(Photo: Kyiv Post)
When protesters first took to the streets in Ukraine’s largest cities in 2013, economic concerns were at the top of the agenda. As the geopolitical situation in eastern Ukraine has heated up, economic prospects in the contested regions of the country have only gotten worse. Yet average Ukrainians are still working for a more prosperous and democratic future.
Since the Maidan protests, the business climate in the Donbass, the easternmost, coal-mining region of the country, has taken a turn for the worse. Amid the turmoil, local businesses – in particular small and medium-sized firms – have suffered. Many have been shaken down for so-called “donations,” and in some cases have been looted and ransacked.
A recent article in the local press has documented fines, bribery, and other abuses committed against local businesses by police departments and government officials. Many people have even left the region, heading either for Western Ukraine or even Russia. The owners of small businesses have left their homes and their enterprises behind. They are unsure when they can return, or whether they will find their businesses in the same condition.
As one CIPE partner in the Donbass noted, “Public sector bribes have grown by several times what they were prior to the strife, and not one Grivna [the Ukrainian currency] is going to the budget.” He confirmed that many business owners and heads of banks in the region are being forced to leave their businesses. “Because of roadblocks and military activities, there are just no opportunities to run a business,” he laments.
The pro-European, Kiev-based protests that led to the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovich made Ukraine a hot topic in international news. Yet in many ways, the situation that set international media ablaze in early February is really a much older story.
McDonalds, along with some other international firms, closed its stores in Crimea shortly after the Russian annexation. (Photo: Newsweek)
By Iryna Fedets
Recent events have brought uncertainty to the business community of Crimea, particularly with the approach of summer for a region where the economy depends heavily on Black Sea tourism.
A year ago, businesses in Crimea were active, and optimistic. A report on the investment climate in the regions of Ukraine published by the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting in April 2013 placed Crimea in 4th place among the 27 regions of the country according to their attractiveness for investors.
While corruption and extensive business regulations have been the problems for the whole country, Crimea showed better results than most regions of Ukraine in many aspects. In the sub-category “Absence of corruption,” Crimea held the 4th place nationally, and the 3rd place in the “Administrative procedures” sub-rating. Moreover, business there proved to be the most optimistic in Ukraine as Crimea took the 1st position in the “Business optimism” sub-category.
Now, Crimean businesses are looking to the future with anxiety, not optimism. Some international companies like McDonalds are closing their venues in the region, and local entrepreneurs are left with the limited options of either continuing in uncertainty or selling their business.
Minister of Economic Development Pavlo Sheremeta (left) with CIPE Deputy Director Andrew Wilson (center) and László Kállay, SME expert and Professor at Corvinus University of Budapest (right).
In the weeks following the so-called “EuroMaidan” protests in Kyiv that led to the installation of an interim government and the scheduling of early presidential elections, attention in Ukraine began to turn to the need for urgent measures to jump-start the economy, as well as for a comprehensive set of policy reforms in the medium- to longer-term to get the country on track.
With stagnant growth, large fiscal deficits, and the likelihood that international assistance from the IMF will be predicated on a set of austerity measures, many analysts believe that the only way to stimulate Ukraine’s economy is to support the growth of the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector, which represents just a small fraction of the country’s economy in comparison to the countries of Europe which Ukraine aspires to join.
To help articulate just what changes are needed, and to ensure that that the SME sector has a voice in the policy reform discussion, a group of Ukrainian business associations representing SMEs and leading think tanks organized a national forum to discuss a coordinated strategy for reform on April 8-9 with support from CIPE.
By Iryna Fedets
In Kyiv and in other cities across Ukraine, small and medium-sized businesses were a driving force in the recent protests that resulted in the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovich and the formation of a new Cabinet of Ministers. Entrepreneurs personally participated in the pro-European Union movement, both on the streets and in financing the demonstrations and providing food and medical supplies.
According to a poll conducted in early February 2014, business owners made up about 17 percent of the protesters, although business owners only make up 4 percent of Ukraine’s overall population. Following the 2008 recession, the former government imposed changes in the regulatory and tax structure that increased corruption and raised the burdens on small business, which helped draw them to the streets.
Following months of protest on Kyiv’s Maidan, many Ukrainians have begun to address one another these days not with hello or how are you? Instead, the exchange follows the old saying from the partisan army that fought for an independent Ukraine during World War II: Glory to Ukraine, with the response: Glory to the Heroes!
Yet over the course of the events on the Maidan, a new group of heroes has emerged – everyday people who work in and own kiosks, shops and cafes, who were fighting for right to live in a more open and prosperous country, free of the corruption that has made it so hard to do business in Ukraine.
Indeed, many businesses – often coordinated by business associations – from across Ukraine took part in the Maidan movement, both in Kyiv and in smaller regional demonstrations. CIPE has heard reports that small businesses contributed thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind donations to support people in Independence Square. Business associations provided legal aid to those who were detained or put on local wanted lists for their role in the Maidan.
Given that business associations did not exist during 70 years of Communist rule, and that they are sometimes considered the country’s weakest civil society institutions, they have shown themselves remarkably dedicated and vibrant organizations during these months, capable of uniting across regional divisions. Indeed, recently, 11 new cross-regional coalitions of associations have taken shape.
On Sunday morning, CIPE Program Manager Zoia Tsybrova braved the cool, rainy weather to observe the EuroMaidan protests forming in the center of Kyiv. The Shevchenko building, where the rally was intended to be held, could not hold all the participants, and it did not take long for people to start walking, meeting friends and family, filling the streets of Kyiv. The mood, says Tsybrova, was euphoric. Not only on Sunday but today as well. Three days later, the people are still there, with a mass of students demonstrating still; the good mood remains, with people handing out hot tea and sandwiches to those on the streets. People are still dressed up for the occasion, smiling, walking with Ukrainian and European symbols, with homemade cards, signs, banners, and flags.
What was the impetus of this? The protesters were pushed over the edge by the government’s decision to suspend the pursuit of an association agreement with the European Union (EU). The association agreement could have been signed in Vilnius, Lithuania at the EU Partnership Summit on November 28-29. It is a political and free trade deal that has been on the international community’s radar for a number of months as it offered the possibility to Ukraine to begin integration into the European Union.
The deal’s suspension caused a response that was both unexpected and a turnout that was noteworthy, to say the least. Early estimates have put the number of protesters rallying on Sunday at 100,000. Ukraine has not seen a protest this large since the Orange Revolution in the winter months of 2004 leading into 2005. Following the government’s decision to suspend the pursuit of this agreement with the European Union on November 21, the people have come together in mass rallies again on Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Over the weekend, protests sprung in other cities around Ukraine, too, from east to west.
“But wise is the man who disdains no character, but with searching glance explores him to the root and cause of all.” — Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
Corruption in Ukraine cuts across regions, all sectors of the economy, and almost every institution. In some sense it’s become a rallying point: since everyone is harmed by corruption, CIPE’s private sector-led, collective action approach to anticorruption in Ukraine is based on bringing the business community together to work towards common solutions.
Given that Ukraine’s business associations are among the country’s weakest civil society institutions — such associations did not exist during 70 years of Communist rule — small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are underrepresented nationally in civil society and political life. Despite this fact, Ukrainian public discourse on issues affecting the business community is vibrant and relatively open. This appears to be improving on the regional level, in part through CIPE support of business associations representing SMEs, a little more notably each year. Individual business associations, as well as eight new coalitions of associations, now work collectively at the regional level.