Ukraine’s fight against corruption

While straining against Russia on the front lines, Ukraine must continue to deal with corruption, a major problem of the country for decades.

In just a few days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the dismissal of a series of advisers, deputy ministers, prosecutors and regional leaders. State media reported that at least three officials were fired in connection with the corruption scandal. Ukrainian anti-corruption forces arrested an official on charges of accepting bribes.

“We will never go back to the way we were before, to the way of life that officials are used to, to the old way of running after power,” Zelensky said in a video on January 22, as he announced the start of the reform process. apparatus group.

Protesters set off flares outside Ukraine's parliament in Kiev in June 2020 calling for the interior minister to resign over suspicions of corruption.  Photo: AFP.

Protesters set off flares outside Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev in June 2020 calling for the interior minister to resign over corruption allegations. Photo: AFP.

After Ukraine declared independence in 1991, then US President George HW Bush visited Kiev and encouraged the country to adopt a free market model. However, this has led to political cronyism, with “backdoor” deals manipulating power in the country, according to Ukraine’s and international anti-corruption watchdogs.

“Everything was like the Middle Ages,” said Vasyl Zadvornyy, former chief executive officer of Prozorro, Ukraine’s public procurement agency. Many international monitoring groups have called Ukraine one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

In 2014, when then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a major deal with the European Union (EU), millions of people took to the streets demanding government reforms. The movement then turned into a demonstration that toppled the government, leaving Yanukovych deposed and forced to flee to Russia.

“The extent of the damage that corruption did to the country at that time was very clear,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, dean of the Kiev School of Economics, of the violent protests during the “Maidan movement”.

Soon after, the separatist movement in Donbass, eastern Ukraine broke out. Fighting between Russian-backed separatists and government troops lasted for eight years, before Russia launched its military campaign in Ukraine. According to Mylovanov, the Maidan movement shows how much corruption has weakened Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.

“The security agencies did nothing to respond. They simply did not have the capacity,” he commented. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 with almost no firing. Ukraine’s military capacity was then nearly exhausted, after years of embezzlement and bad arms procurement.

In 2015, Zadvornyy worked with activists, software programmers and the Ukrainian government to create an entirely new public procurement system called Prozorro, which means “transparent” in Ukrainian. All elected and appointed officials must declare all their assets, or face heavy fines.

“Our access to registries is much larger than that of the US,” said Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the Ukraine Action Center Against Corruption, a Kiev-based NGO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in the city of Lviv on January 11.  Photo: AFP.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in the city of Lviv on January 11. Photo: AFP.

By 2016, Ukraine’s parliament had forced businesses and government agencies to use Prozorro and released thousands of details from each transaction. Even a school district in a rural area, when buying a pencil, had to declare its intended use, competitive price, and contact information for both the buyer and the seller.

This system became very popular in the business community, because for the first time in Ukraine’s history, fair market principles were guaranteed, Zadvornyy stressed.

However, Western countries still call on Ukraine to do more.

“It is not enough to pass legislation to increase transparency regarding official sources of income,” Joe Biden, then vice president of the United States, told a session of Ukraine’s parliament in 2015. He promised to provide a $190 million aid package to help Ukraine fight corruption.

Still, the additional reforms Biden and the EU wanted to see in Ukraine, such as better enforcement of overt anti-corruption policies, never materialized.

When the sheet New York Times In 2016, when criticizing Ukraine for its incomplete anti-corruption, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused the newspaper of siding with Moscow against Kiev. Then, during the 2019 presidential campaign, he repeatedly claimed that allegations of corruption had distracted the government from defense matters. In the end, Poroshenko lost to rival Volodymyr Zelensky.

When Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine last February 2022, Kiev suspended the transparency requirements due to national security concerns.

In the following months, civilian expenditures began to be updated back into Prozorro’s database, but military purchases remained secret. This prompted some watchdogs, including a group of US congressmen, to demand that the Ukrainian government ensure transparency even in times of war.

“The only way to restore trust is to be as tough as possible,” Shabunin of the Anti-Corruption Action Center said of the government’s recent moves to fire senior officials. “We have many problems, but we are on the right track and know how to do it. That’s why I’m still optimistic.”

For now, this also seems to be the EU’s general assessment of anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.

When the 27-nation bloc accepted Ukraine’s candidacy in June 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the recent reforms Kiev had implemented.

Ukraine “has achieved a lot, but of course there is still a lot of important work to be done,” von der Leyen stressed.

Vu Hoang (Theo NPR)

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