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How do you clean up Europe's 'most corrupt country'?

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The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has been in operation for nine months and launched more than 200 criminal cases to address the country's rampant corruption. But the problem remains intractable.

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    Activists attend a rally demanding the dismissal of prosecutors whom the activists said were involved in illegal arrest and torturing of employees of the national anti-corruption bureau, in front of the prosecutor general's office in Kiev, Ukraine, last month.
    Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
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More than two years after a street revolution here ousted a regime of kleptocrats, Ukrainian politics remains riddled with graft, while cronies still protect one another from prosecution.

Dismantling a system of corruption that has functioned in this former Soviet republic for 25 years isn’t easy. But that’s exactly what the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), launched last year to combat high-level graft, is trying to do.

The fledgling agency is stocked with a young and disciplined workforce determined to break the bad habits that threaten Ukraine’s attempt to reform. So far, targets for investigation have ranged from university rectors to well-connected parliamentarians.

But with no convictions to date — thanks mostly to the country’s crooked courts — can this new institution make a lasting difference in what’s widely seen as Europe’s most corrupt country?

“The biggest risk for the NABU is to turn into some sort of political instrument,” says Artem Sytnyk, the director of NABU. “This is unacceptable.”

Old habits

Despite pledges from top officials after the 2014 Maidan revolution that they’ll clean up the country, critics believe they lack the political will to follow through. The upheaval toppled ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and his rigid sphere of corruption, in which state institutions were used to enrich a small circle of loyal bureaucrats.

But that monopoly was replaced by an open “market” of corruption, according to activist Vitaliy Shabunin, where a range of interest groups are more free to compete for resources claimed earlier by Yanukovych's so-called "family." Despite the appearance of fresh faces on the political scene in recent years, the system is still dominated by a seasoned elite well-versed in the ways of graft.

Today, Ukraine ranks 130th out of 168 countries on Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, just ahead of Nigeria and Tajikistan.

“Corruption remains a key factor, an instrument, and a goal in Ukrainian politics,” says Mr. Shabunin, of the Kiev-based Anti-Corruption Action Center. He added, however, that the ongoing war against Moscow-backed separatists and a crippled economy has left fewer state resources to steal.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s partners in the West — including its creditors at the International Monetary Fund — have pressured the government to clean up its act, tying much-needed loans partly to the success of anti-corruption measures. The IMF last week finally approved a $1 billion payment after a year-long delay over stalled reforms, although the organization also said Ukraine has much room to improve.

A new force

The product of strong lobbying both at home and abroad, the NABU is the country’s first law enforcement agency built entirely from scratch. Other institutions, such as the Interior Ministry or the General Prosecutor, are Soviet-era holdovers.

In its first nine months, the agency has opened more than 200 criminal cases, sent nearly three dozen of them to court, and secured five settlements – a feat that has impressed even its most ardent supporters. Among its most recent victims was a national lawmaker accused of using a state company to siphon money from the budget in a lucrative gas trading scheme. Unfortunately for investigators, he has since fled the country.

With average monthly salaries of around $1,200, well above other agencies, Mr. Sytnyk believes NABU detectives are immune to the temptations that face their underpaid colleagues. By comparison, starting salaries for officers in the newly reformed national police force are around $250. He adds that political calculations never factor into their work.

“We don’t consider who’s a member of which political force,” said Sytnyk, a sturdily built former prosecutor. “We uncover a crime, document it, and send it off to court.”

That sort of stringent professionalism should worry those in power.

Some insiders say top allies of oligarch President Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of his dominant political party, actually welcome the bureau’s crusade against crooked officials to show Ukraine is serious about cutting out corruption.

But it comes with a caveat, says Taras Berezovets, a political consultant in Kiev. “Of course, they expect that those who will be arrested won’t be representatives of their own party,” he says.

No interference

The agency’s small size — around 700 employees nationwide, compared with more than 10,000 in the general prosecutor’s office — is only one of its disadvantages. Maintaining both political and operational independence will be a much greater challenge. For instance, while NABU secured the legal right to launch criminal cases late last year, it still relies on the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) for crucial technical capabilities such as wire-tapping.

Yet an even bigger obstacle is the country’s notoriously corrupt courts, the final link in the legal chain. They have the ability to sabotage pre-trial investigations, and delay or avoid hearings altogether. They may also not prevent suspects from fleeing the country. They’ve done all of the above, critics say, which explains the lack of outright convictions on NABU cases so far.

“It’s sabotage of the purest kind,” says Shabunin, the anti-corruption activist.

Activists and European officials are lobbying for the creation of special anti-corruption courts. But for now, Shabunin says, it’s crucial for NABU officials to select cases they know they can successfully prosecute. That would allow the agency to maintain the public’s trust while also making it difficult for the authorities to interfere in its work.

In addition to support from the West, public accountability is the agency’s main defense as well as its chief enforcer, according to Sytnyk. That’s especially the case in a country where media are still largely free to pursue their work and investigative journalists regularly produce hard-hitting reports.

“If NABU begins working on a bunch of cases that don’t correspond with its mission, the public will find out about it immediately,” he says. “And as a result, the reaction will be very tough.”

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