Pray for Ukraine


A second front in Ukraine’s war: The battle against corruption

August 17th 2023
For the past three decades, Ukraine has achieved a dismal distinction. Its levels of corruption have reached higher than any other country in Europe, except Russia.

But a year of war and hardship has wrought changes that many ordinary citizens believe will bring in their wake a new determination to combat the scourge.

“The war has drastically changed … the self-perception of Ukrainians, and this is not free of charge – people have paid with their lives,” says Andrii Vyshnevskyi, the deputy head of Ukraine’s National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (NACP), in Kyiv.

“When those fighting in the trenches come back after victory, they will legitimately ask: ‘What have public servants and politicians done to change things?’” he adds. Ukraine must also reassure the United States and other Western donors that it can reliably handle the billions of dollars’ worth of emergency military and humanitarian aid that is flooding into the country.

Ukrainians have become more intolerant of corruption, prompting “demands from society” to tackle it, says Mr. Vyshnevskyi.

Polls show that the number of citizens who believe that corruption is unacceptable under any circumstances rose from 40% before the war began to 64% today. This shift in thinking coincides with the highest “peak of trust” in government for 30 years, says Mr. Vyshnevskyi. Indeed, many Ukrainians glimpse the outlines of a new social pact between the governed and the governing unprecedented in modern Ukrainian history.

In June last year, the legislature passed a “National Anti-Corruption Strategy” that anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International called “a positive signal and clear roadmap” toward “tackling powerful private interests and uprooting entrenched corruption.”

And the first signs that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meant what he had said about tackling corruption came late last January. In Ukraine’s biggest political shake-up since the war began, more than a dozen senior officials – including five regional governors, four deputy ministers, and the deputy head of the president’s own office – were dismissed or stepped down amid corruption allegations.

The detention of a deputy minister of infrastructure for embezzlement was meant to be a “signal to all those whose actions or behavior violate the principle of justice,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, vowing “no return to what used to happen in the past.”

The deputy minister of infrastructure, Vasyl Lozynsky, had belonged to an “organized criminal group,” according to a statement by anti-corruption officials. They said he had taken a $400,000 bribe to help secure equipment purchasing contracts at inflated prices. Also out of a job was the deputy minister of defense, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, on whose watch the ministry signed contracts to supply troops with food at several times the price it would have cost in a supermarket.

Fighting Russia, Fighting Corruption

The crackdown proved widely popular, in keeping with popular sentiment that the war, for all its horror, also offers an opportunity to shine a light on the darker aspects of Ukrainian life, and root them out.

“People’s expectations are very high,” says Oleksandr Yakovenko, managing partner of EnlivUA, a trading and industrial conglomerate headquartered in Kyiv, that also sponsors a cultural arm to promote Ukrainian national identity. “Our society does not tolerate corruption, as it did before.”

The task of eradicating corruption is huge, he acknowledges. It could take decades. But with society in ferment since the Russian invasion, Mr. Yakovenko argues, “everything is changing in our country; we have the possibility to do it more quickly.”

“We need to reload the system with all new people,” he says. “It’s a window of opportunity and we have to take it.”

The possibility of such change became apparent soon after the Russian invasion, when President Zelenskyy vowed to stay and fight, when the capital Kyiv did not fall, and when citizen volunteers in the port city of Odesa – fearing a Russian assault – filled 800,000 sandbags with Black Sea beach sand.

Watching them work, Albert Kabakov, the president of the Odesa Yacht Club, predicted at the time that “after the victory, our society will be completely different. Our attitude to people who take bribes will change.”

Today, Mr. Kabakov says the high-level firings in January were “a good sign, but not enough. We have experience of high-profile cases making a splash and then disappearing.

“It is ridiculous that if you are stealing humanitarian aid, for punishment you just get fired,” he fumes. “You should face a real court and real imprisonment.”

“Ready for a civilizational leap”

But the difficulties go much deeper than malfeasance among top officials, says Mr. Vyshnevskyi of the NACP. “The problem is that citizens still tolerate grassroots corruption.” People offer gifts to their physicians, or give money to teachers to repair schools or to buy equipment, and don’t consider it corrupt.

“It’s difficult to convince people that corruption starts there, in their communities,” he says.

That problem is deeply ingrained, agrees Oleksii Sydorchuk, who on the first day of the war founded a local nonprofit to channel humanitarian donations.

“For me, the biggest problem is not whether the U.S. or Europeans give enough weapons, but that state institutions are not working in the right way,” he says. “For a long time, people did not question authority and what was happening. We need to learn how to do that.”

“There are two ways to live, by law, or by arrangements,” Mr. Sydorchuk adds, pointing to cases in which local officials reported inflated numbers of displaced people in their districts, so as to skim off excess aid sent to help them.

“The tragedy of Ukraine is that most people in society are loyal to corruption,” he says. So concerned citizens like him “are interested in shifting mindsets. To love your country is not just ‘likes’ on social media.”

Those shifting mindsets are evident to farmer Serhii Khoroschak, whose village, Novofedorivka, sits among endless rolling fields in southern Ukraine.

When he mustered 280 men as a local defense force in the first days of the Russian invasion, little did the area’s largest landowner think that such examples of resistance and courage – replicated across Ukraine – might serve as building blocks for better, and less corrupt, governance in the future.

For three months, facing the imminent threat of a Russian onslaught, the militia and Mr. Khoroschak – a stocky man shaved bald, who uses crutches because he is missing his left leg – stood their ground. They ran half a dozen checkpoints and protected houses and gas and electricity installations.

Their village and the nearby coastal resort of Koblevo became regional hubs for the distribution of humanitarian aid. Mr. Khoroschak provided grain to nearby villages for six months. His men even hid an American-supplied HIMARS rocket system in a nearby grain storage facility.

Their experience of grassroots organization, and of taking responsibility for their community in the face of danger, has created new expectations of the authorities, Mr. Khoroschak says. “The people in power have to be people who went to the front line and saw the suffering, so that before they take money ... as a bribe, they will think 200,000 times.”

Credits to The Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson

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