Corruption Reform in Ukraine: Too Much, Too Soon?

On October 26, Ukrainians headed to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections that international observers labeled free and fair. On the eve of this election, the Economist nicely summed up the precariously fragmented Ukrainian state in a cartoon: a Ukrainian maiden, in the grips of a snake labeled corruption, fending off a menacing Russian bear. Indeed, corruption has plagued the functioning of the Ukrainian government on multiple fronts. Aleksandr Lapko wrote about corruption in procurement that leaves conscripted Ukrainian soldiers without the proper equipment to fight the separatists: in his words, “corruption can be as deadly as a bullet.” Former President Viktor Yanukovych’s ill-managed estate stands as a monument to both the corruption that riddled his former government and to the hopelessness of many Ukranians, Lapko included, in solving this seemingly intractable problem.

Ukraine’s leadership is eager to shed this troubled legacy of corruption and remake its government in a new, more European image. Obama hailed the October 26 elections as a positive step in that direction. President Petroshenko called out corruption as the nation’s central concern in his inaugural address to the new Parliament on November 26. Unfortunately, Ukraine seems to be following in Russia’s and other corruption-plagued countries’ ill-fated footsteps in its quest to distance itself from the post-Soviet corruption plague. By attempting to do too much to fight corruption with untested, newly created institutions, Ukraine may ultimately end up doing too little.

The basic problems with Ukraine’s approach can be grouped into two broad categories: substantive policy (including legal reform) and institutions:

  • First, with respect to substantive policy: Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Strategy announces a series of broad, sweeping principles aimed at large-scale institutional change, including (among other things) ferreting out corruption in elections–but is quite vague on how these goals will be achieved. The equally vague Law “On Preventing Corruption” encompasses both restrictions on private actors and procurement policies for government entities. These laws are reminiscent of Russia’s all-bark, no-bite corruption reforms. In 2008, Russia enacted Federal Law 273-FZ, “On Counteracting Corruption.” The laundry list of reforms mirrored Ukraine’s: the law promised the harmonization of state anticorruption policy, the independence of the media, and penalties for private sector actors who violated corruption laws. An equally ambitiously worded law followed in 2010. Six years down the line, little, if any, of these promises have been realized. Ukraine’s laws could be destined for a similar failure, for two main reasons: First, these laws do not provide any mechanisms for political accountability for their achievement. Citizens cannot hold government leaders accountable to such lofty, disparate goals with no concrete benchmarks. Second, these laws do not sufficiently localize responsibility for implementation in specific government bodies, which allows politicians to pay lip service to anticorruption with no one left to blame when progress stalls. Worse, by setting patently unachievable goals, these laws could perversely prevent citizens from forming reasonable expectations that anticorruption reform of any kind will be achieved, with the perverse result that there will be no democratic pressure at all.
  • Second, with respect to institutions: Ukraine has unwisely concentrated the responsibility for “lead[ing] the fight” against corruption in a government body that likely will not be up to the job. Poroshenko’s administration has trumpeted the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, a new prosecutorial arm with exclusive jurisdiction over corruption cases against government officials. However, the Bureau has a fatal flaw identified by Juhani Grossman, a member of the board of directors of Transparency International-Ukraine: the head of the Bureau can easily be removed by a majority of Parliament. Thus, the Bureau will not be isolated from political pressure and will likely have to strike a careful balance between executing its mandate and avoiding excessively threatening those in power. The trick will be to avoid the fate of John Githongo, who fled Kenya after pursuing his mission too aggressively as the head of the Kenyan government’s anticorruption task force.

Is Ukraine’s badly needed anticorruption agenda doomed? In spite of the weaknesses outlined above, I believe Ukraine could have some success on a more modest scale through piecemeal realization of more limited goals. The lure of foreign money with strings attached, nationwide aspirations to EU membership coupled with a concomitant impulse to define itself in opposition Russia, and the influx of government officials with experience abroad coalesced into the magic formula that resulted in meaningful anticorruption reform in Georgia following the 2003 Rose Revolution. Whether these factors work the same magic in Ukraine remains to be seen.

4 thoughts on “Corruption Reform in Ukraine: Too Much, Too Soon?

  1. Really interesting analysis. I wonder whether Ukraine is in a semi-unique position (either for good or for bad) due to the recent revolution. During revolutionary moments, there is often a great deal of upheaval and restructuring. This could lead to chaos that in one sense could make it easier for officials to engage in corruption. It could also tamp down on corruption if previously corrupt officials are now uncertain as to whether they will be allowed to continue in their old ways or are likely to be arrested. Perhaps most importantly, the average people are probably far more tuned into politics than they normally are.

    I don’t have the evidence to prove whether having just experienced a revolution means that a country can and should move faster or slower against corruption, but maybe you have some ideas. Ukraine might not be the purest example to test the effect of revolution because it will be compounded with the effects of the ongoing insurgency in the east (maybe we could look at changes in local corruption in a city like Lviv, instead).

  2. Sitting here working on anti-corruption efforts in Kyiv I tend to disagree with some of the statements in the post.
    1)The Government of Ukraine has definitely not put all its eggs into one basket – in fact it is the opposite. On 14 October 2014 the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) adopted a number of significant laws aimed at the prevention of and the fight against corruption (the “2014 Anti-Corruption Package”). The laws “On The Prosecution Service” and “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of Ukraine regarding Defining Final Beneficiary Owners of Legal Entities and Public Persons were key pieces but the rest of the package created 3 different paths for reforms with the passing of
    • Law “On the System of Specially Authorized Anti-Corruption Bodies”, which provides for the establishment of a dedicated anticorruption body – the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. The Anticorruption Bureau will supplement the existing system of law-enforcement bodies, being authorised to investigate crimes committed by high-ranking officials and preventing new crimes;
    • Law “On the Prevention of Corruption”, which introduces a new special body to prevent corruption and a special procedure regarding the declarations income and expenses by public servants;
    • Law “On the Fundamentals of the State Anti-Corruption Policy in Ukraine (Anti-Corruption Strategy) for 2014 – 2017”, which sets out the general consolidated strategy of the President, Government and Parliament regarding anti-corruption initiatives.

    These are not a laundry list of law but offer different paths for fighting corruption. If anything there are too many bodies dealing with overlapping responsibilities rather than having one body too dominant in the field.

    2) The post contradicts itself with stating that there are too many reforms to be effective and reform efforts are concentrated in the hands of one super agency.

    3) There is no comparison with Russia here. If/when Russia undergoes a genuine revolution then some of their efforts may be taken seriously. Having spent almost 20 years working on anti-corruption in the region, I see it as a stretch to see what little as Russia has done in the same light as the mass uprising that occurred on Maidan. If Navalny could mobilize 100s of thousands on the streets of Moscow and bring down Putin we might be able to compare.

    The reality is the Government of Ukraine is struggling to undertake real reforms with a very small number of advisers who are experts on anti-corruption and with very little donor assistance. The people working every day on the issue have a huge tasks and little on hand to do it with.

    • I can’t speak for the post’s author, of course, but in regards to your second point, I think the post draws a distinction between too many and too vague SUBSTANTIVE goals and too few effective INSTITUTIONAL agents for achieving those goals. It seems possible for both of those things to be true at the same time–and in fact, the former would seem to enhance the problems related to the latter: if one ineffective agency is tasked with carrying out big, broadly defined goals, it seems to make it even more unlikely the agency will succeed. As to whether or not that accurately describes the situation in Ukraine, I don’t know–but at least in theory, I don’t see an inherent contradiction.

  3. I think that the crucial challenge for Ukraine is corruption and incompetence within the judiciary and law enforcement. In the end of the day, new legislation will remain a mere statement of political aspirations unless the state is able and willing to monitor and enforce it. In principle, legal or institutional reforms alone can never pose an adequate response to the ills of endemic corruption; what Ukraine faces is a massive human resources problem. Inviting foreigners to take up prominent positions in the government signals the recognition of the issue––but the really difficult bit is to purge the judiciary, the state prosecution service, and the ministry for internal affairs.

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