The birth of the Ukraine Reform Conference (URC)

A group photo with all the ministers involved in the conference.
The photo of the ministerial representatives at the Ukraine Reform Conference on Reforms in Vilnius, 7-8 July 2021. © Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The process of reform in Ukraine hasn't always been straightforward. It began in 2014 under Petro Poroshenko's presidency, but was then held back by the outbreak of armed conflicts on the country's border. The new president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has tried to restart the process, only for hopes to be dashed again – this time by the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to face up to these and other difficulties, the international community has expressed its support via the URC.

Since 2014, there have been numerous attempts at reform in Ukraine, but their implementation has been fraught with difficulty. The first set of reforms that emerged under President Poroshenko aimed to leave the post-Soviet system behind and bring Ukraine as close as possible to the European system.

A number of the reforms aimed to decentralise power, with reforms in the banking, defence, energy efficiency, health and education sectors enjoying definite success. Since 2014, there have been considerable efforts to create new and untainted institutions capable of fighting high-level corruption. However, a progressive loss of popular support (against the background of the military conflict) and increasing competition within the ruling coalition meant that Poroshenko was ultimately unable to dismantle the oligarchic system impeding the economic and political transformation his country hoped to achieve.

Loss of momentum in the reform process

A new dynamic in the reform process emerged when President Zelenskyy came to power and formed a government in August 2019. Zelenskyy passed dozens of laws to restart the reform process, notably reinforcing the power of anti-corruption institutions. As before, however, this fresh drive for reform faltered in early March 2020 with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the reform agenda was forced to make way for economic survival strategies.

This loss of momentum in the reform process was also due to the lack of a clearly articulated reform programme and a strategic vision for the country on the part of the president and government. With no clear vision for the overall reform programme and an absence of political leadership in many sectors, the previously established ecosystem of reforms has been gradually eroded. In the light of these many difficulties, structures have been established to help international and multilateral actors support the reform programme initiated in Ukraine in 2014. One example here is the Ukraine Reform Conference (URC), which took place for the first time in 2017.

Lugano will host the fifth edition of the URC in 2022. It is a significant anniversary for the Conference that offers an opportunity for reflection, as well as marking the first edition since the relaunch phase that followed the COVID-19 public health crisis.

What will be the key features of the Lugano conference?

The fifth Ukraine Reform Conference takes place on 4 and 5 July 2022 in Lugano. It offers the opportunity to position Switzerland as a reliable and supportive partner that is implementing the different thematic strategies contained in its Foreign Policy Strategy 2020–23 in a nearby country that is also one of the Confederation's priority interests.

In the year leading up to the Lugano conference, Switzerland will have the opportunity to make a positive contribution to a process that is of fundamental importance to Ukraine and all the bilateral and multilateral partners involved. The European Union, the United States, international financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, the EBRD and the EIB, as well as the OECD, NATO, the UNDP and the Council of Europe are among the principal partners supporting reform in the Ukraine.

It is worth noting that Lugano is different from the previous host cities in one significant way: unlike previous organisers (the United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada and this year's host, Lithuania), Switzerland is not a member of the European Union or of NATO. This special positioning among Ukraine's partners, as well as Switzerland's long-standing commitment in Ukraine and the credibility it has acquired as a result, allow it to offer a method and agenda that are both new and pragmatic.