E-declarations: Ukraine’s Moment of Truth

Ukraine's e-declarations have been hailed by some as a huge anti-corruption victory. However, the media has focused almost exclusively on revelations of the outrageous wealth amassed by state employees. Ukraine’s Ambassador to Austria Olexander Scherba argues the case for rising above tabloid titillation and viewing e-declarations in a wider historical context.

E-declarations: Ukraine’s Moment of Truth
Fighting corruption by exposing assets: Ukrainian officials have revealed vast wealth via publicly available e-declarations
Olexander Scherba
Wednesday, 02 November 2016 21:24

Even if you have spent the past week sailing a yacht somewhere off Mauritius, you will probably heard the big news from Ukraine: the country has made public the assets of its entire political class. This means almost 100,000 people, including both politicians and state officials. Perhaps if you are a Ukrainian who has been sailing on your own yacht and therefore missed the deadline to file your declaration, you might want to stop reading at this point and contemplate the repercussions of this failure.

If you are not Ukrainian, just imagine for a moment what it would mean if the political elite of your country exposed their assets to public scrutiny. Not to the tax authorities. Not to district attorneys. To everyone. I have been told that something of this kind exists in one or two Scandinavian countries, but by modern European standards, such levels of transparency are rather extreme. 

For Ukraine, these e-declarations are more than merely extreme. They represent an earthquake that could realistically influence the future direction of the entire country. Such transparency goes contrary to all of the key trends that have dominated Ukraine since the country reemerged as an independent state in 1991. Ever since the Soviet collapse, the typical scenario has been for Ukrainian officials to avoid taxes while receiving illicit payments in envelopes. Ukraine became a country where civil servants with modest official salaries drove top-of-the-range Mercedes sedans. Many people accepted the dishonesty of this system and lived a lie, but it helped to make the Ukrainian state weak. This rotten status quo played a key role in provoking the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14. Rich and poor, young and old – they all made their way to the Maidan and lined up at the barricades because they wanted to live honestly.  



Almost three years after the revolution, we are now witnessing the entire political class making a huge step forward: showing the balance of their bank accounts, the watches on their wrists, and the necklaces on their wives’ necks. Clearly, not every single one of these 100,000 people has told the whole truth in their e-declarations (the newly established anti-corruption structures might want to take it up with them). Clearly, the volume of cash in the possession of some politicians is raising more than a few eyebrows. Sadly, some especially brazen politicians have even chosen to mock this new procedure. However, not too many have done so, and hopefully not for too long, either. 

In my humble opinion, the majority of the political class took this first step with due earnestness. I know I did. I know my fellow Ukrainian diplomats did. In a way, this step opens a window of opportunity for the nation: to go clean and re-establish ourselves as a law-abiding society – from the top to the bottom. In other words, it can come to serve as the starting point for a new social contract. We still have a long way to go before trust can return to Ukrainian society. Nevertheless, this particularly courageous first step deserves broader recognition. 



The most exciting thing about the e-declarations for me is this: they won’t go away. This is not a tweet you can erase. You cannot claim your account was hacked. It is not a journalistic revelation soon forgotten or challenged. These are personal testimonies laid bare before the Ukrainian people. We have finally arrived at a point where (at least if you are a state servant) you do not have to pretend to be poor, but you must be able to account for your wealth. This means more accountability for the elite and more leverage for voters. Most importantly, it means more common sense. This is a revolutionary concept for Ukrainian politics. For far too long, Ukraine’s political culture has been notorious for deceit and deception. In an industry known throughout the world for dishonesty, Ukraine’s politicians have nevertheless often managed to establish new lows.

Perhaps inevitably, the initial international reaction to Ukraine’s e-declarations has focused on the massive corruption these documents appear to reveal. However, to all those people in the West who are currently saddling up their “why-do-we-help-those-corrupt-Ukrainian-politicians-if-they-have-so-much-money” horse, my message is simple – you are not helping the politicians. You are helping a nation that has chosen democracy and is suffering for this choice.  You are helping a nation that is taking unprecedented steps to go straight – such as forcing the country’s elite to expose the contents of their wallets. It is also important not forget that you are helping someone who is fighting Europe’s war against a power that hates and despises Europe. If this fight leaves you cold, then you probably have a problem with Europe as it is, and not with what Ukraine aspires to become.


About the author: Olexander Scherba is the Ukrainian Ambassador to Austria


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