Tuesday 12/20 - AMB. John Herbst - Can Ukraine be saved from itself?

Tuesday 12/20
AMB. John Herbst
Can Ukraine be saved from itself?

DIY.  Do it yourself.

When it comes to democracy, DIY is so essential, it’s almost tautological.  Where there is no collective spirit of taking action, no citizens doing something together for the betterment of society, there is no functioning democracy.  Yes, civility and respect for rule of law are also essential, but without that energy, that “do it,” imperative, civility can become acceptance of whatever government does.

Real democracy asks more.

It’s easy to go on about personal commitment to your democracy when, by and large, your government, whatever its failings, does not consistently cheat and rob you, does not threaten the health and security of you and your family because of what you think or say.

It’s harder to DIY democracy when you don’t already have it, harder still where governments that are corrupt, incompetent, and willing to be as brutal as they have to be, and are all anybody has ever known.

Still, when it comes to the establishment and maintenance of democratic government, there ain’t no other way, citizens have to do it.

Ukraine is a place where the citizenry are having a hard time getting government to clean itself up, give up its old tricks of making lan oligarchy of politicians, plutocrats and out-and-out organized crime bosses filthy rich, and leaving almost everyone else poor and discontented.

Over the past dozen years, popular “revolutions” have twice demanded that government stop its foolishness and rampant corruption and try to live up the Euro-American standard of strictly limited thievery and knavery.   The Orange Revolution of 2004 started out with high hopes that a dozen years of post-Soviet Communist-style blundering, cronyism and theft would be reformed.

But the poisoning of the President weakened him and his government and within just a couple of years, governance from Kyiv was a shambles of crooked deals and non-performance of duties.  Until 2013 and the Maidan Revolution, powered by young urban people, backed by a slightly older crowd from provincial cities, towns and villages, forced the pro-Russian President to flee the capitol, eventually to Russia.  He left behind a palatial estate, with its own library and zoo and enough evidence to mark indelibly as a crook, and a master of politics Ukrainian-style.

The new President, Petro Poroshenko promised reform, promised to root out corruption, and improve government efficiency, promised to put Ukraine’s finances in the kind of order economists can understand and investors can assess.

I’m inclined to flunk him on all 3 subjects.

But, let’s note, he’s only been in office for 2 ½ years and his country has been at war the whole time.  The Good News: Ukraine’s military, still an incomplete collaboration between the national army and various DIY militias , is better equipped and trained, and fights well enough to keep Vladimir Putin from  throwing another punch at what is for him, a strategic “tar baby.”  The Bad News: the supply line for the warriors is reportedly a cesspool of corruption, leaving many fighters under-equipped and under-fed.  Also, the war has become a drum for hyper-Nationalist political organizing and attacks on journalists, gays and political dissidents.

In just past few months, many if not most of the most respected reformers in Poroshenko’s government have quit.  Some of them say they’re already organizing parties or movements for DIY democratic change.  They’ve got a hard road ahead, but it’s the only route to their goal.



Amb. John Herbst served as the United States Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2000 to 2003 and United States Ambassador to Ukraine from September 2003 to May 2006.  He is presently director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.
Ambassador Herbst served for thirty-one years as a foreign service officer in the US Department of State, retiring at the rank of career-minister.  He most recently served as director of the center for complex operations at National Defense University. He has received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, the Secretary of State’s Career Achievement Award, and the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award.














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