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Making the world safe for anti-corruption whistle-blowers

Measure of progress

A Ukrainian official’s resignation over corruption prompts an unusually strong response from world bodies. The global campaign against official wrongdoing has made it easier for many people to stand up for honest governance.

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    Ukraine's Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, a Lithuanian national, says routine efforts from government leadership to shoot down reforms — further damaging the country's already crippled economy— prompted him to resign from his post. He wrote in his resignation letter that Ukraine's leadership lacks the political will to enact much-needed changes and has routinely obstructed reforms.
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As the global campaign for integrity in government has gained strength over the past decade, it has become easier for whistle-blowers to stand up against graft. A good example is the Feb. 3 resignation of Ukraine’s economy minister, Aivaras Abromavicius. He quit, citing pressure on him to help wealthy oligarchs keep their powerful grip on state-run companies. The ripple effect, as Donald Trump might say, was huge.

His brave stand for ethics triggered the International Monetary Fund to threaten that it will not give at least $1.7 billion in financial aid to Ukraine. This is not the first time the IMF has used its clout to force a country toward clean governance. But the IMF chief, Christine Lagarde, was unusually strong in her condemnation. And in a sign of how much the fight for honesty and transparency has gone global, she warned Ukrainian leaders that they “are accountable, not only for the Ukrainian people, but also to the international community.”

Both Europe and the United States have much at stake in Ukraine. The 2014 Maidan revolution that ushered in a reform government was driven mainly by a popular desire to end endemic corruption. To achieve that, young people took to the streets to support Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union and to shake off Russian influence. But the new regime has faltered in its anti-corruption reforms.

Ukraine remains vulnerable to falling back into Moscow’s orbit. And to help end a civil war in its eastern region, its government must show it can curb a culture of bribery.

At the least, Ukraine’s struggles against fraud and corruption are now more visible. That’s a sign of progress. In many other countries, from Brazil to India to Indonesia, both foreign pressure and grass-roots campaigns have created a climate of approval for top officials to speak out about wrongdoing. In 2015, says José Ugaz, chairman of the graft-exposing group Transparency International, “People across the globe sent a strong signal to those in power: It is time to tackle grand corruption.”

Many countries like Ukraine are trying to cross a threshold in which virtues like honesty are the norm in official dealings. When a top minister like Mr. Abromavicius resigns to take a stand, he usually does so knowing that his action will be welcomed by people both at home and abroad.

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