Corruption's grip eases in Ukraine

Tax receipts are rising, and the country improved its standing in Transparency International's annual ratings.

Viktor Kushner and about a dozen friends staged a rally at Kiev's city hall one day last week to protest what they call "corruption" in the sale of some public parkland to a private business.

This sort of demonstration is a regular sight on the streets of Kiev these days, though it was practically unheard of barely a year ago.

"The experience we had in the Orange Revolution last year showed that it's possible to change things by taking a stand," says Mr. Kushner, a public employee. "We've become freer, and we're learning to act like free people."

It's difficult to judge the issues involved in Kushner's specific complaint against city hall. But growing evidence suggests that one of Ukraine's worst scourges, corruption, may be receding in the face of heightened public awareness and postrevolutionary street activism.

Though the economic reforms promised by President Viktor Yushchenko have been slow to arrive, experts say significant numbers of businesses are leaving the shadow economy, more people are paying taxes, and fewer officials are taking bribes.

"There are very strong anti-corruption moods in society right now," director of the independent Institute of Global Strategy in Kiev. "The revolution was above all a moral event that changed public consciousness. Officials know they must tread carefully in this atmosphere."

The Berlin-based organization Transparency International, which annually rates the perception of corruption in 150 countries, this year notched Ukraine up to 113th place from last year's 122nd, putting it roughly on a par with Vietnam and Zambia.

Light shines into shadow economy

Government tax receipts rose by 30 percent in the first nine months of this year, despite a sharp economic slowdown, thanks to individuals and companies emerging from the shadows to pay their taxes.

In October, foreign investors received a heartening sign when one of Ukraine's biggest steel mills, Krivorizhstal, was "reprivatized" and bought at open auction by India's Mittal Steel Co. for $4.8 billion. The same company had been previously sold to the son-in-law of then President Leonid Kuchma for just $800 million.

"This was a signal to the whole society that times have changed," says Oleksander Chekmishov, deputy director of the Institute of Journalism in Kiev.

"It says that Ukraine is no longer a country of systemic corruption, in which a small elite linked to political power divided up most of the country's assets among themselves," he says.

Ukraine's improving performance, however slight, contrasts with the worsening perception of corruption in some of its post-Soviet neighbors.

Russia, which stands at No. 128 in Transparency International's table of 150 countries, has seen corruption levels soar hand in hand with the deepening authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin's rule over the past five years.

For example, a recent survey by the independent InDem Foundation in Moscow, which tracks corruption in Russia, found that the average business bribe has grown by 13 times to $135,000 since Mr. Putin came to power.

In a TV address marking the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution last week, Yushchenko pledged to wage war on corruption.

"I am ordering the Cabinet to produce urgent bills to be put to parliament," including measures to prevent tampering with the judiciary, offering people a chance to declare past illegal incomes and new guarantees for property rights, he said.

Nevertheless, many Ukrainians, such as Kushner, appear to regard corruption as a bigger problem than ever in their country. "The whole system is dirty," he says. "Everything needs to be taken under public control."

One reason for the widespread distrust, experts say, is the acrimonious bickering that has broken out among the leaders of the victorious Orange coalition.

Last September, Yushchenko's chief of staff, Oleksander Zinchenko, resigned and accused several members of the president's inner circle of graft. In the political shock wave that followed, Yushchenko fired the entire government and one of his closest advisers, industrialist Pyotr Poroshenko.

Publicizing allegations

Another reason, some suggest, is that a freer post- revolutionary media has taken to airing allegations of official misconduct more thoroughly.

"In the past, the issue of high-level corruption was kept behind closed doors and seldom raised in the press," says Oleksander Shushko, director of the Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, a Kiev think tank. "Now we hear about it every day on TV, so it seems like there's more of it."

The current feuding between the former leaders of the Orange Revolution, which largely takes the form of corruption accusations, could be a good thing for Ukraine's political growth, says Volodymyr Gorbach, an adviser to Pora, the radical student movement that intends to run candidates in parliamentary elections slated for next March.

"They have ensured that corruption will be a key issue in the election campaign, and that's good," he says. "It will help keep the momentum going so Ukraine can move into the next stage of deep democratic change."

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