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Will Ukraine's Next Revolution be Nonviolent?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Ukraine's most successful reforming minister tendered his resignation Wednesday, citing widespread corruption in Ukraine's government and accusing a top ally of President Petro Poroshenko of blocking reform. If it wasn't clear to everyone by now that the current Ukrainian leadership is as thoroughly dysfunctional as the previous one, the case of Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius should remove the last doubts.

A former asset manager, the 40-year-old Abromavicius is Lithuanian by birth; he accepted Poroshenko's invitation to join the government, and his offer of Ukrainian citizenship, a little more than a year ago. I talked to him then, and he was full of plans -- to cut his ministry's bloated staff, to change the government procurement system, to privatize thousands of Ukraine's state enterprises. "We shouldn't waste this crisis," he said. "It's a unique chance for reforms."

He was doing reasonably well. The independent think tank VoxUkraine, whose team includes some of the country's most respected economists, recently placed the economy ministry at the top of its ranking of government agencies. It had cut the number of unnecessary licenses, introduced electronic, competitive procurement, inventoried state enterprises and started replacing their managers with private sector professionals. It also shrank by more than a quarter. Abromavicius is popular, untouched by corruption accusations, and he's one of the few in the government whose reformist credentials haven't been tarnished.

On Wednesday, however, he called a press conference to say he was leaving:

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. I don't want to go to Davos and recount our achievements while some people are getting favors behind our backs.

He proceeded to name one of these people: Igor Kononenko, an influential legislator who was Poroshenko's close business partner before the confectionery billionaire became president. According to Abromavicius, Kononenko had long meddled in his ministry's affairs, trying to install his people as top executives of potentially lucrative government-controlled enterprises. Most recently, Abromavicius said, a certain bureaucrat showed up saying his appointment as deputy minister in state enterprises, including the oil and gas company Naftogaz, had been approved "at the very top," and a phone call from the Poroshenko administration confirmed it. That, the minister said, was the last straw

"I won't be part of this graft," he declared.

Maxim Nefyodov, Abromavicius's deputy in charge of the promising government procurement reform, announced he was following his boss back into the private sector. 

Abromavicius is not the only minister to be subject to this kind of pressure. "Managing a business organization, a ministry or a state company professionally requires independence in goal-setting, decision-making and team formation, but the technocratic ministers have had trouble with all three of these bullet points," Roman Bondar, an executive search consultant who helped Poroshenko headhunt for government jobs, wrote on Facebook.

The unofficial view has been of Ukraine's reformist ministers as the public faces of a little-changed corrupt system, in which the teams of Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had divided up control of government revenue streams. But without confirmation from trusted government figures, Ukraine's foreign donors and creditors could ignore the mounting evidence that the president and prime minister were involved in covering up corruption. It was more convenient than crying foul while Ukraine was involved in a hybrid war with Russia and struggling to implement a bailout program devised by the International Monetary Fund.

Even after Abromavicius's coming out, it's hard for Westerners to admit they have been aiding leaders who don't measure up to Western standards of integrity. Ten ambassadors to Ukraine, including those of the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, the U.K. and Japan, published a statement on Wednesday saying they were disappointed with the minister's resignation. "It is important," it said, "that Ukraine's leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country's progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms." The problem with that suggestion is that the Ukrainian leaders represent those vested interests to a greater degree than they represent the nation -- as has been the case throughout Ukraine's history as an independent state.

Clearly worried that his domestic and international legitimacy is going out the window, Poroshenko wrote on Facebook that he'd met with the minister and asked him to stay and says Abromavicius promised to think about it. As for Kononenko, the minister's claims about him would be investigated by Ukraine's newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the legislator -- who denies the charges -- would cooperate with the investigation.

That's not likely to change much, however. Ukraine has slipped into the same mire that threatens to swallow up its neighbor, Moldova, where a series of ostensibly pro-European governments has proved so corrupt and beholden to oligarchs that anti-corruption activists have been holding joint mass protests with pro-Russian parties.

In Ukraine, because of the Crimea annexation and the war in the east, pro-Russian politicians now stand no chance. Yet if technocrats such as Abromavicius fail and leave, and Poroshenko becomes a hated figure like his ousted predecessor Viktor Yanukovych, the pendulum could swing back to Moscow -- which would vindicate Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to present Ukraine as a wayward sister nation.

For now, the technocrats are hoping for a bloodless revanche. The next revolution, wrote Mustafa Nayyem, an increasingly disaffected member of Poroshenko's parliamentary faction, "will not happen in the streets but in the corridors of power and under the parliamentary dome. And it will be staged by new politicians, tired and mad at being pushed into action, called technocrats and told to implement reforms, but then tied hand and foot by a lack of will to say goodbye to old schemes."

Nayyem and a number of other young politicians are now increasingly affiliated with Odessa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, who is assembling what he calls a Purification Movement on an anti-corruption platform. So far, he has harshly criticized Yatsenyuk and his friends, accusing them of corruption, but refrained from undermining Poroshenko in similar fashion. Saakashvili and his movement are pushing for early parliamentary elections, evidently hoping they would win outright control of the legislature and turn the president into a less powerful figure. At this point, no one but Saakashvili's new force appears to have a shot at averting further slippage down the Moldovan path and perhaps toward new violence.

(In eighth paragraph, corrects first name of Ukrainian prime minister. It is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, not Viktor.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net