Five years ago, at the Euromaidan and several other Maidans across the country, the people of the sovereign state of Ukraine impressively demonstrated their decision in favour of a future of European values, fundamental rights and the rule of law. Fighting corruption has been one of the driving powers of the Revolution of Dignity and, according to opinion polls in the run up to the upcoming election, remains a priority for Ukrainians.
As a symptom of poor governance that affects current and future Ukrainian citizens, it is a matter of democratic legitimacy and future sustainability to ask Are Ukraine's Anti-corruption Reforms Working? – as John Lough, Associate Fellow with Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, and the Ukrainian economist Vladimir Dubrovsky have done in their recent research.
Lunchtime expert debate in Berlin
On February 18th at an event hosted by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, John Lough introduced the main findings of this research to an audience of German policymakers, members of the Bundestag, experts and journalists. Lough and Dubrovsky’s research explores a broad range of economic and government activities in Ukraine in which anti-corruption measures have been introduced – from energy and natural resources to banking, customs, taxes and law enforcement. Mykhailo Zhernakov, Director of the Ukrainian NGO DEJURE Foundation and a former board member of the Reanimation Package of Reforms, one of the largest Ukrainian civil society pro-reform coalitions, pointed to the lack of a properly functioning judicial system as the main problem standing in the way of effective anti-corruption efforts. The former judge explained how the institutions of the judiciary intertwine with the newly established specialized anti-corruption agencies and gave some insight into the challenge of reforming the regular courts. Ironically, old habits have re-appeared under judicial self-governance, which may have to do with an underlying culture of corruption in the Ukrainian judiciary. One lesson learned is that what appears to be a generally reasonable idea cannot be simply transplanted to a differently formed landscape such as that observed in Ukraine. We must take the unembellished reality before us as the starting point and gradually build up the core values on which a judicial system must be based. Clemens Müller, Senior Anti-corruption Advisor for the EU-Anticorruption Initiative EUACI and the EU Advisory Mission completed the picture with his comments on the important role played by the main international actors fostering structural reforms in Ukraine: the EU and its Member States, the IMF, EBRD and World Bank.
Significant progress in reducing the space for corruption, but much remains to be done
The speakers kicked off a lively debate on the unprecedented reforms and anti-corruption institutions brought about by an engaged Ukrainian civil society and persistent donor countries. All agreed that the joint pressure of both groups has been crucial to establishing agencies made from a different fabric than the rest of the judicial and law enforcement system. There were also questions regarding disturbing developments – for example, the highly reputed National Anti-Corruption Bureau NABU finding itself at war with the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Security Service of Ukraine or without support from a weak National Agency for Corruption Prevention. The current state of affairs is complex; on the one hand, we observe unprecedented transparency and knowledge regarding policymakers’, officials’, and judges’ assets, and a lack of subsequent accountability for illicit wealth, on the other. A highly controversial extended application of obligatory public asset declarations to representatives of civil society organizations further complicates matters. Participants also wanted to know what might result as a consequence of the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutors Office’s (SAPO) outright obstruction of the NABU.
The HACC is not a silver bullet, but it has a role to play in developing a culture of accountability
Despite these concerns, there have been encouraging developments. The selection procedure for the High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC), for example, has been deemed a success because of the criticism waged by independent international experts who vetoed candidate judges in case of reasonable doubts concerning their integrity or professional knowledge. As a result, expectations regarding the HACC becoming operational this year remain high, even though participants agreed that it would be naïve to expect an end to political interference in the judicial system. Nevertheless, the HACC could play a valuable role in developing a much-needed culture of accountability in Ukraine where existing judicial disciplinary bodies have proved inadequate.
It remains crucial to reduce the opportunities for corruption
The question of political will among Ukrainian policymakers and civil servants was also discussed. Concerns were raised that donor support for NGOs, civil society and reform-oriented politicians in Ukraine – who lack the power to bring about change individually – may be in vain. The discussants could not agree on whether more pressure and “negative conditionality” may prove to be an overly critical and impatient approach because Ukraine’s transformation is on track and simply needs more time. Conditionality like the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan can kick-start the reform process, but hardly sustain it if political will is lacking. There was agreement, however, that the young Ukrainian democracy, with all its flaws, needs and deserves consistent support in the form of constructive ideas and strategies to meet current challenges, especially given the strength of old forces.
Continuous support for Ukraine’s and Europe’s future
While monopolies generally pose a challenge in transformation countries and limit many key sectors and most branches of the economy, in order to establish good governance, policymakers must be able to act without the interference of for example officials or oligarchs. To battle political monopolies and corruption, Lough and Dubrovsky offer recommendations that address a blind spot in traditional methods of election observing: change the election law to enable a more even political playing field and bring an end to the practice among members of parliament paying for their seats, either by purchasing their spot on party lists or by using illegal campaign tactics in single mandate constituencies. Although these reforms were agreed to in the coalition agreement of 2014, they have regrettably not materialized during the past five years and will therefore not play a role for parliamentary elections this fall. It is therefore crucial they be implemented in time for future elections.