- Google Podcasts
- Apple Podcasts
- Pocket Cases
- Radio Public
In my post two days ago, I noted that one reason that the Russian army’s progress in Ukraine has been slower than expected—notwithstanding Russia’s overwhelming numerical superiority—may be the corruption that has been rampant in the Russian military and defense sector for years. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) While I don’t want to attach too much importance to this factor, it does seem at least plausible to me that widespread corruption has undermined Russian military effectiveness, particularly with respect to things like supplies, maintenance, and equipment quality, and possibly also with respect to training and the competence of the leadership.
But if we think that widespread defense sector corruption has played a non-trivial role in Russia’s under-performance on the battlefield in the current war, this naturally invites a question: Why haven’t we also seen reports suggesting that Ukrainian defense sector corruption has hampered the effectiveness of the Ukrainian defense against Russia’s invasion? After all, while corruption has long been recognized as a serious problem in the Russian military, many commentators—including many Ukrainian analysts—have been saying for years that the Ukrainian military also suffers from serious corruption problems, and that those problems threaten to undermine Ukrainian military effectiveness (see, for example, here, here, and here). And yet the news out of Ukraine suggests that the Ukrainian armed forces are fighting quite effectively, without reports of equipment or operational problems that might plausibly be due to corruption.
Why is this? I have no idea—so this is going to be one of those posts where I raise a question rather than trying to argue for what I think is the most likely answer. I may try to do more research and address this in a future post, but for now let me throw out three hypotheses. I would welcome comments from readers who know more about this topic as to which of these seem most plausible, or whether there might be another explanation that I have overlooked: Continue reading
A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I are going to try as best as we can to feature on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, I had the opportunity to speak to Inna Melnykovska, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Central European University. Professor Melnykovska is an expert on state-business relations and crony capitalism in Ukraine and Russia, and is working on a book project tentatively titled Global Money, Local Politics: Big Business, Capital Mobility and the Transformation of Crony Capitalism in Eurasia. Our podcast conversation focuses on her research in this area and its implications for the current crisis. We discuss the similarities and contrasts between the “crony capitalism” systems in Ukraine and Russia, the extent to which Ukrainian President Zelensky was pursuing policies that would reduce the influence of oligarchs on Ukrainian government, whether movement toward cleaner and more democratic government in Ukraine may have been perceived by Putin’s administration as a political threat, and whether (or when) we might hope that economic sanction on Russian elites and oligarchs might have a political impact. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:
- Google Podcasts
- Apple Podcasts
- Pocket Cases
- Radio Public
KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN). If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends. And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (or, more accurately, the dramatic escalation and expansion of the invasion that Russia already started eight years ago) is horrifying. As I type this, Russian forces are moving against Kyiv, and Ukrainian defense forces and reservists are preparing to defend their capital city against overwhelming odds, while the Ukrainian army elsewhere in the country is doing its best to resist Russian advances from all directions. I have nothing useful to say about this terrible situation. I am not a military analyst, an expert in geopolitics, or even terribly knowledgeable about aspects of this crisis closer to my own areas of expertise (such as questions regarding the efficacy of sanctions the West is imposing, or could impose). I’m just a professor, not terribly well known outside my fairly narrow areas of academic specialization, who runs a blog about anticorruption. But this morning, I can’t really think of anything else to write about.
Maybe at some point I’ll be able to collect and organize my thoughts and say something coherent about how this war relates to the global fight against corruption. There most certainly is a connection–probably several connections–even though corruption/anticorruption is only one part of the story. For now, let me just share scattered thoughts and reactions: Continue reading
In late February 2018, news that Slovakian anticorruption journalist Jan Kuciak was shot to death at home—the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history—shocked the country and world. Slovakians demanded that the government, controlled by the corruption-plagued Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party, investigate the brazen attack and hold the perpetrators accountable. Tensions escalated in the days following Kuciak’s murder after his last unpublished story surfaced, exposing connections between advisors to SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico and a prominent Italian organized crime syndicate. Fico resigned shortly thereafter, a development which proved to be the beginning of the end of SMER-SD’s twelve-year reign. By the February 2020 general election, voters decisively ousted SMER-SD in favor of the emerging anticorruption-focused Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OLaNO).
Much of OLaNO’s appeal stems from party leader and current prime minister Igor Matovic, a self-made media mogul. His signature communication method was posting videos exposing graft to social media (similar to Russian anticorruption hero Alexei Navalny, whom this blog recently discussed here). In one of Matovic’s most widely viewed videos, he filmed himself in Cannes outside the luxury home of a former SMER-SD politician holding signs saying “Property of the Slovak Republic” and alleging that the home was illegally bought with taxpayer money. Matovic also traveled to Cyprus and posted a video of mailboxes belonging to shell corporations connected to Penta, a multi-million-euro investment group; the video claimed that Penta had used the companies to evade 400 million euros in taxes. Each of Matovic’s videos garnered several hundred thousand views in a country of less than 5.5 million, which helps explain why the February 2020 election boasted Slovakia’s highest voter turnout in 20 years.
Now, just one year into its mandate, OLaNO and its coalition are hard at work rooting out corruption. The government arrested and prosecuted dozens of current and former public officials involved in graft. Those targeted include high-level figures, such as the former Finance Minister, the head of the State Material Reserves Administration, the Director of the Agricultural Paying Agency, and more than a dozen judges, including a member of the Supreme Court and the former Deputy Minister of Justice. OLaNO is also pursuing a number of legislative efforts, including aggressive judicial reform.
Can Matovic and OLaNO finally cleanse Slovakia’s reputation as the corruption “black hole of Europe”? Maybe. But while the story of an outsider stepping forward in the wake of a national scandal and securing electoral victory with an anticorruption political agenda may be a first in Slovakia’s modern history, it is not an unknown tale on the world stage—and (spoiler alert!) the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. To be sure, difficult political dynamics and entrenched domestic corruption can hamper even the most earnest anticorruption efforts. Nevertheless, examples from other countries provide some cautionary tales of how populist leaders elected on anticorruption platforms can sometimes lose their way, and offer some lessons that Matovic, OLaNO, and their supporters should take to heart going forward. Three lessons in particular stand out:
In May, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Dubinsky, a controversial member of the Servant of the People Party (Ukraine’s ruling party, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky), registered a draft law that would label certain civil society organizations as “foreign agents.” More specifically, this legislation—which resembles Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law—would:
- Oblige NGOs receiving at least 50% of their financial support from foreign entities to include the term “foreign support” in their organization’s name, and to include in any materials published by the NGO a disclaimer stating that the materials are published by an organization that functions with foreign support;
- Initiate the creation of a central register of such NGOs, requiring the Ministry of Justice to publicize a list of these NGOs on its official website and to publish annual reports of foreign-funded NGO activity in Ukraine;
- Require the management of these NGOs to undergo annual polygraph interviews in order to review whether or not these individuals have committed treason; and
- Prohibit any individuals in NGO management positions from working in the civil service or holding membership on supervisory boards or in the leadership of state enterprises for five years after working in a foreign-funded NGO.
While Dubinsky’s proposed legislation poses a serious threat to all NGOs that receive foreign funding (except for a few categories that the draft law specifically exempts, such as NGOs that work in the sphere of culture, arts, science, prevention and health of citizens, social protection, social support for the disabled, and environmental protection), this legislation would have a particularly adverse impact on the work of anticorruption NGOs.
Since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, the IMF has provided substantial macroeconomic stabilization assistance to Ukraine, but has conditioned disbursements on, among other things, significant anticorruption reforms—an approach that has been hotly debated, including on GAB (see here, here, here, and here). The most recent financial assistance agreement also targets corruption, but in a more indirect fashion. Last December, the IMF and Ukraine provisionally agreed to a $5 billion financial assistance program. It soon became clear, though, that the launch of the new program hinged on the Ukrainian parliament successfully passing legislation on land and banking reform. Ukraine complied, and the new agreement is likely to be signed in the coming weeks.
The banking bill, which provides a more general bank resolution framework, is clearly designed to address outstanding issues for the country’s largest commercial bank, PrivatBank, which was nationalized in December 2016. The PrivatBank case is particularly complicated due to the historically close relationship between President Volodymyr Zelensky and the bank’s former owner, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. (Prior to winning Ukraine’s presidential election in April 2018, Zelensky—a former TV comedian—had no political experience, and his only political connection appeared to be his friendship with Kolomoisky, who owned the television network that broadcast the TV program that catapulted Zelensky’s political career.) Many commentators speculated that the IMF had been delaying a bailout for Ukraine due to concerns that Zelensky’s administration would not aggressively pursue efforts to recoup money stolen from PrivatBank. By successfully leveraging and re-purposing past conditionalities, the IMF has driven a wedge between the Zelensky and Kolomoisky, forcing the new President to abandon his toxic personal relationship with this oligarch in order to unlock international financial assistance. While Ukraine is an interesting case study in its own right, the IMF should make more frequent use of financial asset recovery conditions in other countries. Not only can such conditions support a country’s fiscal sustainability framework, but they may be especially helpful if and when well-intentioned political leaders struggle to break ties with corrupt allies. Continue reading
Right now, the biggest corruption story in the U.S., and probably the world, concerns efforts by President Trump and his associates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, threaten to withhold U.S. military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian government into opening investigations that would help Trump politically. It’s clear at this point, except perhaps to the most rabid partisans, that there was indeed a “quid pro quo,” and the discussion has now turned to the question whether, with respect to President Trump specifically, he should be impeached for his conduct related to this episode (the issue that Rick focused on in yesterday’s post), and, with respect to whether Trump, his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, or anyone else committed any crimes.
On that second question, commentators have suggested a whole range of criminal laws that some or all of the parties involved might have broken, including:
- The section of the campaign finance laws that prohibits the “solicit[ation” from a foreign national of a “contribution or donation” to an election campaign of any “thing of value”;
- The federal anti-bribery statute’s prohibition on any federal public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demand[ing or] seek[ing] … anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act”;
- The anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits “the obtaining of property for another … under color of official right” (as well as the attempt or conspiracy to do so);
- The wire fraud statute, which prohibits the devising of any “scheme or artifice to defraud” that involves use of any interstate (or international) wire communication (such as a phone call), where the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” is specifically defined elsewhere in the statute as including a scheme “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” (This may seem a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with this corner of U.S. law, but in a nutshell, so-called “honest services fraud” is a theory that when a public official, or some other person in a position of trust, engages in a corrupt scheme to, say, solicit bribes, that individual defrauds her principals by depriving them of her honest services. For an explanation of how this could apply to Trump in the Ukraine case, see here.)
- In the case of Mr. Giuliani and other parties who do not work for the U.S. government, the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from corresponding with any foreign government or foreign government official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
- Various provisions of Ukrainian law.
In addition to all of these possibilities, which strike me as at least facially plausible given the evidence that has come to light so far, some commentators have suggested that President Trump’s associates, such as Mr. Giuliani, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) (see here and here). This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, in my view for good reason. Even for someone like me, who generally has a more expansive view of the FCPA than do some other commentators, it’s hard to see how the evidence we have so far would suggest a plausible FCPA violation. There are two main reasons for this: Continue reading
The U.S. political news for the last month has been dominated by the explosive and fast-developing scandal involving reports that President Trump and his associates—including not only U.S. government officials but also Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other private citizens—have been engaged in an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue criminal investigations that would benefit President Trump politically. In particular, President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and others pushed Ukraine to investigate supposed wrongdoing by Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as alleged Ukraine-based interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats. (There is no credible evidence to support either allegation, and experts in President Trump’s administration repeatedly warned him against these unfounded conspiracy theories, to no avail.) The pressure brought to bear by President Trump and his associates on Ukrainian officials appears to have included not only general statements of interest in these allegations—allegations that the Ukrainian authorities viewed as baseless—but also included implicit or explicit threats that failure to comply would lead to various forms of retaliation, both symbolic (the refusal to invite newly-elected President Zelensky to the White House) and tangible (the withholding of desperately needed military aid).
While the main ramifications of this scandal are political rather than strictly legal, the U.S. media extensively discussed whether President Trump and his associates may have violated any U.S. laws, and commentators have suggested a number of potential legal violations. For example, asking a foreign entity for dirt on a domestic political rival might violate the provision of U.S. campaign finance law that makes it illegal to “solicit … a contribution or donation [to an election campaign] … from a foreign national,” where “contribution or donation” includes not only money but any other “thing of value.” President Trump and his associates may also have violated domestic anti-corruption law (the federal anti-bribery statute and/or the anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act) in conditioning the performance of an official act (such as the transfer of military aid) on the receipt of something of value from Ukrainian government officials (investigations into political rivals). Private citizens like Mr. Giuliani may have violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens, without the authority of the United States, to correspond with any foreign government or foreign official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” And of course, the attempts to conceal all of these interactions may have amounted to obstruction of justice.
The focus in the U.S. media on whether President Trump and his associates may have violated U.S. law is entirely understandable, but seems incomplete. Strangely absent from the conversation is any mention, let alone sustained exploration, of the question whether any of President Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. At least this seems strange to me. Imagine that the situation were reversed. Suppose, for example, that a Chinese businessman, nominally a private citizen but known to have close ties to President Xi, approached the U.S. Attorney General and said something like, “We know your administration is anxious to cut a trade deal and would also like China’s assistance in addressing the North Korea situation. I’m sure President Xi could be persuaded to help you out. But you should help China out too. There’s a dissident, now an American citizen, who’s been writing a lot of damaging lies about President Xi, and he’s gaining a following in China and stirring unrest. Why don’t you publicly announce that the U.S. government is investigating him for running a ring of child prostitutes? That would really help us out.” If a story like this came out, I’m quite sure the U.S. media would be abuzz with discussions about which U.S. laws this businessman might have broken, and whether he might be prosecuted in U.S. courts if U.S. authorities managed to arrest him. But in the Ukraine case, we may have something similar—a private citizen (Giuliani) with close ties to a foreign political leader (Trump) apparently told senior political and law enforcement officials (the Ukrainian President and Prosecutor General) to pursue a bogus criminal investigation in exchange for that foreign government’s cooperation on important issues—and nobody seems to be even raising the possibility that this might violate Ukrainian law.
By the way, when I say nobody is talking about this, that apparently includes Ukrainian media and civil society. I don’t read Ukrainian and I’m by no means a Ukraine expert, but I have some friends and other contacts there, and they tell me that while the story is big news in their country, there hasn’t been any discussion about whether Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. That gives me pause, and makes me think that perhaps I’m totally off base in thinking there’s even an interesting question here. Nonetheless, at the risk of looking foolish (something that’s happened plenty of times before, I admit), I want to use this post to float this topic and see what others think. Continue reading