A big shout-out to Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson, who organized a great conference at Princeton on Wednesday. It was the latest opportunity for scholars and policymakers to come together to discuss the future of Ukraine, which—I don’t think this is an overdramatization—is at a critical juncture in its history as an independent nation.
There is a saying in Russian: первый блин всегда комом, which translates roughly as “the first pancake is always a flop.” Novel endeavors often fail—but the second attempt may be successful. Postcommunist Ukraine’s first attempt at regime change was certainly a flop: the Orange Revolution of 2004 resulted in a change of government but little real reform. The Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 (aka the Revolution of Dignity), in contrast, has the potential to set Ukraine on a new path.
The difference is in Ukrainian society. Ukrainians learned from their first revolution that it’s not enough to replace those in power. Power corrupts, and power attracts the corrupt. Government turnover is therefore insufficient to produce real change. If you want to transform the political culture, you need to organize to monitor those in power.
Ukraine today has a vibrant mix of NGOs, watchdog organizations, independent media, and other organizations dedicated to holding officeholders accountable. Credit for unveiling Paul Manafort’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine, for example, goes to Serhiy Leshchenko, a prominent investigative journalist and member of parliament (and participant in the Princeton conference). Major policy achievments include an asset-declaration law with teeth and a world-class electronic procurement system.
Inexperienced cooks may be hesitant to push on after the first pancake, wondering if the problem is with the pan. If Ukraine is to succeed, it is because members of the Ukrainian public drew a different lesson from the failed Orange Revolution. The future of Ukraine is in their hands now, not those of their political leaders. Let us hope that it is enough for the second pancake to come out right.