1993, the government went through three prime ministers until 1995, and scandals were ripe, with one prime minister accused of furthering personal and party interests, and the other accused of collaborating with Soviet intelligence.
Sure. Not similar at all.
Of course, Ukraine is no Poland. For one, where Balcerovicz was forced to start from a blank slate in a country with no private enterprise and private interests, Ukraine is forced to struggle against oligarchs who, at one point, owned most of Ukraine’s economy, and who command popular media outlets to do their bidding. Communist Poland had no free press, but Ukraine has to contend with independent journalists that are as entrenched in their habits as the elites they rile against. And, last, but not least, Poland was not at war. It is easy to dismiss it now, but Russian aggression eats up impressive amounts of Ukraine’s efforts – efforts that could have been directed at reforming the country. Ukraine has one of the largest standing armies in Europe, but not by choice. Ukraine is highly militarized, but not by choice. And while it is easy to criticize branding every dissenting voice as ‘Kremlin agents’, these agents exist. And Kremlin knows Ukraine’s internal struggles had, time after time, proved to be its undoing.
Ukraine is not Poland. It is much more. And if anything, Ukraine’s accomplishments over the last two years – torn between the resistance of the old system and combating Russian aggression – should not be derided, but celebrated.
Somehow, Ukraine’s critics failed to take the hint.