Can Ukraine Succeed This Time?

Now for the hard part in Ukraine.

The victory of mainstream pro-European parties in Ukraine's parliamentary elections on Sunday is welcome, though hardly surprising, given the war and the inability of part of the country's more pro-Russian electorate to vote. Making a true success of this result won't be easy.

Ukrainians have twice overthrown corrupt and despotic regimes since their country gained independence in 1991 -- first in the Orange Revolution of 2004, then last February, with the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Neither uprising managed to turn Ukraine from a kleptocracy into a rule-based democracy, more akin to Poland than Russia, as the protesters wanted.

To break that pattern, the new parliament and government must do at least three things -- all of them both difficult and indispensable.

First, they must act on repeated promises to decentralize power to the country's regions. This doesn't mean capitulating to Russian demands for a federalism so extreme that local governments could veto strategic national decisions. It does mean devolving broad powers of self-government and tax collection. After Yanukovich fled, Ukraine's parliament sent the opposite message, voting to repeal a law that let regions make Russian an official language. Even though that vote was then blocked, it inflamed fears that a pro-European regime would penalize the East. This mistake mustn't be repeated.

QuickTake The Crisis in Ukraine

Second, the new government must avoid the in-fighting that plagued the Orange coalition. President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko governed so badly as they wrestled for power that by 2010 voters were ready to bring back Yanukovych, the leader the Orange Revolution had cast out. There have been signs in recent months that President Petro Poroshenko might sink into the same pattern of feuding with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Ukraine can't succeed if that happens.

Finally, the new government must reform the economy and tackle corruption -- the causes that led a great number of ordinary Ukrainians to risk freezing temperatures, beatings and even death to bring down Yanukovych a second time. No question, Ukraine will need more financial aid this winter. (May's $17 billion International Monetary Fund package was created before war in the East collapsed the economy.) But as the name of the newly-created Samopomich (Self-help) party acknowledges, Ukrainians must do the hardest work themselves.

The necessary reform will be painful, because it involves eliminating subsidies; difficult, because it will hurt the tycoons whose money floods the parliament; and messy, because it requires persuading a judicial system set up to facilitate corruption to instead root it out. The temptation to delay the effort and concentrate on prosecuting the civil war or building Maginot-style fortifications along the Russian border will be great.

Ukraine, however, can't achieve stability and independence unless it builds a productive and diversified economy, no longer ordered by corruption or dependent on cheap Russian energy. And it can't reintegrate the East unless it strives to reassure those who live there that they won't be second-class citizens. Yes, it's a tall order. There's no alternative.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net