WASHINGTON - Just over a week ago, the dramatic resignation of Ukraine's respected economy minister, Aivaras Abramovicius - and his accusation that the country's leaders continue to tolerate corruption - led many Western analysts and officials to call for non-political technocrats to play an expanded role in Ukraine's government.
True, technocrats such as Abramovicius, Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, Infrastructure Minister Andrii Pivovarsky, and others are among the most capable officials in Ukraine. They entered politics after the Maidan Revolution, so are untainted by the corruption that has long polluted Ukrainian politics. Each came from the private sector, bringing managerial capability and new ideas into Ukraine's sclerotic bureaucracy. So it is easy to see why many people in the West think that empowering people like them is the best way to improve Ukraine's government.
Yet calls to give technocrats more power misdiagnose the true problem, and may even make it worse. The root reason that Ukraine remains corrupt is that the country's democracy does not work. Election results do not reflect the will of the people. Nearly all of Ukraine's political parties are funded by shady oligarchs, the chief sponsors and beneficiaries of corruption schemes. Half the seats in the Verkhovna Rada are elected from single mandate districts in which elections are regularly bought and sold. The oligarchs have bought members of parliament in every party, so it is impossible to vote the oligarchs out of power.
Calls for more powerful technocrats - and for further separating policymaking from politics - miss this point. Technocrats might guarantee the implementation of specific measures in the short-run. But because they lack legitimacy and political power, non-partisan leaders will fail to transform Ukraine's governance and political culture. For that, you need the support of voters.
The West's embrace of technocratic governance in Ukraine is particularly ironic given its track record in other European countries. At the height of Europe's debt crisis in 2011 and 2012, for example, EU leaders encouraged the formation of non-partisan technocratic governments in Italy and Greece. Both countries faced challenges not unlike Ukraine's: severe economic difficulties, political turmoil, and a long history of failing to grapple with their problems.
In Italy, Mario Monti, a former academic and EU official, was named prime minister in 2011, with European elites hoping that he could reboot Italy's economy and shield it from the storms in sovereign debt markets. In Greece, meanwhile, Lucas Papademos, a central bank official, formed a government backed by the center-right and center-left, and promised to pass the painful reforms that the EU wanted.
Both of these experiments failed. Papademos was tossed out after just half a year, and Monti held on for only slightly longer. Both were capable placeholders, but neither achieved anything significant. They lacked the legitimacy and the political acumen to assemble coalitions in support of the reforms their countries needed. Indeed, when Monti took the reins of a political party after serving as the "non-political" prime minister, his party was clobbered at the next election.
The failure of other European technocratic governments holds lessons for Ukraine. Rather than putting its weight behind unelected technocrats, the West would be wiser to focus on making Ukraine's electoral system more accountable to the country's long-ignored voters. Today it is impossible for them to vote against corruption, since the oligarchs have bought seats in every party. Democracy will only work if this stranglehold is broken.
Ukraine needs capable technocrats staffing its ministries and managing its central bank. But if reforms are to deepen and persist, the country also needs a popular political movement in favor of reform, a movement with the legitimacy to take on powerful opponents. That is not something a technocrat can deliver.