Ukraine's uncertain anniversary

ukraine russia rising tensions black pkg_00024007
ukraine russia rising tensions black pkg_00024007


    Ukraine on high alert as tension with Russia escalates


Ukraine on high alert as tension with Russia escalates 02:46

Story highlights

  • Ukraine is marking its 25th anniversary of independence
  • Michael Bociurkiw: The pace of reform has been too slow, and impatience is growing

Michael Bociurkiw is a writer and development professional who has worked on emergencies on several continents, most recently as a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Ukrainians will be observing the 25th anniversary of their independence Wednesday with a mixture of pride and celebration. But as the crisis in the east of the country smolders -- and perhaps deteriorates further -- Ukrainians will also be marking the anniversary with a sense of deep uncertainty. The future path of the country is precarious, and its people may be forced to make some tough decisions.

Certainly, recent reports that at least $12.7 million was allegedly paid by the former pro-Russian ruling party to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort were only the latest reminder of the demons Ukraine has yet to slay.
More than two years after President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly fled, investigators are still trying to trace the money trail of those who supported him. Many officials from Yanukovych's inner circle are at large, having fled to Russia following a public uprising in 2014. (Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign last week and for his part denies allegations of shadow payments.)
    Michael Bociurkiw
    That it is still so unclear who profited from Yanukovych's time in office, much less the limited progress that's been made in recovering ill-gotten wealth, is hardly surprising -- in the tangled web of international offshore accounts it can take decades to do so. Still, with so many struggling to get by on salaries eaten away by inflation and meager pensions, it would have been a wonderful way to celebrate this landmark anniversary if the government had been able to announce the repatriation of millions of dollars stolen from its coffers under Yanukovych's watch.
    Still, while this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, there are areas where smart policy can make an immediate, positive impact on the well-being of ordinary Ukrainians: reforming governance and firing corrupt officials.
    In the bitter cold of 2014, there was celebration and incredible hope for the future in Maidan Square in Kiev. Ordinary Ukrainians who had protested for weeks, many of them taking live fire from heavily armed police protecting the disgraced Yanukovych, went home to their towns and villages with the belief that life would be better and that corruption on this scale would be a thing of the past.
    While there have been notable breakthroughs in such areas as government procurement processes, the pace of reform has been far too slow. Impatience is growing. Indeed, as far back as last year activists in western Ukraine were speaking of the need for a "Third Maidan" to shake things up.
    Such sentiment might be understandable, but it is surely far better for change to be promoted through the ballot box than with bullets. And that raises the question what we can expect from the current President, Petro Poroshenko.
    With his ratings at all-time lows, the so-called Chocolate King faces an uphill battle at the ballot box in the next election. This election needs to be held by 2019, which in theory gives Poroshenko plenty of time to boost his popularity. But his to-do list is a long one.
    Top of the agenda is to decide what to do with the Donbas, the former industrial heartland of Donetsk and Luhansk, taken over by "little green men" -- armed operatives widely suspected of having been sent by Russia -- in the spring of 2014. Although eastern Ukraine has largely fallen out of the headlines, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has maintained hundreds of unarmed monitors since that time, and their reports are painting an extremely grim picture, with hundreds of recorded explosions on a daily basis.
    Also causing worry are reports of the return of heavy artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems. The death toll is nearing 10,000, and more than 22,000 people have been wounded, many women and children. According to the United Nations, meanwhile, there were 73 conflict-related civilian casualties in July, the highest number in a single month since August 2015.
    As if that weren't enough, Russia is reportedly building up forces along Ukraine's eastern borders, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening punitive action in response to alleged Ukrainian incursions into the peninsula it occupied in 2014.
    As a result of all this, the Minsk accords are increasingly looking to be unworkable. The ceasefire is not holding, there's a build-up of arms, and we are a long way away from the provision calling for fighters to return to their places of origin. With almost 500 square kilometers of Ukraine's eastern border under rebel control, it's easy for heavy weapons to flow into the conflict zone undetected.
    So how should Ukraine respond?
    There's growing talk in the corridors of power of a controversial but perhaps necessary move -- letting the Donbas go.
    Riddled with mines and unexploded ordnance, bombed out buildings, roads and bridges and airports, the repair bill would run into the billions of dollars. Most able men and women have fled for safer ground and harsh as it may sound, many -- although not all -- of those who have stayed have grown resigned to life under the rebels.
    It goes without saying that giving up on occupied, sovereign territory sets a terrible precedent. But a look at the picture suggests that Ukraine might be better off in the future -- and better able to steer its own destiny over its next 25 years -- if it made the difficult but brave decision to do so.