Time to rethink Ukraine’s fight against corruption

Discussions about the fight against corruption can sometimes become a little confused. After all, corruption cannot ever really be “defeated.” The kind of institutional corruption involving public servants of whatever kind exists in every country and always will. What can be done is to reduce this corruption to manageable levels so that it doesn’t deform governmental, economic, or social interactions.

When it comes to talking about corruption, those of us lucky enough to live in the world’s most mature democracies can also be guilty of unwarranted self-righteousness when we address the problems in countries such as Ukraine. A recently released study by Global Financial Integrity, a Washington think tank, documents how US real estate has become a “Kleptocrat’s dream,” a safe haven for laundering billions of dollars in dirty money from, among other places, Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the conjunction of US laws governing lobbying and those governing political contributions allows for behavior that can sometimes look suspiciously like bribery. So perhaps a little humility is in order when we preach to Ukraine.

That said, due to a range of complex historical factors, official corruption in Ukraine is without question elevated. Equally clearly, it is in the interests of Ukraine and the country’s Western partners to help reduce this level.

Corruption can be reduced in meaningful ways if three issues are addressed simultaneously. This means implementing a full corruption prevention system; providing public servants with appropriate remuneration; and building an effective administrative as well as a criminal law enforcement system of punishments.

Some of these issues have already been at least partially addressed. Model codes of professional ethics for Ukrainian agencies were developed over a decade ago but not fully adopted, while an entity to record and administer a financial declarations system for public servants has been established, albeit in the face of furious and ongoing opposition. These shortcomings need to be fixed, and a number of other additional preventative measures developed and adopted.

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One key problem is funding. Since 2014, Ukraine has been forced to devote an extremely large portion of its limited resources to the war effort, with over 5% of GDP being spent annually to defend the country against Russian aggression.

Ukraine needs financial help, for a period of approximately five years, to improve the salaries and benefits paid to public servants. One striking example of this trend in practice is Singapore, which pays its highest ranking public servants a million dollars a year. Ukrainian public servants need to be paid a decent wage so that, aided by an aggressive anti-corruption educational campaign, most will hesitate long and hard before throwing it all away.

Ukraine’s law enforcement and its entire legal system need reform, starting with what goes on in law schools. Various large and small building blocks have already been put in place. These include the corruption investigation agency NABU, the country’s new anti-corruption court, an inspector general unit at the Prosecutor General’s Office, and a management and organizational review of the Prosecutor General’s Office performed by PricewaterhouseCoopers. At present, the situation with the judiciary is the most pressing.

The obstacles to reducing corruption in Ukraine are substantial but not insurmountable. Individual Western countries and various Western institutions have attempted numerous initiatives, projects, and measures to try and help, but although there have been isolated successes, overall results have been disappointing.

This reflects the failure to recognize that genuine corruption reduction requires simultaneous movement on all three of the fronts identified above. To be effective, this also requires longer term planning and coordination among the many individual Western actors engaged in Ukraine.

Looking ahead, it would be helpful if Ukraine’s Western partners enhanced cooperation with Ukrainian government and civil society actors to map out a comprehensive strategy for an extended period of four, five, or six years.

Individual national aid agencies as well as the various international organizations (World Bank, EU, Council of Europe, EBRD, etc.) working with Ukraine each have different rules and regulations governing what they may do and how they commit financial resources, so engaging a range of potential stakeholders could significantly expand the number of available tools and resources.

Involving former or retired judges, prosecutors, police officials, and other professionals, both from the West and Ukraine, in any such projects is likely to expand the knowledge and experience base.

A division of labor among Western stakeholders could also be beneficial. For example, it would be helpful if two or three Western actors would focus on judicial reform, while another set of stakeholders focused on the prosecution service, and another on the police.

This approach would not guarantee success. But a coordinated and well-resourced push that starts from the premise that all three legs of any effective corruption reduction endeavor need to be built or rebuilt simultaneously, and whose time frame is not limited by the comparatively short tenures of individual officials at their respective embassies or international organizations, would have a much higher likelihood of success than previous projects to help Ukraine reduce corruption.

Bohdan Vitvitsky is a former Federal Prosecutor with the US Department of Justice. He served as Resident Legal Advisor at the US Embassy in Ukraine from 2007 to 2009 and later served as Special Advisor to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

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Image: The Ukrainian flag flies above parliament in Kyiv. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)