Ukraine: Priorities for the Next Government

No time for victory laps.

It is a little early for anyone to be taking victory laps in Ukraine. As I warned last week, Viktor Yanukovych's departure from Kyiv would not be the end of the affair. Over the next several days and weeks, any interim governing authority will face major challenges that will have to be met if Ukraine is to get through this crisis.

Television cameras have focused most of their attention on what was happening in the Maidan, but Ukraine is far more than its capital city. Indeed, what has been happening since Friday can be understood as the continuing tug of war between Ukraine's two secondary capitals—L'viv in the west and Kharkiv in the east (L'viv, once the center of a medieval principality, was capital of the short-lived Western Ukrainian People's Republic; Kharkiv, originally founded in 1654 to provide refuge for pro-Russian Cossacks fleeing Polish rule, served as the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). When the initial agreement was signed between Yanukovych, the opposition and EU mediators (although the Russian representative declined to endorse the final text)—providing for Yanukovyuch to retain the presidency in the short term but to appoint a national unity government and to hold presidential elections later in 2014—it was denounced in the western portion of the country and did not satisfy the protesters in Kyiv itself—who wanted Yanukovych to be removed immediately. In turn, when Yanukovych departed Kyiv, he left for Kharkiv, which was hosting a meeting of politicians representing the more-Russia-leaning southern and eastern regions of the country.

So far, the talk about separatism has been muted—the theme of the Kharkiv conclave was about maintaining a united Ukraine. Many of the politicians, Rada members and local leaders who were part of Yanukovych's "Party of Regions" have repudiated his leadership and have accepted that he and some of his close associates should be held responsible for the violence which engulfed the capital in the last several weeks. But the challenge is now whether or not the opposition is willing to move forward with an "inclusive transition"—something which may be difficult in the winner-take-all, zero-sum approach to Ukrainian politics, particularly when many in the opposition will have scores to settle with Yanukovych's ruling coalition and who will be looking to defeat rather than collaborate with. The revocation of a controversial language law that allowed districts of the country to raise "minority languages" to coequal official status with Ukrainian—permitting effective bilingualism in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern sections of the country—could reopen old divisions and fault lines that Viktor Yanukovych helped to exploit in managing his political resurrection after the 2004 Orange Revolution to become prime minister in 2006.

The interim government also needs to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not everything done by the Yanukovych government was bad, and in particular, the new team should avoid jeopardizing the energy contracts that the Yanukovych team negotiated for developing Ukraine's offshore hydrocarbon reserves and its shale gas potential; delays in getting these projects started further slows the absolutely essential effort to make Ukraine more energy independent and less dependent on Russian supplies. Moving ahead with the proposed operating agreement that was to be signed with Chevron in March to start work on shale gas projects in Western Ukraine would send an important signal about continuity which would reassure foreign investors that contracts will be honored.

Much depends on whether leaders are prepared to make the case to Ukrainians about the need for "blood, sweat and tears" in the coming months and years. It was continuously disheartening to read media accounts of statements being made by Maidan protesters who believed that visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union or indeed even full membership in the EU was just around the corner, or that a massive EU financial assistance package would be waiting once Yanukovych was driven from power. Visiting EU (and U.S.) officials who pledged (rhetorical) support did little to dissuade these impressions. But the association agreement that Yanukovych ultimately balked at signing—in part because many of its provisions would challenge the way things are done in Ukrainian politics and business—will cause short-term pain. Having Ukrainians endorse it—and perhaps the EU agreement should be sent to a national referendum to get popular buy-in—is absolutely necessary.