Time for Kyiv to Own Anti-Corruption Agenda

Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist and Ukrainian MP has published the results of an investigation into the wealth of Serhiy Lyovochkin, a fellow MP and a former head of administration for the country’s last president, Viktor Yanukovych. It alleges that this long-term public official’s assets include a €49 million villa on the French Riviera and multiple business interests, none of which have been officially declared.

This is one of many investigations into corruption and embezzlement of public finances by state officials in Ukraine that have appeared in the media in recent years. Yet despite this, most continue to live lavish lifestyles way beyond their declared incomes. Although some criminal cases have been opened against former top officials, practically none resulted in trials or recovery of embezzled funds.

A political issue

The government’s failure to prosecute such cases is a source of frustration for a public asked to bear the brunt of the economic reform, the devaluation of the currency, and the war with Russia. Ridding the country of corruption was a key demand of the Maidan protestors in early 2014 and has resonated in society ever since; 94.4 per cent of Ukrainians identify corruption as among the top three serious issues for Ukraine.

Civil society anticorruption initiatives have emerged on everything from action to prevent bribery by customs service officials to programmes educating pre-school children on why corruption is bad. Anticorruption events draw large crowds. The Anticorruption Forum organized by former Georgian president, now governor of Odessa, Mikheil Saakashvili, brought 6,200 participants to Kyiv with five days’ notice.

Practically all political parties use anticorruption as a rallying point. Even the Opposition Bloc party which provides political shelter to Lyovochkin and other former government officials of questionable reputation speaks regularly about the high levels of corruption.

Progress on anticorruption reform is supervised by the National Reform Council, which brings together representatives from government, civil society and international organizations. The council’s online tracking system shows the status of overall reform, rather optimistically, to be 59 per cent complete (but behind schedule). This is in contrast to a recent public perception survey in which 84 per cent of respondents saw no progress in reform.

Among the milestones reached is the adoption of laws setting up anticorruption institutions and the launch of the National Anticorruption Bureau. Initial steps have been taken to set up the Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office and the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. There are significant improvements in the public access to property registers and public procurement data, and a further law is expected to enforce transparency of party donations.

Questions of will

Despite the government committing to anticorruption reform milestones, reaching them has come primarily as a result of significant pressure on the government by the West and the Ukrainian civil society. This raises the question of whether the government has sufficient will to go through with the reform.

Among the most contentious roles is that of the general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, a close associate of President Petro Poroshenko, who refused to fire Shokin despite calls to do so by civil society and the international community. Shokin appears to be behind repeated attempts to prevent the appointment of independent anticorruption enforcers, squashing the renewal of the general prosecutor’s office and stifling investigations against corrupt former state officials.

Parliament has contributed to undermining anticorruption efforts too. By the time the law on criminal and corrupt asset recovery agency passed through parliament, it had been significantly watered down. And a last-minute amendment to the budget law put at risk the 2016 launch of an e-filing system for income declarations of state officials.

No alternative to reform

Aside from the economic hardships, failure to meet society’s expectations over anticorruption is a key factor in the plummeting approval ratings for the president and prime minister. This raises questions for the political future of the country. As in much of eastern Europe, the political pendulum in Ukraine has historically swung between liberal and illiberal spectrums, and if the current government fails to deliver, the illiberal forces may regain ground in the country.

It is doubtful that the most active part of Ukrainian society − citizens who have risked their lives to topple the Yanukovych regime and defended against Russian aggression – would accept such an outcome. Nor are they likely to look the other way if the government attempts to interfere with open elections. In a society where the war has erased the taboo over violence, both scenarios could be destructive, unless the political elites show a renewed commitment to the anticorruption agenda.

Yulia Andrusiv is a Robert Bosch Fellow at the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham.

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