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Ukraine OS 2.0: Recent Events as Installation of a New Operating System

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I am 46 years old. The first 23 years of my life I spent in the Soviet Union; the remainder I spent in the United States. I was born and grew up in Ukraine -- in Eastern Ukraine, to be exact. In the underbelly of the Ukrainian Rust Belt, called the Donbass, where people work in ginormous smoke belching factories, eat salted pork fat for breakfast and speak Russian.

That was supposed to be my fate too, pork fat and all, but the Soviet Empire collapsed, I got to study economics at an Ivy League doctorate program and am now a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Spending half of my life in Ukraine sort of qualifies me to offer an opinion about recent events there. Being at MIT, my opinion comes with more than a hint of technology included.

If you are reading this, you have probably already seen plenty of pictures of burning tires, exploding Molotov cocktails, bodies with blankets over them, armed men with covered faces, and, most recently, youthful opposition leaders shaking hands with the heads of great nations. What I see is an installation of a new "operating system," or an OS as they are called in the tech world. An OS is an essential set of common rules that enable different parts of a computer, or in this case society, to interact with each other. Without these rules, a nation state cannot function -- just like your computer cannot function without an OS.

In February 2014, the old Ukraine OS crashed and its main architect fled. That system was an old buggy one with a "command line interface" (think PC-DOS). You type in a command at a blinking cursor and wait for it to be executed. The problem was that the execution of each command required a bribe. By paying bribes to government inspectors, you could stay in business. By paying bribes to educators, you could get a degree. By paying bribes to government bosses, you could keep a job or a get a promotion. By paying bribes to a policeman, a prosecutor and a judge you could stay out of prison.

"Software" programs like fair elections, independent judiciary and transparent government practices were installed, but did not execute on the old Ukraine OS as intended. Elections were rigged through ballot stuffing; auctions for government contracts turned into corruption-feeding schemes; and appointed judges sent opposition figures to prison.

People came to the Maidan (the main square in the capital) in the hundreds of thousands because the architect reneged on the promised OS upgrade (signing an association with the European Union for those who need the specifics). The people fought and won. What they won is a new OS that comes with a "graphical user interface" (think Mac OS). The users -- the people of Ukraine -- can now execute their wishes by clicking on an appropriate "icon" that they can see directly. Now the heads of political parties routinely go to the Maidan to answer questions and explain their programs. The new police minister tweets about what he is doing and answers tweets that he gets. Photos of elected representatives pushing buttons to vote for somebody else are quickly posted online.

Here comes the hard part. As many of you know, installing a new operating system is more often than not a painful and frustrating experience. Installation frequently stalls, there is not enough memory, it crashes mid-way thorough and then nothing is operational -- neither the old, partially deleted system nor the new, partially installed system.

These problems are anticipated and met with the usual fear and resistance. In Eastern Ukraine, for example, the anti-installation folks are symbolically gathering around the statues of Lenin -- the chief architect of the previous "special purpose" operating system that came with no user interface and was abandoned in 1990 (think of stacks of punch cards, if you even remember what those are). Their message: Keep the old OS in place; it works just fine. The problem is that the bribe mode has become so costly that the society has run out of capacity to support it.

What's needed is a fully functional Ukraine OS 2.0 -- a new operating system that could execute common software: free elections, representative government, tried and true laws and regulations. Without it, there is no way forward. The world will continue upgrading its own operating systems, leaving millions of well-educated and hard working people in Ukraine unable to participate.

Ukraine will also need lots of technical help with the installation. While each new installation could be painful, operating systems of governments are installed and upgraded around the world all the time. There is actually quite a bit of knowledge out there about how to do it, what could go wrong, and how to troubleshoot for common errors. So, tons of quality technical assistance to Ukraine is a must. Whatever money Western governments want to spend, a large chunk of it should go to help with the installation. The people of Ukraine will themselves decide which version of the operating system they wish to have, which functionalities they care to use, and what customized features of the user interface they prefer. They just need to be shown what's available and offered help with the installation.

Finally, about the Crimea. It's a Trojan malware program, a virus that was introduced to crash the installation of a new Ukraine OS 2.0. Debug, build a firewall -- and carry on!

Andrei Kirilenko is the Professor of the Practice of Finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His recent academic work is about adapting financial regulations to the Digital Age - somewhat unimaginatively called Financial Regulation 2.0.