Dec. 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Corruption is a great evil standing in the way of progress that dooms people to poverty, lawlessness and abuse of power. According to the UN, every year $1 trillion is paid in bribes while an estimated $2.6 trillion is stolen annually through corruption – a sum equivalent to more than 5 per cent of global GDP. In developing countries, according to the United Nations Development Program, funds lost to corruption are estimated to be 10 times the amount of official development assistance.
Ukraine is a good example to illustrate how hard it is to fight corruption in a country where it has taken deep roots and is killing the national economy. The nation’s ruling elite has made a mockery of Western support, which is often pocketed. For instance, US foreign assistance contributed to Ukraine’s seizure of roughly $1.3 billion in cash, with the discovery of more than $3.24 billion in stolen public funds.
Since 2014, the US and Ukraine have been singing each other’s praises, saying everything is just fine and the prospects are great. But with all the nice things the officials of both countries say about the bilateral ties, the relationship is far from being perfect. There are signs that Washington is frustrated with Kiev and would like to see changes in the way the country is run.
One recent event has become a matter of special concern for the US. Legislation introduced in Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada would allow parliament to dismiss the heads of independent anti-corruption agencies. The draft law number No. 7362 would allow lawmakers to hold a vote of no confidence in the Director of the State Bureau of Investigations, the Head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the Director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and a member of the National Agency on Preventing Corruption.
The NABU is an anticorruption agency set up recently in exchange for the EU’s relaxation of visa restrictions for Ukrainians in the eurozone. If passed, a vote would result in the official’s dismissal. The procedure could be proposed by the President, the Cabinet of Ministers or by at least one third of members of parliament from the constitutional composition of the Verkhovna Rada, i.e. at least 150 MPs.
The document caused international outrage and has had its impact. On Dec.7 the bill was announced as being withdrawn from the agenda of parliament, but the very fact that an attempt to bring the agencies under control was made at all evoked concern among the current government’s backers. After all, the bill could be reintroduced, you never know.
The measure was tabled a week after the war between “anti-corruptionists” – the prosecutor’s office and the NABU – escalated. An advanced undercover operation investigating corruption in Ukraine’s Migration Service described on the website of NABU was disrupted last month. The General Prosecutor’s Office claims to have caught a National Anti-Corruption Bureau agent provoking a state servant with a bribe. The head of the bureau said that it was part of their undercover investigation and that the Prosecutor General’s Office spoiled it. The disruption of an undercover investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine led to accusations from the Prosecutor General’s Office and counter-accusations from Artem Sytnyk, head of the bureau.
Both the US and the EU have expressed concern over the events. The EU said that Kiev’s war on the NABU “undermines public trust in an effective fight against corruption.” The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund said they were concerned about attacks on Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions. Supporting the NABU has certainly been a US priority, as the two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding for the FBI to assist the NABU with training, capacity building, and information sharing.
US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch demonstratively visited the NABU on November 28 to emphasize the agency’s importance. State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement on Dec.4 that recent events, including the disruption of a high-level corruption investigation, the arrest of officials from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the seizure of sensitive NABU files – raise concerns about Ukraine’s commitment to fighting corruption and “appear to be part of an effort to undermine independent anticorruption institutions that the United States and others have helped support. They undermine public trust and risk eroding international support for Ukraine.” Nauert noted that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said: “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in [the] Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption. Anticorruption institutions must be supported, resourced, and defended.” This is something no US official has ever said about Ukraine.
On Dec.6, Michael Carpenter, Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, tweeted that “If the Rada votes to dismiss the head of the Anticorruption Committee and the head of the NABU, I will recommend cutting all US government assistance to Ukraine, including security assistance. This is a disgrace.” It’s worth noting that despite the IMF’s requirement that an independent anticorruption court be established, President Petro Poroshenko continues to slow-roll the submission of legislation to do so.
Ukraine is the 131st least corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. Corruption Rank in Ukraine averaged 116.21 from 1998 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 152 in 2011 and a record low of 69 in 1998. It is often described as kleptocracy in the West. Olena Halushka of the non-governmental Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kiev believes the political elite was now trying to “fake” the reforms agreed with Western donors, including energy, judicial and police overhauls. “We are also witnessing attempts to roll back the achievements,” she said of Poroshenko’s reforms since 2014.
Today, a wave of protest led by Mikheil Saakashvili (pictured), a former Georgian president-turned-Ukrainian opposition leader, has hit Ukraine under anti-corruption slogans. The eruption of protests indicates growing distrust of Ukrainian law enforcement – the SBU (security service) and the prosecutor general’s office. This is the biggest challenge for the Ukrainian government, which has been weakened by months of political infighting and accused of not halting official corruption. It’s an open secret that Saakashvili enjoys US support. The protests in Ukraine are a warning to the current government of the country. Neither the West, nor Russia and other post-Soviet states, such as Belarus, for instance, are happy with what’s happening there.
The most important thing is that Ukrainian people appear to have had enough. Actually, the government enjoys the support of nobody else except a few tycoons or oligarchs who are making fortune thanks to close relations with the powers that be amid overwhelming corruption they benefit from. Ukraine’s laws don’t envisage a presidential impeachment procedure. But the country’s rulers depend on the West, especially the United States, and the Saakashvili-led protest could be a strong message that the Ukraine government backers have had their fill of pumping aid while getting nothing in return. The winds of change appear to be blowing over Ukraine as its rulers are losing the support they previously enjoyed.
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About the author
Peter Korzun is an expert on wars and conflicts