Reassessing Ukraine’s ‘failed’ anti-corruption reforms

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You probably saw stories last week about Daria Kaleniuk. The co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine fled Kyiv and appeared at a March 1 press conference in Warsaw. There she confronted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the West’s weak response to the Russian invasion and the darlings of Russian oligarchs.

Ten weeks earlier, as Russian forces prepared for war, she had another message: Although Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms have yet to bring its oligarchs to justice, the grassroots transparency campaign that started half a decade earlier has nonetheless brought Ukraine closer together “more than ever”. before becoming a model of successful democracy in action.

“This is exactly what the autocratic regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin fears.”

Kaleniuk wrote these words with co-author Olena Halushka, board member of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, in an article for Foreign Police published mid-December 2021 (“Why Ukraine’s Fight Against Corruption Scares Russia”).

Hearing the praise for Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms was surprising. From the outside, the reforms looked like a failure. If new laws and special courts couldn’t hold the Ukrainian oligarchs accountable, the battle was lost, right?

False, according to Kaleniuk and Halushka. This view is too simplistic and misses the real story of Ukraine. Look beyond the oligarchs, and you find a populist movement for “radical openness” that has transformed the country and, as Kaleniuk and Halushka see it, frightened Putin and his cronies. If citizen transparency can transform Ukraine, it could also happen in Russia.

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After the Dignity Revolution forced kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych to flee Ukraine in February 2014, local anti-corruption forces saw an opening and pushed hard.

They have created a new “anti-corruption architecture” by digitizing as much state-controlled information as possible and opening it up to the public. Online databases of real estate, vehicle, land and company registries, as well as public procurement information, reduce waste and opportunities for corruption.

Another initiative requires civil servants to submit electronic asset declarations every year, declaring their income and assets and those of their family members. Since 2016, around one million public officials have filed annual declarations, giving journalists and other investigators a powerful tool to expose corrupt officials.

Reformers in government, civil groups and international partners have also created Ukraine’s first national public database of politically exposed persons, their relatives and relatives. As of December 2021, the PEP database had 48,000 individuals and over 30,000 affiliated legal entities. “Ukrainian and international financial institutions, as well as law enforcement, use this information for due diligence measures and to investigate suspicious transactions,” Kaleniuk and Halushka said in their December post.

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The landslide election in 2019 of the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is one way to understand the broad public support for such a “radical openness”. Why would a country fighting corruption elect a 41-year-old actor and comedian as its leader?

As the the wall street journal reported, “It was his TV show ‘Servant of the People’ that captured the country vibe when the program first aired in 2015. . . Mr. Zelensky played a lowly schoolteacher who candidly declaimed on video the daily corruption that many Ukrainians face. The clip went viral, launching a political career that eventually propelled her character to the presidential palace.

After his election, Zelensky supported further anti-corruption reforms and, since the start of the Russian invasion, became the face of Ukrainian resistance.

Why haven’t the reforms reached the Ukrainian oligarchs?

Blame a corrupt justice system. According to Kaleniuk and Halushka, beginning in the 1990s, courts often executed political orders. But in cases without political sensitivity, “investigators or judges were free to accept bribes and make decisions at their discretion.” According to Kaleniuk and Halushka, a lesson learned is that judicial reform should have happened sooner.

Despite this, the authors said that “an effective antitrust ecosystem” that was in the works would eventually “eliminate sources of ill-gotten gains for the oligarchs and therefore limit their undue influence on policy-making.”

Kaleniuk and Halushka concluded their December article with a call for help and a prescient situation report:

After attempting to undermine Ukraine through military and hybrid aggression, Putin is now threatening a full-scale invasion to destroy the country, not only because it successfully undergoes a complete internal transformation, but, more importantly, because it has the potential to trigger similar democratic reforms in Russia.

Are the anti-corruption reforms before the invasion of Ukraine now irrelevant? To think that would also be too simplistic. History teaches that military force can indeed destroy countries but not ideas. History is also rich in irony. Perhaps the example of Ukraine’s reforms will one day inspire a similar “radical openness” movement in Russia that will topple the Moscow oligarchs and their Kremlin protectors.

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