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.