By Viola Gienger, Dominik Tolksdorf and William B. Taylor, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Viola Gienger is a senior writer; Dominik Tolksdorf is a Transatlantic Post-Doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security; and William B. Taylor is vice president for Middle East and Africa programs, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Taylor is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The views expressed are their own.
As Russian troops gather along the border, and with Ukrainian soldiers having been forced from their bases in Crimea, Ukraine’s leaders, civic activists and armed forces are facing a severe test – one that has global implications.
After all, the response of the country’s interim leadership will determine not only the future of their own country, but also that of Russia's entire periphery, as well as the U.S. and European security arrangements at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is therefore important that the country’s leaders keep their eyes on the ultimate prize – a unified Ukraine with a democratic, transparent and effective government.
To make this goal a reality, the country can take concrete steps toward disarming internal cultural fears and tensions, broadening political power, stemming graft and securing economic reform. Encouragingly, Ukraine’s leaders already are demonstrating that they are more respectful of the rights of ethnic Russians than Vladimir Putin, at least judging by the Russian president’s poor record on protecting the civic rights of his own citizens.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian civic activists are mounting impressive campaigns of nonviolent resistance across the country to promote unity in the face of Russian provocations, a sentiment the interim leadership can bolster by emphasizing openness and inclusivity. Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov made a start on this by appointing wealthy businessmen Serhij Taruta and Ihor Kolomojskij, who were close to his ousted predecessor, as governors in eastern regions. This move could be used as part of an outreach effort to moderates aligned with the former government, which in turn will strengthen reform efforts. In doing so, the interim government would be demonstrating to Ukrainians that the country is pulling in the same direction.
Clearly, the problems facing the interim government transcend ethnic and linguistic divisions, differences that have anyway been exaggerated by Russian propaganda. For years, unrest has been driven primarily by graft and economic hardship more than it has by questions of whether citizens felt closer to Europe or Russia. And while ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's decision in November not to sign an association agreement with the European Union was the trigger for the Independence Square protests, the turnout at the demonstrations was also driven by Ukrainians angry over endemic corruption and a government that repeatedly ignored the interests of the public.
With this in mind, the interim leadership would be strengthened by laying out a clear, comprehensive vision of how politics in Ukraine should be conducted in the post-Maidan era. Constitutional changes that address the distribution of power would be a good place to start, and the central government could make clear that it wants to respect the regions and their elected officials without fuelling separatism, something that would help lay to rest the rumblings of secession in the east.
In fact, the reality is that many Russian-language speakers across the country support a unified, sovereign Ukraine, and reject the prospect of Russian annexation or invasion. The government could therefore do well to demonstrate its new openness by changing the system for choosing regional governors, opting for a more democratic approach than the current, centralized system of making appointments from Kiev.
On the economic front, the interim government is demonstrating that it is committed to battling corruption while also being willing to make potentially unpopular decisions, such as raising domestic heating gas prices to allow the country to cover an expected increase in costs from Russia and meet the terms of vital loans from the International Monetary Fund. The international community should do as much as it can to help Ukraine ease the potential impact of any higher prices on the poorest citizens.
The EU, U.S., IMF and other international organizations have indicated they are committed to the interim government, offering financial aid, military advice, development assistance, and introducing punishing sanctions against Russia for its violations of international agreements and military incursions.
All this is welcome and it is important that the international backing be stalwart. But ultimately, Ukraine’s future is in its own hands. And if political and economic reform is introduced carefully but comprehensively, with proper respect for legitimate opponents, the interim government might just give the country – and itself – a chance to prosper.