Tymofiy Mylovanov, former Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture and President of the Kyiv School of Economics, shares his thought on the future of democracy and the fight against corruption in Ukraine.
The winds are at Kyiv’s back in November following Russia’s retreat from Kherson—and despite Moscow’s continued bombardment of Ukraine’s heating and electrical infrastructure. Putin’s original goals of seizing the Ukrainian capital and overthrowing its government are now a distant fantasy.
Ukrainian domestic politics have been at the heart of conflict from the beginning: Putin’s initial invasions of Ukraine in 2014 were due to his declining influence over Kyiv—specifically, when Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, aligned closely with Moscow, fled the country after his violent crackdown on the Maidan protest movement favoring economic integration with the European Union over Russia.
Since the revolution, there has been a concerted effort to reform and reinvent Ukrainian politics notoriously affected by vote rigging, foreign manipulation and ultra-wealthy oligarchs. Russia’s invasions also inadvertently crippled the influence of formerly sizeable political parties based in Eastern Ukraine favoring pro-Moscow policies. (In 2022 several of those remaining were banned for being supportive of Russia’s invasion. Other politicians formerly seen as pro-Russian, such as the mayor of Odesa, have changed their stance in response to Russia’s attacks.)
Yet questions regarding Ukraine’s political future remain. Wars risk eroding democracy—even in cases like Ukraine’s that it’s necessary for democracy to survive. A lot depends on the discretion of national leaders to eventually relinquish wartime powers and cool down nationalist fervor. At the same time, Russia’s war has interrupted efforts by reformers to combat corruption that has dragged down Ukraine’s economy and public trust, a problem often invoked by foreign critics opposed to giving aid to Kyiv.
To get a better understanding of Ukraine’s prospects as liberal democracy governed by the rule of law, I spoke via Zoom with Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. No stranger to the turbulent waters of Ukrainian politics, he served as Minister of Economic Devlopment, Trade and Agriculture from 2019-2020, and later twice refused cabinet positions in subsequent administrations.
He spoke frankly with me about Ukraine’s past problems and future risks for what he called Ukraine’s “teenage democracy” but was adamant in arguing that major reforms had already been implemented since 2014, and optimistic that Ukrainians were more likely to embrace continued democratic and anti-corruption reforms despite the challenges and trauma of Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
(In an earlier published extract from this interview, I’ve shared his comments regarding Ukraine’s economic future in the face of the devastation left behind by Russia’s invasion.)
On Ukraine’s future as a liberal democracy
Despite experiencing many challenges to its electoral democracy, Ukraine has seen several peaceful transfers between rival parties driven by voters [seen as a key test of genuine democracy]. Post-war, what will the political landscape look like, especially with Zelensky’s esteem as a wartime president and the banning/collapse of pro-Russian parties?
The framing of everything as Russia versus Europe is in my view a very colonial narrative, and a Russian narrative. It’s packaged as Orange versus Blue, Ukrainians versus Russians, but it’s nothing like that.
This is not really well understood, but Ukrainian politics are regional, based around the large cities of Kharkiv, Dnipro, Donetsk, Kyiv and Odesa to an extent (but Odesa doesn’t have enough industry to be very powerful in the politics).
If you look at [former prime ministers] Kuchma from Dniepro and Yanukovych from Donetsk, they were different regional elites fighting for a seat in Kyiv, which had its own elites. There were never really strong “pro-Western” elites, it was all driven by the economics. So I’m looking at Ukrainian politics as a fight between oligarchs.
But if you look at the structures, it’s evolved. Yanukovych and [Rinat] Akhmetov both came from Donetsk [historically a pro-Russian region] and represented the party of the east; but in 2022 Yanukovych is in Russia [in exile], and Akhmetov financed and supported the defense of Mariupol.
I think Poroshenko [the first democratically elected Ukrainian president after the Maidan Revolution] was the first ‘non-top three’ industrial oligarch. And then Zelensky [who defeated Poroshenko in the 2019 election] is definitely not an oligarch. He understands the logic of the oligarchs, but he’s an outsider to oligarchic politics and the deep state. So you can see an evolution away from oligarchic politics.
So I see in Ukraine a teenage democracy. It’s not guaranteed a teenager will grow up well, there are risks, notably how the democracy performs under stress of war—but it’s on a good path. There are the usual threats of a junta, populism and nationalism after the war. But none of them is serious.
One thing is Ukrainians have defended time and again our right to vote. This is a big deal, because under Kuchma we had rigged elections, and the fight between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko over vote rigging. There were various ploys: busing people in, ballot-box stuffing, hacking etc. But all of that’s done with, and I think that will stay that way.
Zelensky is re-electable if he chooses to get reelected. It’s his choice, he might be tired. But after the second term of Zelensky [if there is one], there will be new leaders. We have a bunch of mayors growing up, and some of them have done quite well due to the centralization reforms before the war, and some continued to perform well during the war. Some are gaining national prominence, and now have something to back them up, in terms of performance.
Does that mean we won’t elect a crazy person? Sure, there are risks that something like that could happen. I’m optimistic, but it’s still a teenage democracy. But look at the United States. It’s not a teenage democracy, and yet look at what happened January 6!
On the fight against corruption
Reforms to curb corruption have proven difficult to implement in Ukraine. Do you foresee any breakthroughs in combating corruption post-war—and if so what would changes for the better look like?
There is a perception of corruption [in Ukraine], and that’s justified in particular under Yanukovych’s rule, in which it was publicly known that you need to give kickbacks. They were not shy about it!
Then, procurement corruption [formerly estimated to cost $2 billion annually] is still there—there’s favoritism and lobbyists—but it’s at least 1% of what it was because there an electronic procurement system called ProZorro.
“Then there’s the direct bribes in lobbying, which is [now] somewhat controlled by a very sophisticated network of electronic declarations. I’ve been in a few [government] positions and it’s quite a hassle. Not sure how effective that system is, it was observed more in form and less so in spirit. It’s been postponed during the war because you don’t want a list of all the key officials in one place.
Then you have prosecution bias, and there’s a lot of scandals around them. But it’s not the same as it was 8-10 years ago. We regularly get requests to do things properly through contracts, philanthropy, through foundations which probably would not even have been attempted ten years ago.
Are there informal payments requested by doctors, waste or diversion resources in education or construction? Yes—and are they being prosecuted, yes! So it’s an ongoing battle.
There’s this lingering perception, partly justified but partly unfair, that corruption is out of control in Ukraine, but we’ve made tremendous progress. Corruption is a symptom of weak, bad governance. We’re trying to build out our corporate governance to change that.
What should Ukraine do going forward to further curb corruption?
I am an institutionalist, I don’t believe we need more prosecution. I think there are two things that need to be done. We need to ‘legalize’ lobbying, make it follow formal lobbying laws.
The second step is proper political finance reform. If there’s no proper way to publicly finance political parties, if you give low salaries to politicians, then you get a selection problem that you get only rich politicians. Or you get people who come to earn money privately [through corruption]. So then you have bad incentives. Politicians should have to pay their staff, and should do so using official channels.
On Ukraine’s foreign relations
The Trump years saw U.S. and Ukrainian political scandals cross-pollinate in messy ways. How are the Trump-era machinations perceived in Ukraine?
It’s not new—it escalated during the Trump years, but the Ukraine card has been played by Turmp administration and then by Democrats against. And Ukraine always somewhere in the middle of it and wants to stay out of it… We send delegations, we meet with Republicans and Democrats. We never support one party or another. It’s always been bipartisan since independence 30 years ago. We hope it stays that way, and its unfortunate that we get entangled [in U.S. politics].
Does Kyiv see an angle to build stronger relations with countries that neither support nor sanction Russia’s invasion, notably India, Israel and China?
China is critical player—if they had denied support to Russia [by participating in sanctions], then I think the war would be over by now. But it’s not happening. Sometimes they provide technology and information, especially drones providing access to core data, tipping the playing field towards Russia. So to use DJI Mavic drones [the most affordable and ubiquitous type on the market] we have to neutralize the Aerosocope safety software [which can expose the drones’ and operator’s position]. China is trying to upgrade the software on new versions so we can’t do that. There is an arms race, and people are dying because China provides software in favor of Russia.
We’ll see how it’s going to play out. China will be forced eventually to take a side, which will weigh heavily on outcome of the war. At the same time, they don’t want to give aid for free by joining the West and disengaging from Russia. They feel cornered, because if they join Russia they escalate the conflict, if they don’t and join the US, they’re not given a seat at the table. People we’ve talked with have been pushing to find a format including China through G7 or Turkey or US-Canada-China. Whereas my understanding is the Western response is they need to make a seat at their own table. So conflict between EU, North America and China doesn’t help bring China to weigh in against Russia.
On education assistance to Ukraine
What question should I have asked?
We need to make sure the intellectual capacity of Ukraine is also growing. I think that’s overlooked during times of crisis and challenges. Education, culture takes a back seat, and we should be aware of that, and otherwise we risk losing generation, culturally, emotionally, psychologically, and in terms of skills—human capital.
What can be done for that? More assistance directed to education?
Sure, assistance, but it’s also mindset—there will be some direct support to educational programs, but if we go and take a look at the way people try to typically support education, it really facilitates brain drain. People are saying come to University of Chicago, Harvard, and then faculty leaves and they stay in the US afterwards.
The way institutions should interact isn’t to provide shelter for the best scholars to flee, but to support institutions present in Ukraine so that they can continue to operate during the war and remain robust. Don’t work with individual scholars, work with institutions. You don’t want to undermine Ukraine’s local institutions. I’d rather have MIT do an entrepreneurship program in Ukraine together, than handing over our best students and faculty.