Fight against COVID-19
In Ukraine, the fight against COVID-19 officially began on 3 March 2020 when the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the Chernivtsi region. Initially, the authorities took quite decisive measures, in particular, by launching a broad awareness-raising campaign about safety measures and creating a special fund to combat the epidemic. As of 6 November, UAH 39 billion or 59% of the fund was spent. A “severe” lockdown/quarantine was imposed from 12 March to 3 April, and then extended as an “adaptive” quarantine.
The posts of health minister and chief state sanitary doctor were, perhaps, associated with the “amplest resources” in the country and, at the same time, were the shakiest. Almost all healthcare officials ran the risk of losing their job. They had a multitude of troubles arising from public outcries, such as the one that erupted due to late payments to healthcare workers. Doctors and junior medical staff were promised a 300% bonus to salaries, but not all of them received payments). And then there were the statements made by Chief State Sanitary Doctor Liashko about “achieving a psychological effect” for which public places – parks and gardens – were closed for visits in the spring. Lockdown yielded results. The rate of the spread of COVID-19 in Ukraine was nearly the lowest among the European countries. But, at the same time, the lockdown exhausted its effectiveness, which is why experts began to compare it with “a powerful weapon that can be used only once.”
Moreover, a number of quarantine-related scandals called into question the equality of opportunity and raised the issue of corrupt links between the government and loyal businesses. These affected functioning of building material megastores and restaurants, linked with government officials, amidst the restriction on operations of restaurants, cafés and pubs.
Despite all the measures, as of 18 December, Ukraine ranked 17th in the world in the number of coronavirus cases. The situation with hospital bed occupancy was constantly deteriorating. There were no available beds in some regional centres, and the supply of oxygen necessary for seriously ill patients was insufficient at the end of the year. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Health Minister Maksym Stepanov were mainly blamed for the inefficient use of funds allocated to fight the epidemic and the lack of preparatory work when the spread rate declined from May to September. The money from the COVID-19 Response Fund was spent on the Great Construction programme to improve the road network.
Poor results of the fight against COVID-19 undermined the level of trust in the central government. As evidenced by the 15-17 November 2020 poll conducted by the Rating sociological group, 60% of respondents were dissatisfied with the activities of President Volodymyr Zelensky in this area, and only 35% appreciated his efforts.
One of the most notable events of the year was the autumn constitutional crisis. In late October, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine (CCU), responding to a motion submitted by the members of the Opposition Platform – For Life faction and For the Future parliamentary group, repealed the article of the Criminal Code of Ukraine which criminalises false information in asset declarations. The CCU also declared unconstitutional the powers of the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) to control and verify declarations, have round-the-clock access to the register of declarations and monitor lifestyles. That is, the NAPC was deprived of its main control functions.
The next day, the Agency pointedly closed access to officials’ asset declarations for a wide range of citizens. In its commentary, the NAPC pointed out the conflict of interest of the CCU judges. There was an indication that two CCU judges entered false information. Although the judges’ vote was secret, the NAPC accused these two judges of voting “for” the abolition of powers. In the blink of an eye, hundreds of criminal cases became “suspended,” in particular, against Odesa city mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov over embezzlement of UAH 54 million.
The reaction was outrageous: “This is an anti-state revolt in its purest form in the interests of Kolomoisky and the oligarchs from the Opposition Platform – For Life party as precisely the members of the For the Future group and the Opposition Platform – For Life faction who submitted motion to the CCU,” said Yehor Chernev, a lawmaker from the Servant of the People faction.
Ukraine’s Western partners made it clear that if the crisis is not overcome and, accordingly, one of the main reforms, anti-corruption reform, is abolished, Ukraine may lose support. After all, the adoption of the asset e-declarations law in 2014 was one of the main arguments for the further process of the European Union’s visa liberalisation with Ukraine. Authorities rushed to search for a way out of the crisis: President Zelensky convened a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council, ordering the urgent restoration of access to the e-declarations, which was done. He issued an order to dismiss the CCU judges in the future. In addition, the President submitted a bill to the Parliament to restore criminal liability for false declarations. These offences would be punished with fines and penal custody.
On 4 December, the Verkhovna Rada restored liability by adopting a “compromise” bill based on the presidential one. The Venice Commission brought the situation to a close by releasing its opinion on the CCU’s decision on 10 December. European experts stressed that the decision has significant shortcomings and does not meet the standards of clear justification in constitutional procedures. The Commission recommended that Ukraine should reform the CCU.
The first recommendation was to limit the scope of Constitutional Court decisions. The second was to establish a screening body for candidates for the office of judge of the Constitutional Court, with an international component in a manner similar to other courts. Third, when the conclusion is made that a legal provision is unconstitutional and should be annulled, confirmation from the Grand Chamber upon request by the President of Ukraine or the Parliament should be sought.
The following conclusion can be drawn from this crisis: despite the successful implementation of the reforms proposed by the West, there are still many forces in the country interested in curbing these novelties. Their influence may be so vast that it will reach central authorities, in particular the judiciary.
Local elections were held in Ukraine on 27 October. Despite the extremely low voter turnout of 36.9% – the lowest voter turnout ever in the independent Ukraine, which can only be partially explained by the coronavirus pandemic as the population clearly loses interest in voting – they have become a catalyst for several important processes.
The main one was the de facto victory of local authorities over the “central party apparatus.”
The main heroes of the election were self-nominated candidates, mayors and their political projects: the Successful Kharkiv Bloc in Kharkiv, the Proposal party in Dnipro, the Trust in Deeds party of incumbent mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov in Odesa; and the Ukrainian Strategy party of former prime minister Volodymyr Groysman, which took 34 out of 53 seats of the Vinnytsia City Council.
Small electoral “revolutions” also happened. For example, the era of traditional a “thumping majority” of local government ended in Mariupol town, and the Mykolayiv City Council membership was updated by 85%. Against this background, the results of parliamentary parties were weak. Despite the victorious statements, the Servant of the People Party, which used the mobilisation potential attained during the presidential campaign during the parliamentary elections a year ago, gained not a single mayoral post at the regional centre level, which can be considered a clear victory of local authorities.
Another conclusion: a consensus of local elites actually formed in each region and at the level of cities. This is evidenced by the formation of “coalitions,” non-formalised groups of local council members, with unusual participants. In fact, it is a “solitaire” laid out from local officials who are very indirectly involved in the central apparatus of the parties. For example, the Opposition Platform – For Life party and the European Solidarity party formed the coalition in the Starobilsk Town Council in the Luhansk region, leaving behind the team of MP Serhiy Shakhov, another important participant in local political events. And the situation when the Servant of the People party formed a coalition with the Opposition Platform – For Life party in one local council and with the European Solidarity party in another, explaining the latter choice by impossibility of cooperation with “opposition and pro-Russian forces, was commonplace.
State budget for 2021
The budgeting process was closely linked to the risks Ukraine faced in 2020. The first one was the coronavirus crisis: Health Minister Maksym Stepanov insisted on increasing the Health Ministry spending up to UAH 296 billion. Nevertheless, the final amount is much smaller – UAH 162.68 billion, although there is a 22% increase compared to the budget for 2020. This may suspend the increased payments to medical staff. Doctors currently receive up to UAH 30,000; nurses, up to UAH 21,000. However, they will receive UAH 9,000 and UAH 7,000, respectively, from January 1.
The second risk is the need to balance the budget and reduce its deficit. This requirement was put forward by the Western partners, and it was a necessary condition for obtaining the next tranches from the IMF. By the second reading, the state budget deficit was reduced from 6% to 5.5% of GDP by UAH 24 billion. These parameters were agreed upon with foreign partners. “We propose a balanced budget that does not envisage an increase in taxes for business and, at the same time, provides for better spending on social sphere and medicine,” the Prime Minister explained in his Telegram channel in December.
Despite the large deficit, social expenditures were preserved and even increased in some areas. A gradual increase in pensions is planned throughout 2021. From July, the state will start paying UAH 400 more to pensioners aged 75-80 years. People aged over 90 years will receive a bonus of up to UAH 500.
The macroeconomic indicators of the state budget for 2021 are as follows: revenues – UAH 1.092 trillion (UAH 21 billion added by the second reading); expenditures – UAH 1.347 trillion. The average annual U.S. dollar exchange rate for 2021 is projected at UAH 29.1 per USD 1. The GDP growth is expected at 4.6%, the inflation rate – at 7.3%.
The past year was very difficult for education system workers. Teachers and professors had to master remote teaching strategies during the coronavirus quarantine and conduct external independent evaluation amid the epidemic. The last challenge was the appointment of Minister of Education Serhiy Shkarlet. Part of society has an issue with his professional, moral and ethical qualities.
However, as evidenced by external independent evaluation results, schools performed well in 2020 despite the difficult learning environment. Last year, 91.7% of school graduates passed a test and overcame the threshold score in the Ukrainian language, compared to 84% in 2019. The mathematics test was passed by 87.3% of school graduates, compared to 81.5% in 2019, and the, biology test was passed by 94.5% from 91% in 2019.
Taras Kozub – a journalist and political commentator, an expert of the platform “KyivStratPro”.