The View From Here: Pragmatism vs. Idealism

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Volodymyr Kish.

I have been following an interesting debate in the social media these past few months between those who claim that the current Ukrainian government led by President Poroshenko is a complete failure and a betrayal of the Maidan, and those who defend the current leadership, saying essentially that, though they may not perfect, they have made as much progress as is possible under very difficult circumstances, and any alternatives would be far worse.

Which side is right depends very much on whether you view events in Ukraine from a pragmatic or an idealistic perspective. If you are an idealist, you will perceive that the current regime has failed to carry out many of the promises that were made on the Maidan. Anti-corruption efforts have not been aggressively pursued. The power of the oligarchs and their control of the country’s economic and political sectors has not been curbed. The judicial and prosecutorial structures remain unreformed and discredited. The facilitators and collaborators of the pillaging carried out by former President Yanukovich have not been tried and jailed, and the hundreds of billions stolen have not been recovered. Poroshenko has not divested himself of his business interests as promised. The list can be extended considerably further.

On the other hand, the pragmatists can justifiably point to many significant accomplishments and progress that has been made over the past three years. The economy has stabilized, and Ukraine is in reasonable financial shape. The armed forces, which were in a state of complete disarray and incompetency after the Maidan, have been rebuilt and reformed to the point where they are able to keep the powerful Russians at bay in the Donbas. Ukraine has been able to wean itself off its destabilizing and corrupting dependency on Russian gas. The educational, health, procurement and policing sectors have been cleaned up and are well on their way towards meeting European standards. The bureaucracy surrounding business creation and startups has been streamlined considerably. Ukraine’s foreign policy has become focused and consistent, and good headway has been made in terms of strengthening ties with the European Union and NATO. This list too can be continued easily.

So is the glass half full, or half empty? The answer of course, is both. When the corrupt and corrosive regime of President Yanukovich was finally ousted, almost every aspect of Ukraine’s existence as a nation was in shambles, and there was an incredibly long “to do” list identified that would have to be implemented to resuscitate it as a viable nation state. Is Ukraine there today? Not really. Has it made good progress towards that end? If you look at things objectively, probably.

The next question one must ask regardless of whether you are an idealist or pragmatist, is whether there is anyone else on Ukraine’s political scene that could do a better job. The next elections for the Presidency and the Verkhovna Rada in 2019 are just over a year away. A cursory assessment of the current leading contenders for President does not exactly give one hope that there are better, more competent white knights waiting in the wings. Recent polls have been consistent in pointing out the waning popularity of Poroshenko who has sunk below the 20% support level, yet there is no attractive contender to inspire those hungering for real change. Perennial pretender Yulia Tymoshenko still harbors hope of becoming President, and is currently ahead of Poroshenko in the polls, but she too is cut from the same oligarchic cloth as Poroshenko, and has too much historical baggage to be viewed as any kind of improvement, and in all likelihood would prove far worse as President. Saakashvili might have given Poroshenko a run for his money, but he has been outmaneuvered by Poroshenko before the race has even begun and made ineligible to run. The rest of the field is marginal and fragmented – Sadovyi, Groysman, Boyko, Lyashko, Savchenko, Hrytsenko, Rabinovich. They serve only to dilute the vote and make it easier for the major contenders to manipulate their way into office.

I should note that there is a dark horse contender that could make things interesting. There is a popular grass roots movement to persuade Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the popular lead singer of Ukraine’s top rock group “Okean Elzy”, former deputy in the Verkhovna Rada and community activist, to run for the Presidency. So far, he has indicated that he is not interested in doing so, but his supporters remain hopeful that he may change his mind. If he does, he would certainly present a fresh anti-establishment face and would likely garner strong support with many Ukrainians that are tired and disillusioned by the current political establishment.

To get back to the original dialectic between idealism and pragmatism, it is true that history has consistently proven that human nature being what it is, it is impossible to implement an ideal social or political state or even a reasonable approximation within any reasonable period of time, if ever. This of course should not imply that we should refrain from attempting to do so. We should however, accept the fact that it is a long and complicated process. We should always continue to set ambitious and challenging targets, and never be satisfied with results that are short of the goal. At the same time, we need to accept a certain amount of pragmatism, recognizing our limitations as human beings collectively, without losing hope and the motivation to keep pressing ahead. The key to success is to find the right balance between idealism and pragmatism.

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