Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece:

Western policy [has been] excessively hostile to [Ukraine’s] ruling elite, which has significantly pushed forward a reform agenda…. These accomplishments deserve more than grudging approval; they deserve the West’s thanks….

Western agencies and private donors have funded a plethora of nongovernmental organizations whose sole purpose is to chide, criticize, protest, and even mobilize against Ukraine’s officeholders. These organizations … create an unbalanced view of what is wrong by ignoring what is right…. NGOs such as Kaleniuk’s Anti-Corruption Action Center as well as investigative journalism projects focused solely on exposing corruption … have contributed to the poisonous political atmosphere in Ukraine that includes … widespread mistrust of virtually all politicians (including reformers), and growing support for demagogic populists [and] Russia-friendly parties….

If the war on corruption leads to instability, the election of populists, or those who would surrender Ukraine’s sovereignty … then the country will have failed—even as Ukraine may have become squeaky clean.

So there you have it. The main claim is that an adversarial posture toward the incumbent Poroshenko government will undermine that government’s legitimacy, throw Ukraine into turmoil, and possibly lead to the triumph of a populist demagogue and/or pro-Russian faction. So (the piece implies) the West should stop funding NGOs like the Anti-Corruption Action Center and stop supporting the work of independent investigative journalists and stop pushing for institutions that will ensure the trial and conviction of corrupt high-level politicians.

I have an instinctive allergic reaction to this argument, though I concede it could be correct under certain circumstances. But before I get to that, I think it’s worth highlighting a few important points, underscored by Ms. Kaleniuk, which Kratnycky and Motyl don’t seem to seriously contest:

  • First, despite a number of important reforms, there’s still lots and lots of corruption among the Ukrainian political and business elite. The instances that have been exposed by civil society, journalists, and Ukraine’s new independent anticorruption investigation and prosecution units are real, and probably only the tip of the iceberg. There is very good reason to doubt that President Poroshenko himself is entirely clean (see here, here, and here), but even if we put the President to one side, there is lots and lots of serious corruption in Ukraine (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). So when Kratnycky and Motyl say that the West should stop talking about corruption in Ukraine’s elite (and stop supporting those who talk about it), it’s not because the problem isn’t real or serious.
  • Second, the current Ukrainian government’s institutional reforms—in anticorruption and other areas—have been due in substantial part to a combination of direct Western pressure (often in the form of strings attached to aid from the IMF, US, EU, and other donors) and agitation by domestic civil society groups, journalists, and citizens. Kratnycky and Motyl do say that the Poroshenko government has “pushed forward a reform agenda,” which implies that it was the government’s own initiative, but even though I’m not a Ukraine expert (as I’ve said over and over), on this point even I am well aware that for most of these reforms, Western pressure, coupled with domestic civil society pressure, has been essential—and for at least some of the reforms, like the new anticorruption court, the Poroshenko government has been dragged forward kicking and screaming by a combination of external pressure and domestic activism (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). So, when Kratnycky and Motyl say that the West should stop pushing for stronger anticorruption measures in Ukraine’s elite, it’s not because such pressure wouldn’t have any effect.

So, if the corruption is real, and if Western pressure could help address the problem, then the case for the West downplaying this issue seems to rest on the idea that exposing corruption and pushing for more anticorruption reforms will erode support for the “reformist” Poroshenko government—possibly causing it to lose the next election to an anti-Western, anti-reform party—and lead to the rise of darker, more sinister forces.

That fear is not entirely baseless. There are indeed some cases where an aggressive anticorruption push contributed to the delegitimation of the traditional political elite and the creation of a power vacuum that was filled by a demagogue: Many have pointed to Italy’s experience in the 1990s and afterwards as an illustration (see here and here). Some worry that Brazil may follow something like that same path, given that a massive corruption scandal has tainted most of Brazil’s leading parties and politicians, and a firebrand right-wing populist is now one of the leading contenders for the presidency. Even in the United States, some (including me) have suggested that the broad scorched-earth rhetoric about how “the whole system is corrupt” may have contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. So it is certainly not irrational—even for the most committed anticorruption advocate—to consider carefully whether an aggressive anticorruption push in Ukraine might undermine a flawed but tolerable government, or might amplify those forms of rage and cynicism that fuel demagoguery.

But I don’t (yet) find the argument terribly convincing, for a few reasons:

  • First, and most narrowly, while Kratnycky and Motyl insinuate that the Western-backed anticorruption push is causing the Ukrainian public to turn toward pro-Russian/anti-reform parties, neither of their pieces provides specific evidence or links to other analyses indicating that this is so. It’s true that sometimes the perception that corruption is widespread causes voters to turn toward populist demagogues, but sometimes disgust with corruption fuels the rise of parties with a stronger pro-reform/pro-integrity agenda. If one’s default position is that we should aggressively fight corruption—especially high-level corruption—then the burden of proof should lie on those who want to argue that we should abstain from pushing an anticorruption agenda. I’m open to persuasion, but I haven’t seen (in Kratnycky and Motyl’s pieces or elsewhere) a convincing argument backed by evidence.
  • Second, and more significantly, in many cases it is the corruption itself, not the effort to expose and combat corruption, that threatens the legitimacy of the incumbent government, the elite class, and democracy itself. The Ukrainian public is already up in arms (figuratively, at least for the moment) about corruption. Many are frustrated at the failure to make more progress on this issue, and (as I understand it) at the lack of convictions of high-level officials and their cronies. Perhaps we can debate whether past mistakes in Western strategy or messaging contributed to this frustration, but at this point, it’s a social fact, and the question is what to do about it. Kratnycky and Motyl seem to imply that if only the West would stop pressuring the Poroshenko government on this issue, and if only it would stop funding those pesky investigative journalists and confrontational civil society groups, then Ukrainians would rally around the Poroshenko government, which would continue to pursue desirable institutional reforms and protect Ukraine from Russian incursions. That strikes me as implausible. It seems much more likely that a failure to do more to fight corruption would only hasten the erosion of the Ukrainian public’s confidence in the political establishment and the institutions of democracy. And a perception that the West decided to turn a blind eye to corruption and cozy up to a corrupt regime might turn even more Ukrainians against the West. The argument is a somewhat milder version of the case that Sarah Chayes made about the West’s approach to corruption in Afghanistan, at least in the first decade or so after the fall of the Taliban: the West did not treat the serious corruption of the Karzai government as a high priority, due to a combination of the felt need to support a “partner” in the fight against terrorism, and the sense that corruption wasn’t as important as security. Chayes argues, however, that ordinary citizens’ anger over corruption delegitimized the government and increased sympathy and support for anti-government forces; thus, she contends, the failure of the U.S. and its allies to force Afghanistan’s government to take the corruption problem seriously made the security problem much worse. It seems to me that Kratnycky and Motyl are arguing that Western policy Ukraine should follow essentially the approach that Chayes criticized in Afghanistan. While the two countries are obviously very different, Chayes’ critique of that policy approach strikes me as quite plausible in the Ukrainian case. If the public is already hopping mad about corruption, then being “less adversarial” on that issue and toning down demands for individual accountability doesn’t seem like a good strategy for convincing people to support the incumbents.
  • Third, and related to the preceding point, while it may well be true that exposing corruption and throwing lots of people out of office and/or into prison could be counterproductive if it creates a power vacuum, it seems to me that the correct response to this problem is not to avoid or suppress the issue, but rather to address the political challenges as part of the reform agenda—as Brazilian prosecutors and civil society activists are trying to do, for example—and also to try to calibrate the message so that it’s not just one of scandal and failure and outrage, but one of steady progress against a difficult but surmountable problem. Even if Kratnycky and Motyl’s diagnosis is correct—the relentless efforts to expose corruption and raise the salience of the issue have contributed to the Ukrainian public’s anger at the government—I’m not persuaded that the right response is to stop emphasizing the issue, rather than to find ways to address it more effectively.

For these reasons, while I acknowledge that there may well be certain circumstances in which an aggressive, adversarial anticorruption crackdown could be counterproductive, I am not yet convinced that this is usually true, or true in the Ukrainian case.

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