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Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Is a Marshall Plan for Ukraine possible?

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Photo: © UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson

Reflecting on Ukraine’s future beyond the current conflict, many politicians and experts speculate about the expediency of a new Marshall Plan for the country. Although the old Plan (officially known as the European Recovery Program) was designed and implemented by the Truman administration some three quarters of a century ago, it is still considered one of the most successful large-scale projects of post-conflict reconstruction. The experience still represents a certain value today. Leaving aside the political aspects of the U.S. aid program to Europe, which is a separate subject to discuss, we will confine ourselves to some relevant technical features of this initiative.

First of all, it would be wrong to think of the Marshall Plan as some bottomless source of financial resources that poured by the United States into the economy of Western Europe. In 1948–1951, Washington invested in Europe just over $13 billion, which is about $115 to $150 billion at today’s rate. Recall that at the end of the summer the Ukrainian leadership estimated the needs for the post-conflict reconstruction of the country at $600–800 billion—by the results of the autumn hostilities with a lot of new damage inflicted upon the core economic infrastructure, these needs were to increase even more, measuring now in trillions of dollars.

Since financial resources under the Marshall Plan were distributed among 17 countries and territories, even the largest recipients did not receive much: Great Britain — 3.3 billion, France — 2.3 billion, West Germany — 1.4 billion, Italy — 1.2 billion, etc. Most of experts believe that the money received from the U.S. directly boosted the growth of European economies by about 0.5% per year on average. However, this does not mean that the Marshall Plan played a merely marginal role in the post-conflict reconstruction of Europe. The importance of the Plan was not so much in the absolute amount of aid, but rather in the fact that this mechanism helped launch the natural process of Europe’s economic revival, namely the recovery of the private sector, the accumulation of trade between European countries, the rise of national investment activity, and the establishment of new economic institutions. The Plan also acted as a kind of guarantee granted to European nations by the U.S. government, allowing the gateways to open for the flow of American FDIs into Western Europe. It also became a catalyst for the fast growth of domestic investments in most of participating countries.

Applied to the current situation, this suggests that foreign aid as such is unlikely to be the only or the main driver of the post-conflict development of the Ukrainian economy. Ukraine still needs to make decisive progress in such areas as combating corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and improving the quality of public administration at various levels. The challenge is to unleash the creative potential of the Ukrainian society and to make full use of the many comparative advantages that the nation can demonstrate integrating itself into European and global economies. In other words, any potential Marshall Plan for Ukraine is not a substitute for still incomplete domestic reforms, but only one of the possible tools to facilitate them. But just as three-quarters of a century ago, large-scale government or international aid programs should stimulate private sector investment, both external and domestic.

The source of funding for the reconstruction of Western Europe in the late 1940s – early 1950s was obvious, since the U.S. was at the peak of its economic and financial power and could therefore allocate 13 billion to European countries relatively painlessly. Moreover, a significant part of these resources was returned to the U.S. in the form of purchases of American goods and services by Europeans. Even in those days, though, Washington began to cut aid to European partners as soon as money was needed for the Korean War.

Today, the U.S. is burdened with much more serious financial problems, and one should no longer expect Washington to be that generous. Especially since the U.S. has already taken the lead in providing unprecedented military and technical assistance to Kiev. Given the importance of Ukraine to the states of the EU, it would be logical to assume that Brussels rather than Washington would be the main donor for a post-conflict Ukraine. However, today the financial standing of the European Union, including Germany as the main potential sponsor of the new Marshall Plan, leaves much to be desired.

Perhaps, architects of a new Plan could rely on the reserves of the Russian Central Bank, frozen by the West after February 24, 2022. Making a decisive move from freezing to confiscation is not yet possible, but it will probably be done in the end. However, there are many other contenders for these Russian funds. For example, countries that have sheltered Ukrainian refugees, as well as those most affected by the sanctions war with Moscow, would like to receive financial compensation. So, in fact, $300 billion of frozen Russian reserves is not a bottomless pit where you can get money at will. Even if all of this money ends up in Ukraine, it is not likely to cover all the costs of the post-conflict reconstruction.

Only in case of complete and unconditional surrender of the Kremlin could it be possible to pull significant funds from Russia to add to the declared level of $600–800 billion. Today, such a surrender does not look as a likely outcome of the conflict. However, if we assume a scenario of such surrender for a moment, we then have to conclude that a depleted and bloodless Russia, capitulated to the Collective West, simply won’t have the necessary resources it could promptly transfer to the reconstruction of Ukraine. Paying reparations has never been easy. For example, after the end of World War I, Germany could not pay its war debts to the victorious countries in full as late as the end of the Weimar Republic, and in 1933 the Third Reich simply unilaterally refused to pay any further reparations afterwards.

Apparently, Ukraine’s recovery will take a long time under any scenario for the end of the crisis. It might go faster in agriculture, in residential construction or in services, it is likely to go slower in heavy industry and in hi-tech. In the case of Ukraine, it is probably not quite correct to talk about “recovery”, because the task will not be to return to the old economic structure that the country had in the beginning of the century, but to create an entirely new economy, which could organically fit into the international (global, not just European) division of labor of the mid-21st century. In this process, the role of external sources of funding will be significant, although not decisive. Much more will depend on the strategic economic decisions made in Kyiv, as well as on the long-term vision that the European Union might or might not develop regarding a unique future role of Ukraine in the Forth Industrial Revolution, which is already sweeping across the continent.

Another feature of the Marshall Plan should be noted. The program was launched two years after the end of World War II, when not only the military actions in Europe were completely stopped, but the post-war European order was defined as a whole. If we draw an analogy with the present, a successful Marshall Plan for Ukraine can also be possible only once the conflict is over and when minimal stability is restored on the European continent. This, in turn, means that each new day of the conflict results in new human casualties and causes greater damage to the Ukrainian economy, pushing the prospect of the beginning of the post-conflict reconstruction farther away.

From our partner RIAC

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Azerbaijan is to open an embassy in Israel: timely or little late?

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Image source: twitter @GeorgeDeek

Time to open that bottle!” tweeted with joy George Deek, Israel`s Ambassador in Azerbaijan on November 18, by posting a photo of wine flanked by the flags of the two countries. What lit him up was the decision of the Azerbaijani parliament to (finally) open an embassy in Israel.

The joy was shared by Israeli officials and media outlets: for instance, Prime Minister Yair Lapid praised the decision, calling Azerbaijan “an important partner of Israel and home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world”. The Jerusalem Post, in its turn, referred to Azerbaijan as the first Shiite country to open an embassy in Israel.

The two countries have established and been successfully leading one of the unique, if not strange, case of partnership since the early 1990s: a Shiite Azerbaijan plays an incredible role in the energy security of the Jewish state surrounded usually by antagonistic states: according to some estimates, Israel receives 40-50% of its oil imports from Azerbaijan.

Another, no less important, director of the bilater relations is security-oriented. Israel has managed to become the largest supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan. SIPRI estimates that some 60% of Azerbaijan’s defense imports in 2015-2019 originated in Israel, while in 2020, that number jumped to almost 70%. This partnership benefited Azerbaijan, who successfully used the Israeli-manufactured state-of-the-art military technology during the 2020 Karabakh war to defeat its arch-nemesis Armenia and liberate the formerly occupied territories. The contribution of Israel to the historic triumph was acknowledged both by political elite and general society in Azerbaijan: seeing Israel flags, along with Azerbaijani and Turkish ones, across the entire country is therefore not uncommon nowadays.

Last May, amid regional tensions with Iran, reports emerged on Azerbaijan buying Iron Dome missile defense batteries. Then in October 2021, Azerbaijan reportedly considered buying Israel’s Arrow-3 missile defense system. Neither Israeli authorities nor Israeli defense firms commented on the news.

Another sign of deepening ties and mutual trust came to light lately when the Israeli government approved an emergency plan to receive Jews fleeing from Russia. The plan involves possible transition camps for Russian Jews in Finland and in Azerbaijan ahead of their arrival to Israel.

Add to this, Azerbaijani-Jewish diaspora who naturally forges the warm relations between the two countries. While the Jews were persecuted, oppressed and driven out both in Christian and Muslim worlds in the Middle Ages, Azerbaijan always served as a safe haven for them: an all-Jewish town just outside of Baku, Azerbaijan`s capitol city, Red Town is home to at least 4,000 people and is sometimes referred to as Jerusalem of the Caucasus. This fact also boosts the image of Azerbaijan as a reliable and amicable land in the Jewish perception. According to historians, the indigenous Mountain Jews have been living in geography for at least 2,000 years. A unique sub-group of the Jews, they now protect the interests of both Azerbaijan and Israel.

Despite the nearly perfect ties between the two countries, Azerbaijan had for decades avoided opening an embassy in Israel, although the latter has been diplomatically represented in Azerbaijan since 1993. The reason could be related to the assumption that such a move could alienate the huge Muslim world, most of whose members had been quite hostile towards Israel. However, things started changing with the signing of the Abraham Accords. The thaw between some Gulf countries and Israel heralded a new era in the Middle Eastern geopolitics and Azerbaijan had to rethink its relevant policies.

The signs of Azerbaijan`s intention to finally set up a mission in Israel had been observed for some years until when Baku opened Trade and Tourism Representative Offices in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2021.

While elevating its diplomatic presence in the Jewish state, Azerbaijan, known for its skillful balancing, did not forget Palestine and passed a parliamentary resolution on opening a representative office in Ramallah as well.

Yet, Azerbaijan`s historic decision amid its tensions with Iran and the comeback of Netanyahu, who is expected to resume Israel`s assertive policy especially in the Iran direction could not be only a coincidence. Intriguingly, in early October Israel`s Defense Minister Benny Gantz paid a visit to Azerbaijan, where he met not only his counterpart but also Azerbaijan`s president Ilham Aliyev. This visit overlapped with the attempts of Israel and Turkey to finally overcome their past disagreements and open a new chapter in the relations, something the Azerbaijani side had for years desired for and worked on.

It can be predicted that Azerbaijan`s foreign policy priority for the next period will be focusing not only on cementing bilateral ties with the Jewish state, but helping to establish what some Azerbaijani experts see as Azerbaijani-Israeli-Turkish triangle, a geopolitical constellation, which would also determine the regional picture in the coming years.

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Kiev is not interested in preventing war crimes

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Image source: war.ukraine.ua

The video of the execution of Russian prisoners of war by Ukrainian troops, which circulated in the media and social networks, is far from the only video recording of war crimes by Ukrainian army. Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, videos of beaten and stripped prisoners of war and civilians suspected of collaborating with the Russians have appeared on the network. Records of torture also circulated widely.

At the same time, experts admit that there is a lot of cruelty on both sides, during the clashes almost no prisoners are taken, only Moscow does not promote violence, and Kyiv does not care about the promotion of war crimes. What are the reasons for such “public violence”, which can greatly compromise both the Ukrainian military and President Zelensky himself?

We could assume that the Russians commit many more war crimes, but due to the large number of military police and counterintelligence officers, they simply do not film them. It would seem that the answer lies on the surface – Russia is an authoritarian state, where phones are taken away from soldiers, and Ukraine is democratic. However, the reality is different, there is no democracy in the war, smartphones of military personnel in the conflict zone are trying to remove both sides. Moreover, as we have already pointed out, it is precisely in “totalitarian” Russia in the war zone that there are dozens of war correspondents who freely visit military units and could shoot such videos. It is true that a significant part of those journalists is under the control of the Russian army, however, they cannot control all of them. This is evidenced by the fact that more than once, due to journalists filming and revealing the positions of the Russian army, there have been losses of men and equipment in the Russian army.

But Russians are not characterized by cruelty. The main difference between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian fighters is different cultural traditions. In the 80th brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, formed in Lviv from the natives of Western Ukraine, the personnel were brought up in the spirit of the traditions of the Ukrainian underground during the Second World War. Recall that then the supporters of Stepan Bandera shot back pro-Soviet and pro-Polish activists, including doctors and teachers sent to western Ukraine, and also massacred entire Jewish and Polish villages.

In the Russian mentality, mockery and mistreatment of prisoners is unacceptable. You can kill the enemy, but not torture. Russians in their ideology have always opposed themselves to the German Nazis with their concentration camps and gas chambers. So, if someone posted a video of the torture and murder of captured soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Russian audience would explode with indignation, recognizing the perpetrators of such acts as war criminals.

However, the true reason for the appearance of such videos lies not even in the different mentality of Ukrainian nationalists and Russians. In fact, Kyiv propagandists deliberately give the green light to such videos. This is primarily done to scare Russian soldiers and reservists. And official Kiev does not pay much attention to these crimes.

Take for example the recent Ukrainian war crime in Makiivka. The Ukrainian army immediately began to claim that the video was staged and fake. However, it was the Western experts who confirmed the authenticity of the video and the Western media exerted pressure to launch an investigation.

However, such video propaganda of cruelty actually has a much more serious purpose. Its main task is to form a stable feeling of hatred between Russians and residents of Ukraine. EU residents have little idea of ​​the mentality of the average Russian. The fact is that many in Russia sincerely consider the current war to be a civil one. Almost all Russians treat Ukrainians either as a very close people or as southwestern Russians. Half of the inhabitants of Ukraine have Russian surnames, relatives in Russia and use Russian as their main language. However, each such video should, according to the plan of Kiev radical propagandists, change the mentality of Russians more and more. They must hate all the inhabitants of Ukraine, stop treating them as “their own” and recognize that reconciliation with Ukraine and a new reunification with it is impossible. Peace will come sooner or later, but a steel wave of hatred will fall between the future Ukraine and Russia. At the same time, Russia’s desire to punish the killers of defenseless prisoners of war and civilians will also prevent the settlement of relations between Moscow and Kyiv for many decades.

The line of military contact between Russia and Ukraine is lengthening, fresh troops and new weapons are coming to the front from both sides. Obviously, the execution in Makiivka will not be the last video demonstrating the complete disregard of Kyiv, for “democratic values”, the Geneva Convention and human rights. The question involuntarily begs itself, does a united Europe need such a Ukraine, proud of the massacres?

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