The autumn political season has been a gloomy one for Ukraine. The release of e-declarations outlining the assets of government officials sparked widespread public anger over the vast wealth amassed by many state servants. There have also been protests in downtown Kyiv and mounting speculation over the potential for further unrest. The results of a recent public opinion survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) largely reflected the pessimism on display at street level. The survey, conducted from 22 September to 7 October with support from Global Affairs Canada, revealed that Ukrainians continue to feel frustrated by corruption while bracing themselves for the additional burden of higher utility prices. Meanwhile, there is increasing cynicism about the capacity of the current generation of politicians to deliver any positive change.
For all the well-founded frustration at the slow pace of change, there may be indications that things are improving in Ukraine, albeit slowly. In this most recent nationwide survey, only 9% of respondents reported having personally been asked to pay a bribe by an official during the past year. Furthermore, while Ukrainians continue to have low expectations that the economy will improve in the near future, an increasing number feel that the worst is now behind them.
Failure to combat corruption
Where exactly are Ukrainians coming into contact with corrupt practices and officials in their everyday lives? IRI's most recent public opinion research provided insight into where Ukrainians are encountering corruption and where they see it advantageous to pay a bribe. The most common instances involved bribes to “expedite” the process of receiving a necessary document or “thanking” an underpaid teacher or doctor. Overall, however, it appears to be the non-routine services that Ukrainians would prefer not to deal with, such as the courts, customs and state tax officials, which have a higher rate of bribe solicitation.
A number of well publicized and some not-so-well known efforts are currently being made to tackle both corruption and wasteful spending. The new acting Ukrainian Minister of Health, Ulyana Suprun, has begun an aggressive campaign to rein in spending including repealing the Soviet-era decree that allocated money to hospitals based on the number of beds they had rather than the number of patients. She is also reconsidering the cost allocation and pharmaceutical procurement process. Nevertheless, survey results highlighted the failure to curb corrupt practices throughout state institutions.
Parliamentary parties see support plummet
When asked about their support for current political parties, it became clear that the majority of Ukrainians are tired of the country’s current political leadership, with near historic low levels of support for both parliamentary political parties and the national political elite. The predominant mood appears to be one of frustration, although this dissatisfaction has no obvious direction. There is little appetite for early elections. Meanwhile, there are strikingly low levels of support for all parliamentary parties. While this indicates an overwhelmingly negative assessment of the current parliament’s record, it may also reflect the failure of the current crop of parliamentary parties to do the hard work between elections that is a core feature of healthy democracies.
The survey found that some parties remain stronger in local communities, depending upon the party and region of the country. In Kharkiv Oblast, Vidrodzhennia Party holds a 15% approval rating among likely voters, but only has 2% nationally. Likewise, in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast the Ukrainian Organization of Patriots (UKROP) has almost 10% approval locally, and but nationally only 2% of likely voters would cast a ballot for them.
Winter of discontent approaching
Ukrainians continue to shoulder hardships, with a majority of the country planning to undertake unprecedented energy saving measures this winter due to sharply increased market-rate tariffs. This comes on top of the continuing difficult economic conditions experienced by all households and with no quick-fix solutions on the cards. Whether the government and Ukraine's political parties will step in to provide encouragement or simply communicate the light at the end of the tunnel is unclear. Kyiv’s favored tactic appears to be popularizing a national energy subsidy program for Ukraine's most vulnerable households.
With expectations set to remain low for the foreseeable future and with approval ratings for the country’s current ruling parties and politicians matching those expectations, it is imperative that Ukraine’s political class focus on building networks of transparent, effective, open and responsive governance across the country.
About the author: Michael Druckman is the Ukraine Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI). You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeDruck