Ukraine's new government has a tough task ahead: It must deal with a controversial legacy of governance, improve its image abroad and fulfill plans for EU integration – all while reducing the nation’s dependence on Russian gas.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, center, speaks with lawmakers after he was appointed the Prime Minister during the Ukrainian parliament session in Kiev. Photo: AP

This April, the Ukrainian government once again finds itself in search of a new direction after Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned as a result of public and political pressure. In fact, his legacy is very controversial, with his tenure marked by decreasing standards of living, large-scale corruption scandals and the unfulfilled expectations of ordinary Ukrainians.

All this cannot help but affect the image of post-Maidan Ukraine and became one of the arguments of the Kremlin to discredit the achievements of the 2013-2015 Euromaidan protests. It remains to be seen if the new government headed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s close ally Volodymyr Groysman will be able to tackle the new challenges ahead.

In the early going, Groysman appears very decisive and intransigent toward Russia, as indicated by his Apr. 21 statement that Ukraine “won’t give in” under the pressure of Russia. He described Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine as both an historic and strategic mistake.

Yatsenyuk’s controversial legacy      

The revolutionary euphoria of 2014, Ukraine’s very complicated relations with its neighbor Russia, and the unrest accompanying the military campaign in the eastern part of the country required non-traditional approaches from Ukraine’s leaders, as well as immediate measures to cope with pending problems. At the same time, the new post-Maidan government faced questions of political legitimacy, making its task even more difficult. 

Driven by these events, those Ukrainians who participated in the protests and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych elected Yatsenyuk democratically in the wake of the protests in February 2014. In November he won reelection after the 2014 parliamentary elections, and this newly elected cabinet started working in December 2014. 

Ukrainians had extremely high expectations from Yatsenyuk’s tenure: They wanted to revamp the entire system with rapid structural reforms to create the groundwork for the country’s successful and sustainable development in the future. However, Yatsenyuk failed to shoulder such a heavy burden for several reasons.

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The country was in tatters after the Euromaidan protests and the loss of Crimea, which was exacerbated by the Donbas war and confrontation with Russia. Economically, Ukraine suffered a great deal, especially with regard to the country’s heavy industry. Moreover, a domestic migration challenge loomed on the horizon, as Kiev needed to deal with the flow of wartime refugees to find them shelter and means for living.

This was the reality grim facing Yatsenyuk and his diverse team, which included not only politicians of different parliamentary backgrounds, but also those who, unfortunately, didn’t have much experience in working in the government. In fact, many of them didn’t know well how an effective government should work, which is very important during times of severe crisis. It’s exactly at that moment when the prime minister should look for additional funding or resources to keep the country afloat. 

Another challenge Yatsenyuk faced was - and remains - its energy dependence on Russia, which used its gas as a political tool to pressure Ukraine during the gas wars. These gas wars were a series of disputes between Russian gas giant Gazprom and Ukraine’s oil and gas company Naftogaz that threatened natural gas supplies in some European countries dependent on Russian gas transported through Ukraine.

Actually, Yatsenyuk’s team did relatively well in facing this challenge. Thanks to reverse gas supplies from Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, Ukraine’s energy dependence from Russia decreased ever so slightly.

Another achievement of Yatsenyuk is the boosting of the country’s national security, given the increasing confrontation with Russia. His government increased the defense budget by 5 percent of GDP, which resulted in the growth of military contracts and the revival of the country’s military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, this is where the list of Yatsenyuk’s achievements ends.   

One of his most remarkable failures was sluggish and ineffective reforms, which led to both growing domestic corruption and plummeting of the nation’s living standards. The criticism – domestically and from abroad – increased. This, in turn, put into question the tenability of Ukrainian statehood. Kiev’s foreign partners incessantly mention large-scale corruption within the nation’s top political ranks.

For example, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde stated recently that robust and rigorous anti-corruption initiatives should become Kiev’s top priority. At the same time, Russian authorities point to Ukraine’s corruption to discredit the whole concept of Ukrainian statehood both within and outside of their country. So, in many ways, the resignation of Yatsenyuk was quite expected.

Will Groysman and Poroshenko really work together?

However, the appointment of Grosyman to the position of prime minister has some pundits raising their eyebrows because of his political background and close links to Poroshenko.

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Some highlighted that the very fact that Grosyman is a close ally of the Ukrainian president means that he won’t be independent. This also indicates that Poroshenko takes personal responsibility for all possible successes and failures of the new prime minister.

Meanwhile, other pundits argue that, if the president and his subordinate can get along with other and work as one team, it will be beneficial for the country, given the country’s current economic and political plight. Such experts don’t question Groysman’s political independence and pin their hopes on his readiness to play an independent political game.

However, the new prime minister deals with a much more complicated and challenging situation than in 2014 and will have to address the nation’s economic and political burden with more rigorous tenacity than Yatsenyuk.

The problem is that Groysman has much less time than his predecessor had. He and his team should have enough political will to propose a workable and persuasive program almost immediately. This is the only way to win the favor of Ukrainians who have been fed up with economic woes and may be even more impatient as time progresses.       

Groysman’s top priorities

Corruption remains the major challenge, with local oligarchs contributing to this problem. So Groysman will have to balance the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs, different interest groups, and ordinary Ukrainians.

The new prime minister will also have to look for new creditors and maintain good relations with old ones. Most importantly, he should also keep reducing Ukraine’s energy dependence on Moscow or, at least, find ways of how to deal with the Kremlin to avoid another gas war.

Regarding foreign policy, the appointment of the new prime minister won’t be a game-changer, because Poroshenko is responsible for this issue under the Ukrainian constitution. However, Groysman might influence foreign policy indirectly: What he can do is to improve the image of Ukraine abroad by resolving domestic problems.

If he succeeds, Kiev will earn the trust of its European partners and weaken the Kremlin’s attempts to discredit Ukraine. Thus, Groysman’s domestic reforms could be another step that may bring Ukrainians closer to their European dream. However, it remains to be seen if the new prime minister will be able to succeed.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.