From 1–3 February I made a new visit to Kiev along with my Nordic and Baltic colleagues (the NB8 group).
The idea was to follow up on our joint initiative, which we presented a year ago to the Verkhovna Rada, or Ukrainian parliament.
The packed programme included a long series of meetings with, among others, President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Verkhovna Rada Chairman Volodymyr Groysman as well as a wide assortment of parliamentarians, including representatives of the Crimean Tatars, and a number of representatives of international organisations and civil society.
My overall impression is that the will to carry out reforms is present. Some important tasks have been accomplished, but many remain.
An articulate and relatively large group of pro-reform politicians and a well-organised civil society sector that takes its advocacy role seriously give us grounds for optimism. The readiness and latitude to discuss reform were far greater than a year ago, when the conflict with Russia caused near-paralysis.
Of highest priority are the constitutional amendments regarding the courts. The groundwork is being laid for a sweeping court reform focused on the anti-corruption fight and judicial independence. This is positive. The creation of a new anti-corruption bureau under the leadership of Artem Sytnyk also seems promising. Despite important progress, there is much to be done before Ukraine’s democratic system can be described as well-functioning.
One of the most conspicuous needs is to build political parties that truly reflect the voters. Today’s parties have the appearance of loosely assembled blocs controlled from above and anchored weakly in ideology or party platform. This weak party structure invites corruption and voter mistrust. There is a clear need for democratically structured party organizations that can nourish policy development over time, and for a representative assemblage of political leaders from across the country.
Voters must have the chance to take part in political processes, and room must be created for free public debate with broad-based participation. The absence of genuinely free media in this regard is tangible. To be sure, the Internet and social media provide opportunities, but there is far to go before an enlightened, critical discussion can be said to exist.
In my meetings with civil society representatives, I challenged the organisations on this point. What can they do to help develop open arenas for public debate? Can they themselves set up new media, such as online newspapers? The dissemination of information and political ideas is urgent business.
All in all, I am an optimist with regard to future developments. One cannot help but be struck by the energy and dynamism that now pervades the whole political spectrum in Ukraine. A new democracy is being born, and there is plenty of can-do spirit, even if the road is difficult.