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Corruption in Ukraine: Myths and Reality


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(Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s Symposium, “International Law in the Face of Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine: The View from Lviv.”)

Corruption has long been a persistent challenge in Ukraine, undermining governance, public trust, and the economy. Before the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity” that toppled the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, corruption in Ukraine was widespread, with Transparency International ranking Ukraine 144 out of 177 countries in its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. This corruption influenced every aspect of society, from public services to business, causing significant economic losses and eroding trust in government institutions.

Since then 2014, however, Ukraine has made significant efforts in its fight against corruption. Primarily through a new architecture of government anticorruption institutions, monitored closely by civil society, Ukrainians have seen progress in this area that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, even through the current war. Still, Ukraine has experienced challenges as well as successes on that path toward its goal of a more transparent and accountable system. The issue came up again when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to Kyiv last month to discuss a new military aid package finally approved by the U.S. Congress and to urge the Ukrainian government to continue fighting corruption. To do so, a collective push will be needed from the public, the private sector, the government, and international partners.

New Anticorruption Architecture

The 2014 revolution was spurred by Yanukovych’s decision to turn the country away from its planned European direction and toward Moscow instead, but as the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square unfolded, public corruption became another key driver, and the country’s European Union aspirations were seen as an antidote. In response to those public demands, Ukraine’s new post-revolution government commenced building a comprehensive anticorruption framework under President Petro Poroshenko. Within the next five years, it established the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP), and the High Anticorruption Court (HACC). These four institutions now form the backbone of this new anticorruption architecture. Since their creation, these bodies have delivered tangible results.

The National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has been instrumental in investigating high-level corruption cases. Since its formation, NABU has opened thousands of investigations and brought more than 1,000 cases to court. Among these cases are high-profile prosecutions involving oligarchs and top officials, including former Cabinet ministers, judges, and even the Head of the Supreme Court. Additionally, NABU’s investigations into corruption at state-owned enterprises have led to the recovery of public funds in the amount of more than 3 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (equivalent of $76 million). In March 2023, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Cabinet appointed a new director of NABU, Semen Kryvonos, after a rigorous selection process and integrity checks.

In October 2023, Transparency International Ukraine, in its “Study of Capacity, Governance, and Interaction of Agencies That Make Up Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Infrastructure 2023,” commended NABU for its  progress. The study, conducted with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, determined that NABU and the High Anticorruption Court (HACC) registered the biggest assessment score increases among anticorruption agencies compared with 2020. “The NABU demonstrates that it is a stable, effective, and independent institution, capable of handling the tasks assigned to it,” said Kateryna Ryzhenko, Transparency International’s deputy executive director for legal affairs. NABU “also demonstrates growth and regular implementation of best practices in its work, which affects the results of the entire anti-corruption system,” Ryzhenko said.

The Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) works in tandem with NABU to prosecute corruption cases effectively. It has prosecuted cases involving high-ranking officials and ensured that anticorruption laws are enforced. SAPO has overseen the prosecution of several high-profile cases, including those against members of parliament and high-ranking judges, signaling that corruption at any level will not be tolerated. A former NABU detective, Oleksandr Klymenko, became the new head of SAPO in July 2022, appointed by an also new prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, based on the results of a transparent public competition. The selection of a new head of SAPO, which had been delayed for two years, was among the requirements Ukraine had to meet to begin accession negotiations with the EU. U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Finance Brent Neiman, in remarks at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington this week, called SAPO “the teeth of Ukraine’s anti-corruption apparatus,” and noted that it had issued 100 corruption indictments last year alone. He also cited legislation adopted by Ukraine’s parliament, Verkhovna Rada, in December to further insulate SAPO from politicization.

The High Anticorruption Court (HACC) adjudicates cases brought by NABU and SAPO. Since its establishment in 2019, HACC has made significant strides in delivering justice. In the four years of its work, HACC has issued more than 150 convictions, including cases involving top government officials and business leaders. A recent example is a guilty verdict in the case of a former member of Parliament who had been a fugitive, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, in relation to alleged gas fraud carried out in 2014-2016. In 2023 alone, HACC heard 130 criminal cases alleging corruption.

The court’s independence and effectiveness have improved confidence in the overall judicial processes in Ukraine. In particular, the Court Index 2023 survey, which polls 100 executives and 75 lawyers in companies belonging to the Kyiv-based European Business Association, the level of trust in the judiciary on the part of business leaders increased from 1.96 points on a 5-point scale to 2.17 points.

Finally, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) focuses on preventive measures and policy guidance. Established in 2015, NACP oversees the implementation of anticorruption laws, monitors the financial activities of public officials, and administers a comprehensive system of electronic asset declarations. One of its key initiatives is the electronic declaration system, which requires public officials to declare their assets, income, and financial interests annually. This system has increased transparency and accountability by allowing public scrutiny of officials’ financial disclosures. NACP also manages an “Anti-Corruption Portal” of resources for the public and professionals.

Preventing Corruption through Structural Changes

While the prosecution of corrupt individuals is crucial, preventing corruption is even more important in the long run. Ukraine has implemented structural changes to reduce opportunities for corruption by increasing transparency and reducing bureaucracy. Examples of such successful prevention efforts include the following:

Public registers have been implemented in Ukraine covering nearly all important aspects of business activities and public interest. One notable example is the open electronic public register of real estate, which grants practicing notaries access to a comprehensive system for registering real estate transactions, including those involving buildings and land. This reform has significantly reduced opportunities for corruption by creating transparency and allowing open access to information. Real estate transactions are subject to greater scrutiny, competition among service providers has increased, and the process has become more standardized. As a result, a previously opaque and corruption-prone area has been transformed into one where fairness and accountability prevail.

Prozorro, the online public procurement platform, is another example of structural reform. Launched in 2015, Prozorro has made government procurement more transparent and competitive. It requires all public contracts to be posted online, allowing anyone to view and challenge them. Since its implementation, Prozorro has saved Ukraine billions of hryvnias by reducing corruption in public procurement.

Automated services are another crucial step in reducing bureaucracy and public officials’ discretion, which often leads to corruption. Ukraine has automated various government processes, such as business registrations and tax filings, making them more transparent and efficient. These changes have reduced the opportunities for bribery and other corrupt practices.

International organizations and Ukraine’s Western partners have played a significant role in supporting these structural changes. The EU and the United States, among others, have provided financial support and technical expertise to help implement reforms and strengthen Ukraine’s anticorruption framework. While significant progress has been made in preventing corruption through structural changes, there is still much more to be done, including as part of Ukraine’s push to join the EU.

Education as a Pillar of Anticorruption Efforts

Education is a crucial component in changing habits and the perception of corruption in Ukraine. By promoting a culture of integrity, Ukraine seeks to address corruption at its roots. In the last two decades, numerous civil society organizations focused on educating public officials and the population about the pervasive nature of corruption and how to fight it. Investigative journalists also contributed to this campaign, along with public opinion leaders. The Ukrainian Bar Association (UBA), which I presently lead as its president, was actively involved in all stages of anticorruption and judicial reform in Ukraine. The UBA even delegated representatives to the Public Council of Integrity that was established to assist the High Qualification Commission of Judges of Ukraine.

Anticorruption education now also should be integrated into school and university curricula to instill ethical values in young people. By teaching students about the dangers of corruption and the importance of accountability, Ukraine will create a new generation that rejects corruption.

In addition to reshaping the perception of corruption among future generations, it is crucial to educate today’s citizens about what constitutes corruption and what does not. A significant challenge in Ukraine is the deeply rooted legacy of mistrust and a general lack of respect for government institutions, stemming from years under the Russian empire, then Soviet rule, and from subsequent corruption scandals after Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. This legacy continues to contribute to a widespread belief in the country today that corruption in Ukraine is pervasive and that it is impossible to seek justice in courts, even though many citizens may never have been in courts in their lifetime.

In reality, the situation is drastically improved. In April 2021, the research agency Info Sapiens (funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development) published the results of a survey of Ukrainians on trust in official institutions, including the judiciary, and on corruption. It found that:

  • The vast majority of respondents (86 percent) had not been involved in judicial proceedings in the previous 24 months.
  • Despite the critical perception of Ukraine’s judicial system, those who had interacted with the courts personally during the previous 24 months said they had a positive experience.
  • 63 percent of court users reported that they experienced no requests for bribes, unofficial payments, or gifts, nor other corruption-related issues; 53 percent agreed that the court’s administrative operations and staff work were properly organized; and 52 percent agreed that judges had proper professional qualifications.
  • Almost half (46 percent) of respondents who had been involved judicial proceedings within two years agreed that the judge adopted lawful and fair decisions, and 42 percent said court decisions were executed on time and in full. Additionally, 40 percent said their case was considered within a reasonable timeframe without unnecessary delays.

Negative public perception of the judiciary is often reinforced by aggressive Russian propaganda, which seeks to undermine Ukraine’s progress by amplifying narratives of corruption and dysfunction. To counteract these misconceptions, Ukraine should conduct comprehensive public education campaigns that provide clear information about what corruption looks like, its negative effects on society, and the steps being taken to combat it. These campaigns should emphasize that corruption is not an inherent characteristic of Ukrainian society but a problem that can be addressed through collective action. By engaging citizens in open discussions and providing them with tools to recognize and report corrupt activities, Ukraine can rebuild public trust and foster a culture of integrity. Moreover, involving respected figures from civil society, media, and local communities can help create a more nuanced understanding of the current anticorruption landscape and counteract the influence of mis- or disinformation and propaganda.

Conclusion

Ukraine’s journey toward a corruption-free society has made significant strides, but challenges remain. The anticorruption architecture, with its dedicated institutions such as NABU, SAPO, HACC, and NACP, has demonstrated real progress in investigating, prosecuting, and preventing corruption. Preventive measures through structural changes, such as the implementation of automated public services and platforms like Prozorro, have significantly reduced corruption opportunities.

Yet, there is a need to further expand these efforts. To maintain momentum, Ukraine must ensure these initiatives are robust enough to withstand political pressure and vested interests, creating a more resilient and corruption-resistant system.

Recommendations for continued success include:

  • Ensuring the independence and sufficient funding of anticorruption bodies, including NABU, SAPO, HACC, and NACP.
  • Further expanding the use of technology for automation and transparency in government processes.
  • Strengthening education and public awareness campaigns to foster a culture of integrity.
  • Enhancing whistleblower protections.
  • Addressing and combating misinformation and negative propaganda.

The road ahead is challenging, but Ukraine has shown resilience and a strong commitment to change. By focusing on transparency, accountability, and education, Ukraine can continue to build a future where corruption is the exception, not the norm. The nation’s efforts serve as a model for other countries facing similar challenges, demonstrating that with perseverance and a clear vision, significant progress to rein in corruption is possible.

IMAGE: Oleksandr Klymenko (L), head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and Semen Kryvonos (R), chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, report at a press conference on the results of work for the second half of 2023 on February 21, 2024 in Kyiv, Ukraine. According to Semen Kryvonos, NABU is currently investigating more than 60 cases of abuses in the defense sector. (Photo by Viktor Kovalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

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