In Ukraine’s presidential election, one big issue: corruption

Why We Wrote This

With 39 candidates for president, Ukrainians are far from united in their visions for the nation’s political future. But one end goal is top of mind for most voters: ending the nation’s endemic corruption.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Participants take part in a Ukrainian nationalist rally demanding an investigation into the activities of top officials suspected of corruption in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 23. The banner reads 'First business, then Ukraine.'

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Five years since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution brought thousands of people out onto the streets with hopes of turning the country westward, activists, journalists, and reform-minded politicians have been fighting a continuous uphill battle against corruption. And while they have had some successes, it remains a key issue ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

Public procurement and state registers are increasingly accessible to the public via the internet, increasing transparency. Automatic value-added tax refunds have helped close exploited tax loopholes. Anti-corruption agencies have been established. These all have been important steps backed by Western partners and the International Monetary Fund. And journalists have been able to hold even the powerful to account. One of the most talked-about recent pieces of journalism is an investigation into corruption at a state-owned defense giant. The reports forced the president to dismiss an ally of his tied to the affair.

“The first results are really astonishing,” says Igor Burakovsky of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting. “But at the same time these results are to be seriously defended, and they have to be developed.”

Between presidential election posters on the streets of Ukraine, one billboard shows a well-dressed arm reaching out menacingly toward a soldier. Below is the phrase “The corruptor steals from you. Monitor your money.”

It’s part of a campaign to raise awareness about how much the citizens of Ukraine pay in taxes and to create a deeper understanding of how grand corruption works.

Five years since Ukraine’s revolution brought thousands of people out onto the streets with the hopes of turning the country westward, activists, journalists, and reform-minded politicians have been fighting a continuous uphill battle against corruption. The topic comes up frequently in conversations ahead of the presidential election, as many average Ukrainians are disappointed in the pace of reforms.

Corruption “is a huge issue,” says Pavlo Sheremeta, who served as minister of economic development and trade for eight months in 2014, leaving office because of what he describes as “creeping corruption.” “I think frankly this is the reason why the current, not only president, but the whole system of government has such a low level of trust and support among Ukrainians. The expectations in Ukraine were much higher, and the president is fighting for his political survival.”

Progress against corruption

The fight against corruption comes at a moment when the average monthly wage hovers slightly above $300, millions of Ukrainians continue to go abroad to work, and nearly two-thirds of the population reports it isn’t satisfied with the standard of living. An active war continues in the country’s east that has left more than 13,000 dead since 2014.

Despite corruption being an “endemic part of state management,” Ukraine has had some successes in the past five years, says Igor Burakovsky, head of the board at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, a think tank based in Kiev that issued a report on the country’s fight with corruption.

Lydia Tomkiw
A well-dressed arm snatches food from a child on an anti-corruption billboard in Kiev, Ukraine. The text reads “The corruptor steals from you. Monitor your money.”

Public procurement in most areas takes place through an online system, ProZorro, which ensures that money is spent efficiently and transparently. Access to state registers and data is now available through an open portal, increasing transparency. Automatic value-added tax refunds have helped close exploited tax loopholes. These, as well as the establishment of anti-corruption agencies, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), and the specialized anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, have all been important steps backed by the demands of Western partners and the International Monetary Fund.

“The first results are really astonishing,” Dr. Burakovsky says. “But at the same time these results are to be seriously defended, and they have to be developed.”

The defense of reforms is top of mind as Ukrainians head to the polls Sunday in an unpredictable presidential election filled with a unique cast of candidates. The front-runner is Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a political novice known for playing the president in a popular TV show. He is running against President Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent and a wealthy chocolate magnate, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a veteran of Ukrainian political infighting nicknamed the “gas princess” for her dealings in the country’s energy sector.

Mr. Zelenskiy leads in a poll released this week, followed by Mr. Poroshenko and Ms. Tymoshenko. With it unlikely that any candidate will hit the 50-percent threshold needed to secure the presidency, a second round of voting between the top two candidates is set for April 21.

The Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), a Ukrainian civil society organization based in Kiev, has been pressing leading presidential candidates with whom they’ve met to agree to a slate of anti-corruption measures. (Only Mr. Poroshenko has declined the group’s invitation).

Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of parliament who is part of a small group advising Mr. Zelenskiy, says the candidate is committed to several of AntAC's requests, including making NABU an independent agency, guaranteeing the independence of Ukraine's anti-corruption court, reshuffling the NACP, and reforming the secret services.

‘There will be enough work’

The election campaign has been filled with dirty tricks. For example, a candidate named Yuri Tymoshenko is on the ballot in what many consider a move meant to confuse supporters of the former prime minister. And all three of the top candidates are facing accusations of varying degrees of shady ties and corruption. Even Mr. Zelenskiy has engendered concerns; despite being a political neophyte, his show airs on a channel owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, to whom Mr. Zelenskiy has denied being beholden.

But journalists and activists have been able to hold even the powerful to account. One of the most talked-about recent pieces of journalism is a multipart investigation into corruption at state-owned defense giant Ukroboronprom. The reports ricocheted across Ukrainian media and forced Mr. Poroshenko to dismiss an ally of his tied to the affair.

Still, the pressure on activists and journalists fighting corruption has been intense. Like politicians, anti-corruption groups must file asset declarations – a move activists say is meant to attack their work. AntAC has faced criminal investigations, as have individual members, including Vitaliy Shabunin, who punched a man who had been harassing him. Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of AntAC, has seen fake news spread about her alleging she lives a luxurious lifestyle and owns many houses.

Journalists and activists also face harassment and attacks. Anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk died from the injuries she sustained in an acid attack late last year.

But regardless of who the next president is, there’s so much corruption that it ensures “there will be enough work” for journalists, says Denys Bihus, who was involved in the investigation into Ukroboronprom and hosts the online and TV anti-corruption program “Nashi Hroshi” (Our Money).

Ukraine has ambitious anti-corruption legislation but doesn’t have officials who are ready to implement the legislation, says Iegor Soboliev, a reform-minded member of parliament who has worked on legislation concerning illegal enrichment and the e-declaration of assets. Finding candidates on the local and national level who are well educated and willing to combat corruption will remain a challenge.

“I’m optimistic, and I always say to people, ‘We will win, definitely, no doubt. The only question is when,’” he says. “Can we use these five or six months before parliamentary elections effectively? Or the process will require more time, more resources, more awareness? This I cannot predict.”

The past five years have taught activists and reformers that the fight against entrenched corruption is a marathon, not a sprint, Ms. Kaleniuk says.

“I don’t want to emigrate from Ukraine,” she says. “The condition for me to stay here in Ukraine is to do everything I can to change it.”

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