Friday, December 17, 2010

Has Ukraine lost appetite for reforms?

In a study on Ukraine published in October, the CER gave President Viktor Yanukovich credit for passing difficult economic reforms but criticised his efforts to suppress political opposition. Since then, reforms have stalled while the concentration of power in the president's hands has continued unabated.

A recent visit to Kyiv has left me deeply worried. The government continues to amass power. This is in part due to the weakness of the opposition – former leaders of the Orange revolution such as former president Viktor Yushchenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are genuinely unpopular with voters, who blame them for disappointing economic performance and failure to move Ukraine closer to the EU. Even so, President Yanukovich seems intent on preventing free and fair elections. The October 31st regional poll was marred by widespread use of government powers to help the ruling Party of Regions. The European Parliament notes in its November 25th resolution that "some parties, such as [Yulia Tymoshenko's] Batkivshchyna, were unable to register their candidates". Phil Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state, said that the United States: "does not believe that those elections met the standards of openness and fairness that applied to the presidential election earlier in the year."

The story is not much better on the economic front. Even in those areas, where progress had been made, the government has started to backpedal. For example, the new public procurement law, which the EU helped to draft earlier this year, is being riddled by exceptions: the country's parliament has exempted work on sites for the 2012 European football championship. The EU has viewed the law as key to countering corruption, and its partial reversal dismayed EU ambassadors in Kyiv. Economists also say that the government cheated to comply with a key requirement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF): in order to cut tax refund arrears it simply stopped accepting claims. The IMF is due to decide this month on whether to disburse further aid to Ukraine.

There has been little progress on reforming the country's all-important gas sector. The government has increased domestic gas prices, which has helped to improve the finances of Naftogaz, the country's monopoly – and perennially insolvent – importer and distributor of gas. But there has been no progress on making the company more efficient and transparent. In September 2010 Ukraine acceded to the EU's 'energy community', which groups countries that pledge to uphold each other's security of supply, on the condition that the government separates Naftogaz's gas transit pipelines from other businesses. The Ukrainian parliament passed legislation in July that had ordered Naftogaz to do just that. But nothing has changed: Naftogaz remains untouched and important secondary legislation – to create an independent regulator, for example – is not even under consideration. Meanwhile, Naftogaz is descending into deeper financial trouble. A court in Ukraine has ordered the company to repay nearly $4 billion to one of Ukraine's most powerful businessmen, Dmytro Firtash, who had sued for damages incurred when the previous government cancelled the services of his company in brokering gas purchases from Russia. It is not obvious that Naftogaz has enough money or gas to reimburse Firtash.

The government recently passed a law that would make it easier to explore oil reserves in the Black Sea. These could in the long run lessen Ukraine's dependence on energy imports from Russia. But to extract the reserves, Ukraine needs foreign expertise. So it is baffling that the government has recently imposed a new 40 per cent duty on imports of refined oil (punishing Shell, a key importer) and increased royalties on gas and oil extracted in Ukraine. Foreign energy majors will have little reason to invest in the country. One representative of a Western energy major says that "there is plenty of gas here, in shale and under sea, but no one will tap it because there is zero confidence among investors that they would ever see their money back." Non-energy companies are treated similarly. Deutsche Telekom and Norway's Telenor wanted to buy Ukraine's national telecommunications operator, Ukrtelecom, but the Kyiv government excluded them from the privatisation on a technicality.

Curiously, while the economic reforms have stuttered, relations with the EU have improved, though from a low point. At an EU-Ukraine summit in November, the parties agreed a 'road map' which may eventually allow the Ukrainians to travel to the EU without visas. Talks on a new 'deep and comprehensive free trade agreement' (DCFTA) have also been resumed, after months of paralysis. When the European Commission had threatened in October to cut off talks altogether, President Yanukovich ordered Prime Minister Mykola Azarov "to make all necessary concessions" to restart negotiations. But the order itself is symptomatic of what is wrong with the relationship: Kyiv only pays attention when talks are about to collapse; even then it takes short-term measures: nothing is being done to assess the economic impact of DCFTA on Ukrainian industries or to encourage the losers to move into new lines of business. This guarantees that some of the country's politically powerful oligarchs will eventually revolt against DCFTA.

The EU has limited tools to press for greater political freedoms and proper economic reforms but it is not powerless. The Ukrainians do care what the EU states and institutions think. They have cheered the European Parliament’s November resolution, in which, for the first time, an EU institution (albeit one without decision-making powers in the matter) says that "Ukraine has the right to apply for membership" (something that the Council of Ministers has been reluctant to say). EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton and senior national diplomats should speak out more forcefully about the state of democracy in Ukraine. EU governments should also use their influence in the IMF to demand real economic reforms. The IMF loans represent the most important leverage that the European governments and the US have in Ukraine today. The current government in Kyiv is capable of tough choices, but only when it feels real pressure.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

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