The Resounding Silence of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Fight

14/10/2015 10:57 BST | Updated 13/10/2016 10:12 BST


Ukrainian Constitution @flickr by Valdemar Fishmen

When Ukraine rose up against President Yanukovych in early 2014 and ousted the pro-Russian leader, things looked like they may finally be working out for Ukraine. The new president, Petro Poroshenko, gave the right speeches, full of the dog whistles everyone wanted to hear, pledging to bring to justice the oligarchs who had for so long crippled the nation's economy. At that time, Acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky emphatically argued that Yanukovych inflicted losses to the country of up to $100 billion, and that at least $32 billion were funnelled, all cash, to Russia in trucks. Poroshenko, armed with the political mandate, five new anti-corruption agencies, 18,000 prosecutors and 10,000 judges, seemed to have amassed precisely the formidable army needed to bring to justice the culprits and stop the fleecing of government funds.

Sadly, two years in, the results are dismal to say the least. From its position as the 142nd most corrupt country in the world in 2014, with an estimated 30% of the state procurement budget alone ($15 billion) siphoned off into personal coffers, little in the way of stone cold evidence or progress has been presented by Poroshenko. According to government statistics, Ukraine recovered the whopping figure of $356 in stolen funds in 2015 and convicted exactly zero high profile individuals. In a recent survey, 81% of Ukrainians still cite corruption as the main obstacle to the nation's development - trumping both the Crimean crisis and the war in Donbass. Worse, when Poroshenko found his way into the Wall Street Journal lauding his own successes in tackling state corruption, he claimed that nearly three thousand former officials were arrested - a figure that the government has refused to prove, despite multiple demands from journalists and civil society groups.

While Poroshenko points to the sheer numbers of public prosecutors active under his leadership as a supposed indication of how seriously he is approaching the issue, it is widely known how ineffectual most of these are, if not contributing to the problem themselves. Even post-Yanukovych prosecutor generals (such as Oleh Makhnitsky and Vitaly Yarema) are accused of soliciting bribes to make cases go away. Meanwhile, the Rada is filled with many of the same figures who have plundered the nation in the past- only that this time they were elected on the party lists of reformists such as Poroshenko.

To compensate for its apparent impotence, Kiev has rather worryingly chosen instead to pursue a course of 'prosecute the patsy', hunting down former senior civil servants who served the state during the previous regime. In what has been described as a political witch-hunt, the lives and reputations of a number of such formerly senior figures have been ruined and their assets, domestically and abroad, have been frozen. All well and good if deserved, but the suspicion more often is that these attempts are primarily based upon a knee jerk response to failure, a politically vindictive response to anyone who can be seen to represent Yanukovych's old regime, and a need to keep sweet those international bodies whose job it is to observe political progress.

And this is where the EU enters the story.

Entirely supportive of Poroshenko's government, the EU has been swift to give full backing to any moves made against corruption, old or new. Too swiftly some might argue, and far too obediently. It is increasingly becoming apparent that Ukraine has played a clever political subterfuge upon the EU, using its political invective to justify moves against old opponents and destroy the reputations of innocent men in the process. The case of Andriy Portnov is one in point. Accused of involvement in mass murder and a number of cases of misappropriation, charges were brought against him at home and reported to the EU which subsequently initiated sanctions against him. A year later he was cleared by a Ukrainian court, and the EU sanctions were lifted, but the damage had already been done. Portnov's reputation was in tatters. More recently, former Revenue and Tax Minister, Oleksandr Klymenko, has taken his fight to the Internet to protest against his treatment at the hands of the Ukrainian government and the EU in obliging tandem. In compelling fashion, Klymenko has described how "...The European Council has relied solely on information from the Ukrainian Prosecutor General with no transparency, no access to evidence, no hearings, no due process, no presumption of innocence...In its approach as judge-jury-executioner, the EU is lending a hand to the political-cleansing of Ukraine."

Faced with these embarrassing developments, it's no small wonder that both the EU and the US have renewed calls on Ukrainian authorities to get serious about the anticorruption fight. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine has accused the country's Prosecutor-General's Office of being an "obstacle" to implementing reforms and for protecting its own employees from graft investigations. The White House declared it is "extremely concerned" by the levels of corruption, while Ukrainian media spread news that US Vice President Joe Bieden warned both Poroshenko and Yatseniuk that Washington's support would be jeopardized if corruption was not curbed.

On the other side of the pond, the EU rang alarm bells through the voice of senior officials, in an effort to save face for the embarrassing progression of the sanctions regime. Indeed, it is entirely naïve to believe that even a new regime in a nation renowned for its culture of corruption is beyond the temptation to succumb to manipulating due process - as the case of Poroshenko's government almost certainly proves. Applying sanctions without at least some element of independent investigation and relying wholly upon accusations made by political opposition, serves only to further undermine collective faith as to the legitimacy of the EU's international role.

Poroshenko, himself a billionaire oligarch, was hailed by the West for his anti-corruption virtues when he was sworn into office. A year and a half into his term, the so-called reformer is proving to be just a more cunning version of his fellow oligarchs: gaining control of the state by promising without delivering.