The war in eastern Ukraine is the country’s most high profile crisis. But it is also battling another major, but much less visible, catastrophe: the large scale emigration overseas of its workforce. This loss of human capital threatens Ukraine’s economic development, its continued democratic consolidation and even its future stability.
This “brain drain” is a serious challenge that must be addressed if the country is ever to thrive. But can new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his proposed reforms aimed at tackling corruption offer hope?
The flight of highly skilled professionals from developing countries is a widespread and devastating problem. Research shows that it can damage the economy, trigger sociopolitical instability, and lead to weak institutions. Meanwhile, it has been shown that corruption is one of the biggest drivers of skilled migrants from developing to developed countries.
In Ukraine, much of the brain drain can be traced to a lack of job opportunities, the ongoing war in the Donbas region, and the failure of the country’s politicians to rein in corruption. Indeed, some studies suggest that it is one of the main problems facing modern Ukraine.
Despite the impact of this human capital flight, the country’s political elite has long overlooked the phenomenon. Proposed action by Zelensky, however, seems to offer a glimmer of hope for the country’s beleaguered youth.
According to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) poll, Zelensky was by far the most popular presidential candidate among the country’s youngest voters (those aged 18-29). His victory, then, may do much to keep the country’s young talent in Ukraine, and may also encourage those who have already migrated to return.
Ukrainians living abroad clearly feel strongly about their homeland. In fact, a recent survey of Ukraine’s migrant workers revealed that 60% want to go back home. This is only likely to happen, however, if they feel that meaningful improvements have been made and there are opportunities waiting for them on their return.
While the new administration’s ability to make this possible will only become apparent with time, Zelensky’s team has put forward a number of reforms specifically aimed at tackling corruption that are especially popular among the country’s young adults. The proposed reforms also carry important implications for Ukraine’s attractiveness to foreign and domestic investors.
The reform agenda
Corruption is a major issue in Ukraine and has been one of the main factors in driving skilled workers out and impeding the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors. The new administration promises to tackle the issue by first and foremost abolishing MPs’ parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This has traditionally been one of the major factors driving political corruption. The move would be an important first step in improving Ukraine’s image and creating a more hospitable climate for meaningful economic development.
The judiciary is also in major need of reform – and Zelensky’s team has highlighted that cleaning it up is a top priority. The new administration appears to be deeply aware of the need for these reforms if Ukraine is to grow economically and develop closer relationships with the West.
Zelensky has also declared that his team is ready to investigate the controversial ruling of Ukraine’s highest court on the issue of illicit enrichment. Specifically, the ruling deemed that a law on illicit enrichment violated presumption of innocence and was therefore removed from the criminal code. The court’s decision was viewed both in Ukraine and internationally as a major setback for the country’s efforts to abolish corruption, and led to widespread public disapproval of former president Petro Poroshenko.
Zelensky has promised to maintain the country’s course towards NATO and European Union (EU) membership, a clear sign that he wishes to appeal to young talent and overseas investors.
Indeed, even before winning the election, Zelensky recognised brain drain as a significant problem, which he hopes to tackle through reforms that could help make Ukraine less corrupt and more prosperous. If successful, there is a real chance that the country’s youngest voters will be inclined to stay and contribute to Ukraine’s long-term development.
But the new administration needs to move quickly and deliver on its campaign promises in order to set the tone for the rest of Zelensky’s presidential term. So far, the proposed reforms aimed at purging corruption and fostering a more favourable investment climate, paired with young voters’ enthusiasm for the new president are cause for optimism – although former comedian Zelensky’s political credentials remain to be seen. Either way, millions will now be hoping that this optimism is realised in the long run.