The year 2017 may leave its mark on Ukraine as a time of escalated fighting in the Donbas region, the coal trade blockade, government pressure on anti-corruption bodies, high-scale criminal cases and, of course, Mikheil Saakashvili.
Despite that, Ukraine has also achieved a fair share of positive things this year — from finally receiving a visa-free regime with the European Union to the adoption of important reforms on healthcare and pensions, as well as slight economic growth.
Hromadske spoke with political and economic experts to break down Ukraine’s 2017.
What Were The Key Problems?
According to a poll carried out by Ukraine’s four big research institutions in late autumn, Ukrainians consider the war in Donbas, price inflation, low salaries and pensions, unemployment and corruption in the government to be the country’s biggest problems.
Gulliver Cragg, a correspondent for international news television network France 24, thinks that 2017 destroyed the remnants of the illusion that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wants any positive changes.
“I think 2017 has really been the year when we finally saw that he either never really wanted the change or he has failed to do that because [of] the last few months and what we've seen in terms of the actions against the Anti-corruption Bureau,” Cragg said.
Kateryna Smagliy, the director at the Kennan Institute in Ukraine, shares Cragg’s critical view.
“[Poroshenko] is trying to win the next  elections, not by his dialogue with the civil society, but just the opposite, by using the power vertical,” she said.
In her opinion, the “situation with anti-corruption agencies, the recent appointment of the new Supreme Court judges where we have almost 30% of the judges representing the old regime, the total ignorance of this administration of the demands put by the civil society” are all signs of Poroshenko’s desire to consolidate his power.
Smagliy also addressed another heavily discussed issue. After numerous attacks of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies, many — including some global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Ukraine — have concluded that the Ukrainian government is intentionally targeting Ukraine’s anti-corruption system.
“All the very recent events of November and December, they clearly demonstrate that the presidential administration has crossed the line where it started very openly, without any limitations whatsoever, [going] after civil society activists, especially those who pursue the anti-corruption rhetoric and who actively and aggressively push this government for the reforms,” she said.
Saakashvili and The 2019 Presidential Elections
Another hot topic in 2017, especially in the last four months, was former Georgian president and ex-Odesa region governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who triumphantly (and, according to the Ukrainian government, also illegally) returned to Ukraine at the beginning of September. Since then, the politician has hardly ever escaped the headlines, although admittedly often for questionable reasons.
“Well, we certainly see that Saakashvili’s star is rising. The number of his supporters is constantly growing, the peaceful protest that they started — the rally that they held last Sunday was less in numbers compared to today’s rally,” Smagliy told Hromadske on December 17.
At the same time, according to Cragg, Saakashvili falls short of embodying a presidential figure, despite the widespread belief that the politician is aiming for the presidency.
“He talks a lot of sense,” Cragg said. “He channels a lot of anger that I think a lot of Ukrainians must feel at the situation in the country. But at the same time, he also has very irresponsible rhetoric.”
In Cragg’s opinion, the Georgian-Ukrainian politician always “sails very very close to the wind.”
“It really sounds as if he's almost encouraging people to go on sort of lynching missions to these people's houses and to turn towards violence. [But] he always stops short of really calling for violence,” he said.
And while it looks like Saakashvili is rarely seen without his crowd of supporters, the parliamentary election polls show his party scoring very poorly.
Oleksandr Paraschiy, the head of research at Concorde Capital, lists the medical reform — which will see Ukraine adopt a healthcare system similar to the one in the United Kingdom — and the pension reform — which will increase monthly pensions — as the good developments of 2017.
“We voted for the pension reform, for the medical reform and I think that these things will start paying off next year,“ he said.
In Paraschiy’s opinion, despite poverty and inflation remaining major issues in Ukraine, there has been increased stability in the country’s economy compared to previous years.
“I think inflation will speed down further [next year.] Maybe we'll have 9% inflation versus 11% or even 13% this year. So inflation, the thing that matters for people and the devaluation of Ukrainian currency won't be a significant risk for the next year,” Paraschiy said.
“Our economy will grow about 2% this year,” he said, despite cautiously adding later that the growth is much smaller than in neighboring Poland, Hungary or Romania.
The foreign investments in Ukraine have also increased, Paraschiy added.
“Roughly, if we exclude some special items like recapitalization of some banks, our [Foreign Direct Investment] will grow this year, maybe 60%. But it is a comparison, and it was very low, of course,” he said.
What Will 2018 Entail?
Regardless of whether 2017 can be considered a good or a bad year for Ukraine, many would agree it was eventful.
“[F]or Ukraine, the times [are] changing,” Smagliy said. “So we witnessed a very good start with the reforms, immediately after the Orange Revolution and this year, I think, became the turning point both for Ukraine's civil society and for the president, when the two parties clearly realized that you should either go very aggressively with pursuing the reform agenda or stop pretending actually that you are still in the reform process.”
But Paraschiy believes that 2018 is unlikely to keep up with the same level of all-round action.
“Everybody knows that next year will be the year on the eve of the election campaign,” he said. “And therefore, I believe our government will be very very careful with any steps, any strong steps and we, unfortunately, won't see any reforms next year.”
/By Maria Romanenko