CAN UKRAINE OVERCOME ENDEMIC CORRUPTION?

DIE ZEIT: Poroshenko and parliament sabotaging reforms but Ukraine's switch to European values is irreversible

Sergiy Leshchenko: Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution faces huge challenges from corrupt old guard but move towards more transparent European model is only a matter of time

Serhiy Leshchenko (translation by Desmond Tumulty)
Saturday, 06 May 2017 13:29

In the last three years, my country has witnessed the ouster of authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych, the occupation of part of its territory and the death or injury of tens of thousands of its citizens. It was corruption which weakened Ukraine's army and made the country easy prey for Russia. Corruption has caused Ukraine's national currency to plummet and deprived millions of a social safety net and jobs. The dramatic events taking place in our country, here on the eastern edge of Europe, have forced us to fight for honest politics in Ukraine on a daily basis.

Two and a half years ago, I became a member of the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, after a 14-year career as an investigative journalist. I reported on politics from the outside, and was prepared to be confronted with a harsh reality. Nevertheless, I was shocked by the cynicism I encountered. I call the Ukrainian parliament the largest business club in Europe: Buy yourself membership, and although you'll occasionally need to press a voting button, your main prize -- an opportunity to get rich via the redistribution of state funds -- will be hidden from the public’s watchful eye.

It's the Ukrainian version of a startup: Invest a few million dollars in a dirty election campaign and after a few parliamentary terms you'll be a multimillionaire with a private jet and yacht. This is what happened to one corrupt politician, Vitaliy Khomutynnik. Reaching this level of financial success doesn't require you to be a business trailblazer or an innovator, you just need to agree to administer the Ukrainian budget. The brightest stars in Silicon Valley could only dream of those kinds of earnings.

Inside the parliament building, the air is thick with corruption. Even two and a half years after taking my oath of office, I still struggle to get used to it. I sometimes hear MPs discussing business in the legislative chamber. Although the constitution forbids it, it is considered normal to combine business and politics, even in the current convocation of the Rada. This is most strikingly apparent during parliamentary sessions on the budget, which last until 5 a.m. so that all political centers of influence can satisfy their corrupt interests. The government even manages to garner the votes of so-called opposition parties. One such party, headed by rabid populist Oleh Lyashko, votes for the budget as regularly as clockwork -- in exchange for this, a company belonging to a member of the party receives 20 million euros from the budget to manufacture fire trucks.

Last year, our parliament adopted a revolutionary law on state party financing analogous to legislation which has been on the books in Germany since the 1960s. I drafted this law, which was one of a litany of demands made by the European Union in exchange for the introduction of visa-free travel. The underlying principle, which I spoke up for in parliament, was that state money would be given out in exchange for transparent party finances. As I presented the law, I could see resistance from the kleptocratic politicians. They used their influence to change the legislation, and now parliamentary parties receive money from the budget that do not adhere to financial transparency.

Thus the political waters remain muddied one and a half years after the law's adoption; new arrivals try to survive in the midst of corrupt predators. The main problem is that President Poroshenko took the side of the old politicians who abuse their power for their own profit. By sabotaging the reforms, our leaders slow the progress, but it is irreversible – much like the Ukrainian people's decision to back European values during the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly apparent that President Poroshenko’s intention to run for re-election in 2019 is not only slowing down the pace of reforms by making him less willing to implement unpopular measures, but causing anti-corruption achievements to be rolled back.

In his campaign, Poroshenko has resorted to the same tried-and-tested methods I witnessed as a journalist in the late 1990s under authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma. These include the consolidation of the police and justice authorities, the muzzling of critical reports on television, the wide-ranging use of funds of questionable provenance and the slander of political opponents.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is currently under President Poroshenko’s control, its role having grown considerably since the start of the armed uprising by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. The security agency now has no qualms about monitoring civic activists, independent journalists and opposition politicians, and is actively involved in resolving business conflicts. This has led a younger generation to help uncover the secret service’s illegal activities, as a result of which the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), for example, launched an investigation into the activities of Pavlo Demchyna, one of the deputy chiefs of the security service.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is also under President Poroshenko's control. It is run by Yuriy Lutsenko, his crony and the former parliamentary leader of the president's political party, BPP Solidarity. After a year under his leadership, the office remains unreformed and partisan, and some members of staff bypass the prosecutor general altogether, deferring instead to friends of the president. Young politicians and investigative journalists regularly act to expose covert influence on the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which has led to the resignation of three prosecutors general in only three years.

The embryonic State Bureau of Investigation, a security agency, may also fall into the president’s hands by the election. Both favorites in the race for the agency's leadership post are fully under the president’s thumb. Two other newly created bodies – the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office – also fall under the influence of the presidential administration.

NABU is the only truly independent body. It recently caused a political sensation by arresting the head of the State Fiscal Service, Roman Nasirov, a man close to the president. Knowing that there will eventually be an anti-corruption investigation into his associates, the president is now waging a multifaceted, behind-the-scenes war to discredit NABU. We have spent the last month in parliament hindering the presidential administration’s attempts to appoint a partisan auditor to NABU, which could result in the dismissal of its leader. We were only able to prevent this from happening thanks to the courageous and unprecedented joint efforts of anti-corruption politicians, civic activists and Western diplomats.

There have also been continuing efforts to consolidate the media behind the president. He secures the loyalty of oligarch-owned television channels through jointly concealed corruption networks, as in the energy sector, for example, where Poroshenko, through the state's control over a regulatory authority, created the conditions allowing Donetsk clan founder Rinat Akhmetov to earn exorbitant profits. The current authorities can also control the parts of the mass media belonging to associates of the runaway President Yanukovych by blackmailing them with threats of closure or the imposition of huge fines. That said, complete censorship is no longer possible in Ukraine, as independent social networks and online television channels have become the main source of information for a significant section of the population.

Given his control over the security forces and media, Poroshenko has a considerable competitive advantage over his rivals. Using information gathered by the secret services, campaigns are mounted to discredit all activists, journalists and state employees who investigate state corruption. Even the workers who author false news reports and adopt fake online identities at the Ukrainian equivalent of Olgino, the notorious Russian troll factory, have been called upon to help mount attacks on the government's opponents. Little-known websites regularly produce false reports about anti-corruption forces living the high life and publish photoshopped images of supposedly compromising events. These fake news stories then get broad coverage after complicit "experts" and pro-government politicians comment on them.

The latest example is the introduction of a new requirement for civic anti-corruption activists to electronically declare their assets and earnings. The law, modelled on Putin’s bill against foreign agents, was adopted with the express aim of muzzling independent voices. I believe it will have the opposite effect, and the pro-government ideologues behind it will only succeed in turning part of society against them.

The current president remains vulnerable to public opinion. His plummeting ratings have forced him to heed the opinions expressed on social networks and of the protestors. He has recently been forced to make concessions, reverse unpopular decisions and even speak out publicly in favor of social initiatives.

Poroshenko's central error was his attempt to go against the tide of history. The fight against corruption has become an international phenomenon -- from Romania to South Korea, from Brazil to Indonesia – and a politically fashionable movement in Ukraine after the Euromaidan Revolution.

The current president now faces a choice. He can spearhead that movement. The alternative is to launch a Russian-style witch hunt, attacking civic activists and anti-corruption bodies and to try to salvage plummeting poll numbers. Any Futher financial support to Ukraine should be contingent upon major reform, including a new electoral law and the creation of an anti-corruption tribunal.

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