The Uphill Battle Against Corruption in Ukraine

Pro-Russian forces remain within Ukraine’s eastern border, and although the fighting is not nearly as bad as last year,  the battle over the future of eastern Ukraine continues. For now, the two sides exist in an uneasy truce as on-again, off-again talks to resolve the conflict peacefully fail; daily ceasefire violations mean that the Minsk II truce agreement signed in February is mostly meaningless. However, the fight against the pro-Russian separatists is not the largest of Ukraine’s problems. Rather, it is Ukraine’s government that is preventing the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution from achieving its goals.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

Ukraine’s government remains massively corrupt, despite the fact that much the anger directed towards the Ukrainian government in the Euromaidan protests of 2014 originated from government corruption. This corruption runs the gamut from paying professors to accept doctoral theses due to low pay to local officials accepting bribes, and at the very top, oligarchs such as Igor Kolomoisky–who stole $1.8 billion from an IMF aid loan–have exacerbated this problem. Due to these developments, and because Ukraine’s lack of reforms, the IMF’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, has threatened to cut off Ukraine’s aid due to lack of progress on reforms. Ukraine’s allies abroad have also become frustrated with Ukraine’s lack of progress, with Vice President Joe Biden delivering an hour-long lecture to the Ukrainian Parliament about renewing anti-corruption efforts. Tellingly, his audience only applauded his line in the speech attacking Russian aggression. Even though the government must worry about its international backers, it has even more to worry about concerning its voters.

Ukrainians are disillusioned with a government they feel has not delivered on the promises it made during the revolution. According to a December 2015 Gallup poll, only 17% of Ukrainians approved of their president’s performance, making him less popular than his predecessor who was chased out of the country. At the same time, only 8% have confidence in the national government, largely because they see its inaction on the country’s rampant corruption. Additionally, nearly 90% of Ukrainians saying corruption in both government and business is widespread, and only 5% say the government is doing enough to fight it.

Ukraine’s leaders are often owners of vast wealth, such as President Poroshenko, who is a chocolate tycoon. Government officials often have close personal ties with the “oligarchs,” or men who have amassed business empires and state-owned companies after the fall of the USSR.  Accordingly, such figures are often unwilling to prosecute their fellow officials for corruption. The worst offender is the General Prosecutor’s office, which even Ukrainian government officials openly admit has been a haven for corruption. However, they are not alone. Ukraine’s Western-trained and Lithuanian born Economy Minister, brought in to tame corruption, recently resigned because of the corruption he encountered after being pressured to perform patronage hiring for senior government officials. Clearly the situation in Ukraine is difficult, with reformers fighting against a decades-old and deeply entrenched way of governing and doing business. How will Ukraine escape from this mess?

As tempting as it is to cut Ukraine’s aid off due to their lack of progress, this will not happen soon, and it should not happen. There are sincere efforts by actors in Ukraine’s civil society to fight corruption, and they need all the resources they can get while they also struggle against armed rebellion and a devastating economic recession. A recent piece by Josh Cohen contended Ukraine should appoint an international body with wide powers to prosecute corruption, similar to the body formed to clean up Guatemala’s politics which was so effective that its president resigned, was subsequently arrested, and then charged with corruption. Cohen’s proposed body would be even more powerful than Guatemala’s because it would have power to prosecute government officials, an indication that Ukraine’s judiciary is unfortunately just as bad as the rest of the government. Ultimately, the question of who will watch the watchmen must be answered if Ukraine is to become a stable, democratic, and economically prosperous country. The level to which corruption is entrenched will require radical solutions to achieve this aim.

Faced with a political establishment that practices corruption and often seems more concerned with political infighting than solving the country’s many problems, Ukrainians are unhappy and growing more restive. To prevent new protests against the government that would be reminiscent of the Euromaidan, and to ensure that Ukraine continues its progress towards democracy, the government needs to take decisive action and clean up its act. Western assistance in terms of both economic and military aid is necessary to assist Ukraine in fighting external enemies and recover from a crippling recession. Moral support is another way the West can help Ukraine move through this challenging time. However, Ukrainians must also reckon with a corrupt elite that has shown more interest in lining their pockets than improving their country. Ukraine has many challenges ahead, but the immense fortitude and sacrifice endured by its people give me confidence that better days will come.

Joseph Cifrino

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