Curbing the kleptocrats: Kiev chips away at its pervasive corruption

'We have a total kleptocratic state,' says Yegor Sobolev, Ukraine's lead anti-graft legislator. But he is cheerfully confident that 'we will win.'

A policeman places handcuffs on Chairman of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service Serhiy Bochkovsky during a meeting of the government in Kiev last month. Ukrainian police entered the televised government meeting and, in front of TV cameras, detained two high-ranking officials from the state emergency services on suspicion of involvement in high-level corruption. Mr. Bochkovsky was later released for lack of evidence.

It happens any time Ukrainians get stopped by a cop, put their kids in a new school, see a doctor, or seek any kind of official permit, from driver's license to death certificate. You've got to pay a bribe.

"My friend got a new job, but now she has to pay a kickback of 500 hryvnias [about $20] per month to the middleman who helped her find it," says Olga Klimenko, a middle-aged office worker. "That's how it works. You don't get anything done otherwise."

Even now, a year after the Maidan revolution installed a new crop of politicians who vowed to sweep away the country's notorious and unpopular top-to-bottom corruption, people say nothing has been accomplished.

"I've begun to think that the only way to deal with corruption is to bring in foreigners to do the job," says Larisa Blokhina, a Kiev housewife. "It's just obvious that Ukrainians are not up to it. We're all completely compromised by this system."

That's just a taste of what Yegor Sobolev, the head of the Ukrainian parliament's anti-corruption committee, is up against. A former opposition journalist, Maidan activist, and newly-minted parliamentary deputy from the liberal Self-Reliance Party, his resume sounds like exactly what's needed. And he cheerfully admits that most of his predecessors in the job, which has existed for two decades, have indeed turned out to be part of the problem.

"We've never made any headway against corruption in the past because it totally pervades this society," he says. "It's the biggest problem in Ukraine. Not war, not economic crisis, but corruption. Every judge, cop, general, prosecutor, politician and teacher is accustomed to using his position to line his pockets. And they protect each other. We have a total kleptocratic state."

Europe's most corrupt country

Mr. Sobolev started his parliamentary career barely six months ago as head of the Lustration Committee, charged with weeding out former communists and officials of the disgraced regime of Viktor Yanukovych from government offices. He earned brief notoriety earlier this year by getting into a fist-fight with a conservative lawmaker (the video went viral on YouTube.)

These days, he's up against Ukraine's ranking as Europe's "most corrupt country." The global corruption watchdog Transparency International lists it at 142nd place out of 175 countries, somewhere near Uganda and much lower than Nigeria. It's been estimated that officials on the take annually pocket about 20 percent of Ukraine's GDP.

There has been no shortage of past clean-up attempts. Yury Panenko, a middle-aged professional, says he's seen numerous anti-corruption campaigns come and go. "There are always big slogans, and some new instruments created to crack down on bribery and graft," he says. "And those new instruments always end up being vehicles to protect the guilty and generate even more corruption. It's just impossible."

But Sobolev insists that this time will be different. "The members of our committee are the most active and determined group ever to take on this huge problem," he says. "We have a former investigative journalist, a battalion commander from the front, civil society activists. And they are completely focused on doing this."

And the new anti-corruption campaign is being conducted with total transparency, he says. "We have a partnership with the media, and with civil society. They uncover and publicize corrupt schemes, and we take action."

The new effort has seen some success. One win Sobolev takes credit for is the recent resignation of Ukraine's chief prosecutor, Vitaly Yarema. Mr. Yarema could be a textbook example of the deeply rooted and seemingly incorrigible nature of the problem. He was a Maidan activist, put into his post by President Petro Poroshenko to fight corruption. "But of course he did nothing," says Sobolev.

Then journalists exposed Yarema's deputy for corrupt dealings with members of the former Yanukovych regime. Under intense pressure over both his department's dealings and a lack of high-profile prosecutions, Yarema was forced to quit. "It's the first time in Ukrainian history that a prosecutor-general has been fired not at the wish of the president, but by public demand," Sobolev says.

'We will win'

Less successful was the televised arrest of two top officials last month while they were attending a government meeting. Sheepish law enforcement officials later released one of the men due to lack of evidence.

And Sobolev says many corrupt officials are insulated by the system. Sobolev says he faults President Poroshenko for stalling efforts to remove corrupt judges. Even the prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has been the subject of intense corruption rumors. (Sobolev did not comment on the accusations against Mr. Yatsenyuk.)

"We need fresh people to come into the justice system, but Poroshenko doesn't support this idea," he says. "He saves many people from the old system from losing their positions. That's a big topic of discussion around here."

Sobolev says he and civil society allies are now lobbying hard for a law that will require the names and assets of every Ukrainian citizen to be made public. That will enable the population to help track down corrupt individuals whose property or other assets doesn't match their declared incomes. He brushes off privacy objections, saying he got the idea from a similar Finnish law.

And within weeks Ukraine's new professional anti-corruption bureau, which will work with police, secret services, and public groups to track down corruption schemes, should be up and running.

"Of course corruption is a huge and daunting problem. We need very strong medicine," he says. "Thousands of state officials hate us, but millions of Ukrainians support us. That's why we will win."

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