Ukraine’s other war front wins a few battles

An arrest and a flurry of firings and resignations point to new victories against corruption – and for rising public demands for integrity.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the media Jan. 24.

In the past week, Ukraine has scored a few battlefield victories – and not only in the war against Russia. Rather, they were on a front just as vital to its independence and hopes of joining the European Union: a war on corruption. 

On Sunday, the deputy minister of infrastructure was arrested on charges of taking $400,000 in facilitating contracts for power generators. The deputy defense minister resigned Tuesday after a news report found the military was paying for food at prices two to three times higher than those in stores. And the deputy head of the president’s office also resigned after he was seen driving a Porsche owned by a businessman.

Then President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched the biggest government reshuffle since the start of the war nearly a year ago. He ousted five governors and several top deputy ministers, many of them under suspicion of graft. “Any internal issues that hinder the state are being removed and will continue to be removed,” he said. “There will be no return to what used to be in the past.”

To keep receiving Western military aid and be ready for foreign help in postwar reconstruction, Ukraine’s leaders have stepped up progress in ensuring clean governance, such as appointing a chief anti-corruption prosecutor. The efforts really started after the protest-driven democratic revolutions of 2004 and 2013-2014. But they accelerated with the start of the war and then an EU decision last June to grant Ukraine candidate status to join the bloc – under tough conditions to curb the country’s historic culture of corruption.

Vigilance by news media and civil society have kept a flame under elected leaders. Yet like the remarkable fighting spirit of Ukrainians against Russian forces, the people themselves have shown a strong embrace of public integrity, accountability, and transparency.

A nationwide survey reveals the share of Ukrainians who believe corruption cannot be justified rose to 64% last year, up from 40% in the year before the invasion. The willingness of Ukrainians to report cases of corruption has increased to 84% from 44%.

Perhaps no nation has seen such a swift and dramatic turnaround in seeking honest government and building a culture of integrity. The reforms implemented so far, says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a leading expert on corruption in Europe, will help develop Ukraine as a rule-of-law state, “something the Ukrainians are fighting for against Russia on the front line at the moment.”

In a country that long regarded some people as more equal than others, the war with Russia and the war on corruption have created a new demand for equality. Or as Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the president’s office, tweeted, Mr. Zelenskyy’s actions this week against corruption respond “to a key public demand – justice for all.”

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