“I am in Kyiv,” writes Jaroslav Romanchuk, “doing all I can to fight the war against the Russian aggressor on the one hand and against Marxists, socialists and Big Government advocates inside Ukraine. It is clear and obvious when the fight is against the Russian Nazi forces. It is different when you challenge Ukrainian bureaucrats, inspectors, ministers and other Leviathan servants.”
Jaroslav Romanchuk is an Objectivist from Belarus. He was a tireless promoter of freedom in that country and throughout Eastern Europe. He fled Belarus for Ukraine in 2021 when authorities in the Lukashenko government invaded his apartment and threatened prison. He is now dealing with the two-front war he describes: externally, the Russian invasion; internally, the Ukrainian government’s control of the economy.
The progress of the war is daily news. The internal battle for economic freedom is rarely covered. For the prospects of Ukraine as a free country, however, it is at least as important as repelling the Russian invaders.
Jaroslav attended TAS Summer Seminars as a student in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he has many friends in our organization. (For more background, see Robert Bidinotto’s interview: “Europe's Last Dictatorship: An Interview with Jaroslav Romanchuk.”) When the war began last spring, The Atlas Society helped raise funds for Jaroslav and his family. With our help and that of others, we are glad to report that his family is safe in Poland, where he recently joined them for the holidays. He is now back in Kyiv, continuing his tireless battle for a future of freedom, including work on a new book, Ukraine: New West, making the case for a free-market capitalism alternative for Ukraine (as described below).
Jaroslav was awarded the Best Freedom Advocate of 2021 from the Ayn Rand Center Ukraine, an organization funded by Carl Barney’s Prometheus Foundation, and this month he gave three lectures to students at the Center (starting on Rand’s birthday, February 2).
What follows are edited excerpts of his reports from the front.
Ukraine is a country of overwhelming corruption, exploited in particular by politically connected oligarchs. The country has weak institutions to ensure the rule of law, limited protection of property rights, and heavy government control of the economy. On the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, Ukraine ranks at 130, ahead of China but behind Russia. According to the most recent Rule of Law Index-2022 (World Justice Project), Ukraine ranks 76th out of 140 countries. That’s better than China (95) or Russia (107). But Ukraine is much lower than those countries on the International Property Rights Index-2022: the 105th position out of 129. And it is far behind other European countries and the US on all these measures.
Russia was a cause of these problems by corrupting institutions, integrating spies, and forming a toxic network of soft power permeating many bodies of Ukrainian power and public institutions. But the mainstream West is also responsible, by recommending heavy government interventionism instead of free-market capitalist solutions.
Russia’s attacks on the energy infrastructure last fall have had a terrible effect. Problems with electricity might be fewer and not that stressful if Ukrainian authorities had reformed the electricity sector. Unfortunately, it is still mostly owned and controlled by the government. In addition, some parts of the energy system are owned by oligarchs who enjoy their monopoly power and block meaningful reforms. There is still too much Soviet-style control.
The energy sector is just one of many where Ukrainian Marxists and socialists prevail. They hold almost all meaningful positions in the government (Cabinet of Ministers), the parliament (Verkchovna Rada), and Office of the President. When the war began, they restored the pre-war mode of taxation and regulation. It means that the system of overwhelming government intervention is back.
The results: Even before the war, Ukraine was the poorest country in Europe ($4,862 GDP per capita in 2021). Labor productivity was 5–8 times lower than in the European Union. In 2021, export of goods and services per capita was a mere $1,713 compared to $9,000 in Poland, $15,600 in Lithuania and $105,800 in Ireland.
There is a clear danger of preserving the old economic model. Unfortunately, international organizations (IMF, World Bank, UN, OECD) as well as international consulting companies (McKinsey, Boston Consulting, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, etc.) strongly favor the model of Big Government. They lure Ukrainian policy makers with international aid packages, grants, and corporate welfare programs that block a free-market agenda. This syndicate of international and Ukrainian VIP-interventionists is the biggest threat to Ukraine’s successful development after the war.
There is one unique factor that most Western observers and Russian schemers got wrong: the Ukrainian people’s love of freedom. It is the element of the culture, and the moral code of ordinary Ukrainians, that was ignored by the Russian aggressor and those who feared him. Since becoming an independent country in 1991, Ukrainians got rid of the corrupt rulers twice: the so-called Orange revolution of 2004/05 and the Revolution of Dignity 2014/15. In both cases Ukrainians demanded freedom.
Unfortunately, Ukrainians paid little attention to forming an influential intellectual force to systemically support ideas of capitalism and free markets. The political field here is not structured around ideas and values but around individual politicians and oligarchs. If you praise and support one position/point of view/legislative proposal because it is right, people start suspecting you of being a part of a clan/group. So, the intellectual battle is intense, time- and nerve-consuming. Meanwhile, intellectual and cultural elites—the nomenklatura, the international and local schemers and oligarchs—cheated the people, offering them a dangerous “third way” instead of capitalism based on full-fledged political and economic competition.
In response to the Russian invasion, however, volunteer paramilitary units formed a powerful network of resistance to the aggressor. The army and the government saw this national unity and became a part of it. The government would have never made it without the huge wave of enthusiasm of the people. In spite of economic difficulties and social constraints, the deterioration of living conditions, and a growing number of war casualties, Ukrainians are determined to win the war and free their country. For them it is the war for the right to exist. Hence the numerous attempts by European and American politicians to urge that Ukraine start negotiations with Russia—while it occupies about 20% of Ukraine’s territory, kills and tortures civilians, and destroys our energy infrastructure—are perceived by Ukrainians as giving in to evil.
Ukraine is where the future of freedom is being decided, being fought for.
After massive attacks on the energy infrastructure beginning in October and November, everyday life in Kyiv and in Ukraine in general changed. Every day is filled with uncertainty. You get up and do not know whether you have water, electricity, and communication. Schedules of switching off electricity are not accurate as Russians attack Ukraine every day; predicting electric generation and grid infrastructure is impossible. That is why people have different reservoirs to keep “technical water” (for toilet, washing dishes etc.) and big bottles with drinking water. Power banks are another hot item, to store electricity when it is on. Some cafes and houses bought electricity generators to ensure at least some time of normal operation. Once I got stuck in the metro for about four hours. During the air strikes (drones, missiles) shops and public transportation do not work.
When electricity is off very often mobile phones and internet slow down considerably or do not work at all as servers cannot hold the sharp increase of the load. So, every time we set meetings, interviews or events we keep warning each other, “if there is electricity.” In the atmosphere of such disruptions, business cannot function normally. Production processes are disrupted. Corporate planning is a very challenging task. Supplies and logistics are under constant tension. You can hardly plan investment.
Food supply in Kyiv and the parts of the country where there is no military fighting is regular. In addition, small market places operate where people sell their food stuff.
There are many facts and data showing how devastating the Marxists’ system of overwhelming government intervention was for Ukraine. In my book Ukraine: New West, I make the case for a free-market capitalism alternative for Ukraine covering theoretical issues, the analysis of the 30 years of transition after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the program for systematic reforms. The book is being edited and prepared for publication. It is the first comprehensive Liberal Agenda for Ukraine. My reform proposals are firmly based on Objectivism and the Austrian School of Economics.
The book is being translated into Ukrainian, and I am planning a tour to promote it in Ukraine. It is my hope to one day have it published in Polish and English; I am trying to find resources for those versions. It would be very important to have this book in English as it contains many valuable recommendations for all developing and emerging countries.
I presented the Program “Ukraine—New West” to all bodies of power including the Office of the President. Unfortunately, the people who are responsible for the economic policy are predominantly keepers of the old model. However, there are a few supporters of genuine capitalism. So I keep supplying them with “intellectual ammunition” to fight against Big Government advocates and stakeholders. Daily I write short and long analytical materials, make video programs, participate in internet streams and programs.
One day I got a call from the chairman of a security organization. We had a 4-hour meeting discussing various aspects of economic development and reforms. They asked me to draft a kind of Declaration of Independence for Ukraine and a strategy for its long-term development. As I was told, President Zelensky does not like the documents from IMF and his own government. He wants something different—more radical and freedom-oriented. So, they asked me to give them my proposals. I understand that it is just a tiny chance in the environment of mainstream ideologies, but maybe I will have a chance to present a free-market alternative to the president in Spring.
I started holding educational and advocacy events called “business lunches.” They are aimed at promoting the Liberal Agenda (classical liberalism) among entrepreneurs. Each Friday we discuss different aspects of current economic policies in Ukraine and the world with Ukrainian libertarians. My YouTube channel (Common Sense Economics) gained over 19 thousand subscribers during 2022. There are over 180 video programs there. I make about 5 programs a week. I also post regularly to Facebook with extended analyses of economic issues.
All these activities are on top of the regular meetings with members of the parliament, the government, and the business community on different draft laws, regulations and initiatives in the sphere of economic policy.
I had two meetings with representatives of territorial-defense people who directly take part in fighting the Russian aggressor. They want to know more about the Liberal Agenda; they often told me that they would not let the old system back. Hence there is obviously a window of opportunity for Objectivism and the Liberal Agenda as the philosophical foundation and the practical model to start building true capitalism in Ukraine.
There is another new initiative that I got involved in. A group of businessmen and civic activists set up an organization to promote freedom and capitalism. The founders are planning to turn it into a political party to run for the parliament after the war. They asked me to be their intellectual guardian angel, as it were. They call me “our Ayatollah for Liberalism”😊. So we will restore our economic salons, weekend seminars and other educational and media events. I am planning to coordinate their activities with youth who are involved in Ayn Rand and free-market activities.
I hold lectures on Ayn Rand applying Objectivism to modern life situations. The Ayn Rand Center in Ukraine (https://www.aynrandcenterukraine.org/) unites young people with different backgrounds but with the desire to change the culture and the mindset of Ukrainians from collectivism to Objectivism. I do my best to share my knowledge with them. It is great that Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and Anthem are translated into Ukrainian. Rand’s novels are getting more and more popular.
It is becoming a good tradition to gather bright, active representatives of the Ukrainian freedom movement. This is not an organization, not a vertical structure. This is an informal network of people united with a common goal—to make Ukraine a country of political, civil and economic freedom. Everyone in his field expands the demand for ideas, theory and practices of freedom. Everyone in their own way takes away space from the forces of Marxism, Bolshevism, mysticism, and blind faith in the State.
I am honored to be a part of this movement. Thank you, friends, for your support, the energy of your hearts, your ideas, and creative minds. Together we are stronger. Together we will make the Ukraine of our dreams faster. The country of will, freedom, reason and kindness.
Together for the victory. Glory to Ukraine!
The Ukrainian people are engaged in a brave effort to maintain their independence as a country. But their independence will be insecure until they achieve freedom for individuals. Freedom takes commitment, and commitment takes understanding. Jaroslav is waging his own battle for that understanding—a battle that is brave in its own right, thoughtful, and, so far, effective. We salute his effort and wish him well.