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: Continue reading

Ukraine’s Cynical Efforts to Mandate Public Asset Disclosures for Anticorruption Advocates Must Be Stopped

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: Continue reading

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. Continue reading