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Ukraine's drive for clean governance

Despite an armed conflict, economic stagnation, and elections, Ukraine starts to erode endemic corruption, first by forcing officials to divulge personal assets. Honesty in governance may be a main defense against Russia.

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    Activists throw tomatoes at portraits of parliamentary deputies who were absent at the voting on the anti-corruption laws, outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev, Oct.7.
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For a people to shed a negative stereotype about themselves is hard enough during peace and prosperity. Yet Ukraine is trying to do it – and quickly – during a military conflict and economic contraction.

Which stereotype? That this embattled European nation is one of the world’s most corrupt, where last year 1 in 3 people was asked to pay a bribe.

For most of this year, Ukraine has been on a reform kick, starting with the popular ouster of a pro-Kremlin leader in February, the taking of Crimea by Russia in March, and the ensuing armed revolt by pro-Russian separatists in the east. A new president, Petro Poroshenko, was elected in May. And now elections for parliament are set for Oct. 26, with local elections in December.

The elections alone are expected to reflect a public desire to end the country’s endemic culture of corruption. But adding to the reform momentum are three other motivations. Ukraine wants to set itself apart from Russia and its own corrupt ways. It needs to attract foreign investment, and soon, to counter an economic decline. And it won’t receive $27 billion in financial aid or meet the requirements for European Union membership unless it starts to curb graft.

If drastic times call for drastic measures, Ukraine demonstrated just that last month when its current parliament – despite the fact that its members are tied to the old regime – voted for a measure that requires all high-level officials to divulge their personal assets and financial transactions. The goal of this so-called lustration bill is to shame and humiliate government leaders who have abused their power for private gain.

This clean-sweep approach is a rare tool in the history of anti-corruption efforts. If it works, Ukraine stands a better chance of winning over the disaffected Russian-speaking population in the east and thwarting the ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep that portion of Ukraine under Kremlin influence.

Clean and transparent governance was a main aim of the protesters last November in Kiev’s Maidan revolution. Almost a year later, they are seeing the first fruits. Honesty as much as arms is a protection against Russian aggression. The rest of the world can both support and learn from this ongoing shedding of a national stereotype.

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