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Reassessing Ukraine’s ‘failed’ anti-corruption reforms

You probably saw stories last week about Daria Kaleniuk. The co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine fled Kyiv and turned up at a March 1 news conference in Warsaw. There she confronted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the West’s weak response to the Russian invasion and coddling of Russian oligarchs.

Ten weeks earlier, while Russian forces prepared for war, she had another message: Although Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms haven’t yet brought its oligarchs to justice, the grassroots transparency campaign that started a half-decade earlier nevertheless moved Ukraine “closer than ever before to becoming a role model of successful democracy in action.”

“This is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime fears.”

Kaleniuk wrote those words with co-author Olena Halushka, a board member of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, in an article for Foreign Policy published in mid-December 2021 (“Why Ukraine’s Fight Against Corruption Scares Russia”).

Hearing praise for Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms was surprising. From the outside, the reforms looked like a failure. If new laws and special courts couldn’t hold Ukraine’s oligarchs accountable, the battle was lost, right?

Not true, according to Kaleniuk and Halushka. That view is too simplistic and misses Ukraine’s real story. Look beyond the oligarchs, and you find a populist movement for “radical openness” that’s been transforming the country and, as Kaleniuk and Halushka see it, scaring Putin and his cronies. If people-powered transparency can transform Ukraine, it could happen in Russia too.

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After the Revolution of Dignity forced kleptocratic president Viktor Yanukovych to flee Ukraine in February 2014, local anti-corruption forces saw an opening and pushed hard.

They created new “anti-corruption architecture” by digitizing as much state-controlled information as possible and opening it to the public. Online databases from real estate, vehicle, land, and company registries, along with state procurement information, cut waste and reduced opportunities for corruption.

Another initiative requires public servants to submit electronic asset declarations every year, reporting their and their family members’ incomes and assets. Since 2016, around a million public servants have been filing annual declarations, giving journalists and other investigators a powerful tool to expose corrupt officials.

Reformers in government, civil groups, and international partners also created Ukraine’s first national public database of politically exposed persons, their relatives, and close associates. As of December 2021, the PEP database had grown to 48,000 individuals and more than 30,000 affiliated legal entities. “Ukrainian and international financial institutions, as well as law enforcement agencies, are using this information for due diligence measures and to investigate suspicious transactions,” Kaleniuk and Halushka said in their December article.

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One way to understand the broad public support for such “radical openness” is the landslide election in 2019 of Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Why would a country struggling to clean up corruption elect a 41-year-old actor and comedian as leader?

As the Wall Street Journal reported, “It was his TV show ‘Servant of the People’ that captured the mood of the country when the program first aired in 2015. . . . Mr. Zelensky played a humble schoolteacher who candidly ranted on a video about the everyday corruption many Ukrainians need to contend with. The clip went viral, launching a political career that ultimately propelled his character into the presidential palace.”

After his election, Zelensky supported further anti-corruption reforms and, since the Russian invasion began, has become the face of Ukraine’s resistance.

Why haven’t reforms reached Ukraine’s oligarchs?

Blame a corrupt judicial system. According to Kaleniuk and Halushka, beginning in the 1990s, courts often carried out political orders. But in cases with no political sensitivity, “investigators or judges were free to take bribes and make decisions at their discretion.” A lesson learned, Kaleniuk and Halushka said, is that judicial reform should have come sooner.

Despite that, the authors said “an efficient antitrust ecosystem” that was in the works would ultimately “eliminate the sources of ill-gotten gains for oligarchs and therefore limit their undue influence over policymaking.”

Kaleniuk and Halushka concluded their December article with a plea for help and a prescient situation report:

Having tried to undermine Ukraine through military and hybrid aggression, Putin now threatens a large-scale invasion to destroy the country—not only because it is successfully undergoing comprehensive domestic transformation but, more importantly, because it has the potential to trigger similar democratic reforms in Russia.

Are Ukraine’s pre-invasion anti-corruption reforms now moot? Thinking that would also be too simplistic. History teaches that military force can indeed destroy countries but not ideas. History is also rich with irony. Maybe the example of Ukraine’s reforms will someday inspire a similar “radical openness” movement in Russia that will topple Moscow’s oligarchs and their Kremlin protectors.

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