I nearly dropped my cup of coffee when I read the recent headline: ‘The Head of Government Volodymyr Groysman made a statement about the “Beginning of the end of corruption” in Ukraine.’ His comment came after Volodymr Karpliuk and Oleksandr Onyshchenko followed Serhiy Kluyev in the miserable tradition of being allowed to flee from Ukraine as soon as so-called "criminal investigations" begin.
I am British and we do have a famously good sense of humour, so I could not help but think to myself: maybe the prime minister has a weekend job where he is a comedian? Maybe he travels to Odesa every Friday evening to do stand-up comedy in a nightclub? If he is not a part-time comedian, then the only response is to remind him of modern Europe’s two largest popular uprisings, both of which took place in Ukraine - the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan Revolution. Both were the product of Ukrainians becoming fed up with politicians telling them about ‘the beginning of the end of corruption’ in Ukraine.
We have heard this kind of empty rhetoric for the past two decades from four previous Ukrainian presidents. Understandably, nobody pays much attention to such statements anymore – either in Ukraine or in the West. Ukrainians and Westerners want action and results, not empty talk or apparent attempts at black humour.
This continuing failure to tackle corruption raises some fundamental questions: firstly, why do Ukrainian elites not take into account the lessons of Ukraine’s revolutions? Secondly, why do they continue to believe they can hoodwink their own people and the country’s Western partners?
Ukrainian corruption – an unconquerable foe?
Making predictions in Ukraine depends very much on who is in power. Based on the current alignments in government, I will make two predictions. The first is there will be no ‘beginning of the end of corruption in Ukraine’, and the second is that Petro Poroshenko will not win a second term. Instead, he will eventually become as vilified as Viktor Yushchenko for having betrayed the second of the country’s two post-Soviet revolutions.
Corruption in Ukraine is deeply entrenched and an engrained part of the very structures that make up the Ukrainian state. Even if Ukraine elected a president for the first time with the political will to fight corruption, he or she would find it very difficult in practice to make meaningful headway. As in Italy and the US in the 1970s and 1980s, this would be literally a war with heavy casualties. In Italy, journalists, prosecutors, judges, politicians and police died in the war against the mafia and corruption. Tellingly, I have never heard of a Ukrainian prosecutor being attacked for standing up against corruption.
No progress despite successive anti-corruption revolutions
Corruption did not decline in Ukraine after the Orange Revolution or following the Euromaidan Revolution. This failure to make process is because oligarch-friendly presidents Yushchenko and Poroshenko came to power, and also due to the exceptionally deep structural levels of corruption in the country. Transparency International (TI) ranks Ukraine today at 130 with a higher level of corruption than it had in 2004 (ranking of 122), the last year of the much-maligned Leonid Kuchma’s presidency.
According to TI, corruption declined in 2005-2006 but then began to grow again. By the time Viktor Yushchenko left office in 2010, corruption was higher than under Kuchma (134 ranking). Under Yushchenko’s successor Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ranking predictably declined further to 144. Nor can this desperately poor performance be attributed to the Soviet inheritance. The 2015 TI rankings identify five post-Soviet members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with lower levels of corruption than Ukraine - Russia (119), Belarus (107), Armenia (95), Kazakhstan (123) and Kyrgyzstan (123). Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only three Central Asian states have higher levels of corruption than Ukraine. Meanwhile, fellow Western-leaning former Soviet republics Georgia and Moldova are ranked 48 and 103 respectively.
What can we conclude from these figures? Firstly, Ukraine’s rhetoric on European integration does not translate into action in the fight against corruption. Five members of the EEU who do not seek to join Europe all have lower levels of corruption than Ukraine which claims we will soon see ‘the beginning of the end of corruption in Ukraine.’ Secondly, Georgia and Moldova also have Association Agreements with the EU but their levels of corruption are lower than Ukraine’s because they not only talk about fighting corruption - they actually do something about it.
Corruption kills off investor interest
What about other indicators? The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom has not noticed any positive changes in Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution. Ukraine is still ranked with the lowest level of economic freedom in Europe with no respect for the rule of law. These rankings discourage foreign investors in Ukraine, but they reflect a sad reality that cannot be wished away with attractive slogans. I personally know two people (one from New York and one from my home region of Yorkshire in England) who each claim to have lost millions of dollars in Ukraine as a result of their corrupt partners. Virtually every foreign investor familiar with the former Soviet Union could provide similar anecdotal evidence of the difficulties in dealing with a corrupt Ukrainian business climate.
I would very much like Ukraine’s endless anti-corruption rhetoric to translate into action. The choice is up to Groysman. He must decide whether he wants to continue a depressing Ukrainian tradition of empty promises, or whether he wants to show he is a genuine reformist prime minister and European leader. Sadly, observations over the past two years lead me to suspect that we will still be hearing bad comedy instead of good policy right up until the end of President Poroshenko’s first term in 2019.
About the author: Taras Kuzio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. His most recent book ‘Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption and the New Russian Imperialism’ (Praeger, June 2015) surveys modern Ukrainian political history from 1953 to the present.