In 2016, under pressure from anticorruption organizations, Ukraine’s parliament passed the “On Prevention of Corruption” law, which required high-level government officials and other civil servants to disclose their income and assets in a public online database. A year later, however, the parliament—in what seems to have been an act of retaliation—adopted an amendment to that law, and required all individuals who “carry out activities related to the prevention and counteraction of corruption” to also declare their assets by April 1, 2018, or face potential penalties (including fines or imprisonment of up to two years). The amendment, in other words, imposes on anticorruption advocates the same financial disclosure requirements that many of these advocates had insisted on imposing on Ukrainian public officials.
Imposing this disclosure requirement on anticorruption advocates was rationalized as promoting transparency, since foreign money often supports anti-graft work in Ukraine. Some have claimed that anticorruption activists are themselves corrupt and work with anticorruption organizations to enrich themselves. More generally, the amendment seems to be motivated by an impulse toward retaliation (or a version of fairness): The message seems to be, “If you people think these requirements are appropriate for us, then you should be willing to put up with them too.”
But anticorruption workers do not hold public office and are not supported by taxpayer money, and there is no good reason to subject them to the same demanding disclosure standards that are entirely appropriate for public servants. This obvious distinction is further reason to believe that this amendment is yet another measure in line with previous government efforts to discredit anticorruption activists. Imposing the disclosure requirement has been roundly criticized both domestically and internationally, with activist organizations also arguing that the amendment violates Ukraine’s Constitution (particularly rights to freedom of speech, association, and employment). Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the bill a “mistake,” and in July 2017 he submitted to parliament two draft laws that eliminate the asset disclosure obligation for individual anticorruption activists—but place even more stringent reporting requirements on anticorruption organizations. These draft laws drew further criticism, and as the April 1, 2018 asset disclosure deadline approached and passed, Ukraine’s parliament has refused to consider any changes to the law.
Leaving in place the requirement that those who help fight corruption must make the same kind of public asset disclosures as government officials will sabotage and chill anticorruption work. It is vital that domestic activists and the international community keep up the pressure on Ukraine to eliminate this requirement altogether, and to do so soon in order to remove the cloud of uncertainty that has fallen over all anticorruption advocacy since the April 1 deadline passed. The disclosure requirement as it stands threatens to undermine the fight against corruption in Ukraine in at least three ways:
- First, the enormous breadth of the amendment will discourage civic engagement. The National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), created by Ukraine’s executive branch in 2015 to review asset disclosures and to recommend prosecution in cases of false information or irregularities, issued a letter explaining that the amendment requires asset declarations from anyone engaged in “any form of public participation in measures to prevent corruption.” This includes participating in seminars and rallies, sending requests for information to the NACP, and even informing the NACP about possibly “false information in the declarations of state officials.” To imagine that every single person participating in the likes of the EuroMaidan protests would need to publicly disclose his or her assets as a prerequisite to joining the protests seems flat-out absurd, but that appears to be what the amendment would require. The amendment forces concerned citizens—even those who want to help the NACP in its work—to jump over administrative hurdles and submit their personal information to a public database before acting as whistleblowers for their local communities. The possibility of fines or imprisonment for neglecting to disclose asset information—combined with the possibility of criminal charges for what they do disclose—is likely to severely discourage civic engagement in anticorruption efforts.
- Second, the amendment gives significant retaliatory power to the NACP, which many observers believe is unduly susceptible to political influence—especially given that the NACP’s recommendations for criminal prosecutions need to be first checked with the president’s office. Indeed, the NACP has so far not pursued any cases against major bureaucrats or politicians. Even before the April 1 deadline, however, the NACP was already targeting anticorruption organizations that disclosed their assets: In February, criminal cases were launched against two highly regarded NGOs known for exposing fraud in the healthcare system with allegedly misusing foreign donations. The NACP can effectively cherry-pick whom it will investigate: Its manual review process of submitted declarations is subjective—and the NACP has resisted the introduction of an automatic system that would make review based on objective criteria. And even if a criminal prosecution is not launched, lawmakers can use the public disclosures to discredit whichever anticorruption activists and organizations they want, by naming and shaming them as “foreign agents” if they receive outside funding for their anti-graft work.
- Third, the amendment distracts from investigating asset disclosures of government officials. Last year, almost 5 million asset declarations were filed for government officials. The NACP has reviewed only about 600. Despite estimates that “hundreds of years will be required to finish the job” at the NACP’s current pace, the amendment further increases the NACP’s workload by requiring it to review the disclosures of anticorruption activists and organizations. The amendment has virtually no bounds on its scope: It obliges “every single person who is working with an [anticorruption] NGO to submit a declaration,” including even those who clean the office or deliver coffee. Additionally, NGOs that merely express support for anticorruption efforts or participate in anticorruption events fall under the same requirement, not just NGOs with anticorruption efforts as their mission. This influx of additional disclosures will substantially increase the NACP’s backlog. And because the NACP might choose to review the anticorruption activists’ disclosures before or at least simultaneously with those of government officials, it will push back the review of corrupt government officials even further.
So far, Ukraine is the only country with disclosure requirements for those who do anticorruption work, but if international bodies do not put more pressure on Ukraine to eliminate these measures, other countries may follow suit and enact similar requirements under the guise of improving transparency. And while such disclosure laws would surely add to public dissatisfaction with the prevalence of government corruption, they will also halt what the public can do about it.