A bit of sunlight on Ukraine corruption

A global campaign against graft may be paying off in a pivotal country between Russia and the West.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy talks during a joint media conference with European Council President Charles Michel in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 3.

Just three years ago, the International Monetary Fund decided it would use its financial leverage to nudge corrupt countries toward honest and transparent governance. Because corruption hides in the dark, the IMF said, it would “harness the immense power of sunlight” to put countries on a healthier economic path. The agency’s approach may finally be paying off in a country pivotal to the contest between Russia and the West: Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has taken his boldest steps yet to crack down on corrupt oligarchs and high-level judges who have blocked anti-graft measures. One big reason: Ukraine’s economy needs a $5 billion loan from the IMF as well as the agency’s nod to foreign investors that the country is finally tackling corruption, especially in the courts.

Elected two years ago on an anti-corruption platform, Mr. Zelenskiy has disappointed many in Ukraine. Yet he is also up against a well-entrenched culture of corruption. In February, he froze the assets of one oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, who is a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In early March, Mr. Zelenskiy posed a question to all the country’s oligarchs in a video address: “Are you ready to work legally and transparently, or do you want to continue to create monopolies, control the media, influence deputies and other civil servants?”

His government has lately nabbed officials trying to escape the country with stolen money or fleeing prosecution for corruption. And the president has taken the unusual step of dismissing two judges on the country’s constitutional court over their participation in rolling back anti-corruption reforms.

The IMF is not alone in applying pressure on Ukraine. In early March, President Joe Biden placed sanctions on a key oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky. And the European Union is insisting on more reforms before Ukraine can join the trade bloc. “President Zelenskiy, we are your friends; we will support you at every stage of your path to the rule of law and reform of the judiciary in Ukraine,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

The United States sees Ukraine as a “linchpin” for reform in former Soviet states. “If Ukraine succeeds, then other countries farther to the east will understand that many of the false narratives and claims by Russia are simply not true,” George Kent, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told Voice of America. One of those Russian “narratives” is that a country does not need civil-society groups as a watchdog on corruption.

The U.S. has another reason for international pressure to clean up Ukraine’s politics. It needs a successful model in helping it curb corruption in Central America, where graft is one of the main drivers of migration to the U.S.

Little noticed at the time, the IMF decision to put more sunlight on the dark side of corruption has begun to have a global impact.

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