As Ukrainian citizens head to the polls to elect their next president on Sunday, 31 March, the causes and consequences of corruption will be top of mind.
In the last few months, several unsavory developments involving top government officials, continued attacks on activists and civil society and increased distrust between citizens and government, present a worrying picture of rampant corruption in Ukraine.
In February 2019, an embezzlement scandal involving the military, Russia and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sparked outrage and protests amongst citizens. In addition, high-level officials, including from the Prosecutor General’s Office, State Security Service and the State Fiscal Service were also implicated. Even worse, media reports highlighted the role of Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency in the cover-up.
In addition, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court recently struck down an anti-corruption law that would have made sure public officials were held accountable for illicit goods and assets they possessed at the expense of the citizens they served. This move to unravel the law significantly undermines the government’s ability to fight corruption.
The reality of corruption in the country is grim. Ukraine scored just 32 out of 100 in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), well below the average global score of 43. Although Ukraine increased its CPI score by two points since last year, its poor track record and apparent backsliding earned Ukraine a place as a ‘country to watch’.
To prevent corruption further undermining democratic institutions it is critical for the Ukrainian government to ensure the independence of institutions and to preserve checks and balances, which are vital to controlling corruption.
Immense anti-corruption challenges await whoever wins the upcoming election, which is widely considered a three-way race between the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor and comedian who has previous “experience” of the Presidency — but only through a role in a hit TV show.
Despite attempts to address systemic corruption over the last decade, including several new anti-corruption agencies with different mandates and functions, the country still has a long way to go in improving its anti-corruption record. While Ukraine has made significant strides to develop the institutional infrastructure necessary to tackle corruption, results vary from agency to agency, with most agencies performing poorly and lacking the necessary independence to carry out their work. Implementation and enforcement also remain incomplete.
The failure of anti-corruption bodies
Although the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the agency tasked with investigating cases of high-level corruption, is up and running, and has already prosecuted around 500 officials for corruption, media reports indicate the NABU director visited privately with President Poroshenko, which significantly jeopardizes his reputation and that of NABU as an independent body. The recent Ukrainian defence scandal also reveals serious flaws in the agency.
Earlier in 2018, the head of another anti-corruption body, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), was involved in a scandal and disciplinary proceedings. The recordings from his office revealed that he warned individuals involved in criminal proceedings about investigative actions, interfered with prosecutors’ activity and gave specific advice to witnesses and suspects on how to avoid punishment. The Qualification and Disciplinary Commission of Public Prosecutors only reprimanded him. Such light punishment significantly damaged SAPO’s reputation.
Similarly, the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC), a preventative body in charge of developing national anti-corruption policies, monitoring political financing and protecting whistleblowers, has also been a source of much controversy and scandal. The agency lacks political independence and credibility; it has yet to make any notable progress or bring about any significant investigations.
In addition, in 2018 the government approved a law to establish the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC), however the judge selection process is ongoing. The court is the judicial system’s missing link, and is vital for completing cases of top-level corruption. The court expects to start work in June 2019.
Together, these newly established institutions form the basis of a solid anti-corruption infrastructure. However, for these anti-corruption bodies to fully exercise their mandate, Ukraine’s leaders need to show consistent and genuine political will. Much of the anti-corruption progress achieved so far has only been possible because of the efforts of civil society and Ukraine’s international partners.
Advocating for an independent court
The adoption of the HACC is a big step forward for the anti-corruption community. Transparency International Ukraine (TI-Ukraine) led the advocacy and awareness campaigns for the HACC from the moment the concept emerged three years ago.
However, we also argued that the HACC be a separate court with independent judges so that it is better able to tackle cases of grand corruption. For the last year, Ukrainian civil society has been tirelessly working to ensure an independent, non-partisan selection process for the new judicial body.
Attacks on civil society
As an unintended side effect of advocacy efforts, civil society in Ukraine is all too often exposed to threats, intimidation and hate speech, and this trend is getting worse.
The world was shocked by the death of anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk in November 2018 following an acid attack. Her tragic death was made worse by the failure of law enforcement agencies to investigate the case in a timely manner, despite the appeals of a broad range of Ukrainian and international actors.
Much more needs to be done to protect activists and secure the space for civil society to operate.
What happens next?
The crowded field of candidates this Sunday make an outright winner unlikely. Whoever eventually forms the next government must demonstrate exceptional political will and pursue constructive engagement with civil society to turn Ukraine into a more transparent country, where the rule of law and human rights are not only respected, but championed. While it may take time to see results, the next government has a unique opportunity to act promptly and restore citizens’ trust in the institutions that protect their interests.
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