After the revolution: Tackling 'grand political corruption' in Ukraine

Can civic activists fix Ukraine's entrenched cronyism and corruption?

Daria Kaleniuk Mairi Mackay
20 May 2016

Protester gives the victory sign during a rally in Independence Square, Kiev in February 2014. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP/Press

Protester gives the victory sign during a rally in Independence Square, Kiev in February 2014. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.During 2014 Ukraine revolution, Darya Kaleniuk was not protesting on the central square in Kiev alongside thousands of others.

She was in an office not far away – poring over spreadsheets and mapping money flows hidden behind corporate structures to find proof of the corruption fuelling the protests.

Kaleniuk is co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kiev, a civil society organisation that focuses on "tackling grand political corruption" in Ukraine. 

The protests succeeded in overthrowing the authoritarian and deeply dishonest government of President Viktor Yanukovych, but they did not root out Ukraine’s entrenched cronyism and corruption.

Ukraine ranks 130th out of 164 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, placing behind Russia and Pakistan, and has seen little progress in imporoving public perceptions of corruption since Yanukovych was ousted. 

In the two years since the 'Revolution of Dignity', Kaleniuk and fellow civic activists at AntAC have been working to force reform in the country's oligarchic, post-Soviet system.

Here Kaleniuk talks to openDemocracy about Ukrainians' fury over corruption, attempts to discredit AntAC's work and how the stability of the country depends on getting theft of its assets under control.

We are irritated with impunity.

openDemocracy: Ukrainian civil society groups including the Anti-corruption Action Centre have had some successes in pushing through anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine. What are they? 

Daria Kaleniuk: We're focusing on tackling grand political corruption in Ukraine. We are irritated with impunity and (the feeling of) impunity of senior officials in Ukraine, who go to their state offices and steal money in amounts of a percentage of Ukraine’s GDP.

So what do we do? What are our tools? We recently advocated for a very good anti-corruption package of laws. Parts of these laws make Ukraine the most open country in Europe. So: property registries, a public registry of beneficial ownership, all information about money is spent (by the) treasury.

Ukraine is now a haven for investigative journalism, and we have more information about corruption than (there are) people capable to comprehend this information and report on it. 

This is a success story, that we opened all this information…and this information empowered people...especially investigative journalists. But it means that we have more information about corruption, and people – a majority of the population – feel that there is more corruption. It's not the case. There was lots of corruption before…but now people just have more information.

oD: Where are you focusing your efforts right now?

This is the fight which we are still fighting – it's not over yet.

DK: The problem is with Ukrainian prosecution and law enforcement agencies – and with courts – which can't bring corrupt people to justice, and which can't use this comprehensive information floating around to investigate and convict perpetrators.

This is the fight which we are still fighting – it's not over yet. We didn't believe that the Ukrainian prosecution office would reform (quickly) or that the Ukrainian courts would reform fast because for decades (they were) used as a weapon in political bargaining and political plays.

(They were) never independent, and we simply don't have prosecution courts in the meaning of prosecution courts which you have in the UK. So, therefore (we came up) with the idea of setting up new agencies (such as the) National Anti-corruption Bureau. It is a government law enforcement agency with criminal investigative powers. 

(The) government didn't want to help these agencies. We were successful in (getting) these agencies simply because it was a condition of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), of the EU, and of civil society. And under strong pressure, coming both from the EU, IMF and civil society, the government had to adopt (a) proper law and implement it. 

The law was adopted in October 2014, but the agency has (had) criminal investigative powers since December 2015. Since that time, the agency triggered a few investigations, but for, for large-scale corruption cases, you need at least six months to do the pre-trial investigation.

oD: Over the past few months, Kiev has been drawing sharp criticism from Western diplomats. The US Vice President Joe Biden said corruption was eating Ukraine "like a cancer" and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund said “it is hard to see” how the $18 billion bail-out program could continue if the government doesn't make a substantial new effort to fight corruption. This pressure finally compelled parliament to vote to remove the prosecutor general Viktor Shokin who had been in power for months despite obvious signs of corruption.

DK: He was very loyal to President Petro Poroshenko and he himself was covering (up the) corrupt system. He – yes he was dismissed by the parliament, however it was done too late. We asked for his dismissal in September 2015 (and showed proof) that (he was) incapable and unwilling to reform the agency, and (that he was) not delivering cases.

What (Shokin) did instead, he arranged a (cull of the) few people in the prosecution who were good, who were reform-oriented, who tried to deliver cases, who tried to help in international investigations, who tried to make real reform by firing bad people and hiring good people, new people into the system. So what Shokin did before his resignation, he literally got rid of all the good people in the system.

oD: Ukraine was sometimes described as a kleptocracy when Yanukovych was in charge and today it continues to rank very high on all indexes for corruption. Historically and culturally, what’s behind the problem? 

DK: Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and the Ukrainian political elite was intimidated, was put into prisons, was murdered, was forced to run away from the country. So the best Ukrainian leaders – we lost them – in 80 years. But there were imposed institutions and rules of the game which allowed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union to emerge there, the group of oligarchs. So people simply used existing law enforcement agencies, which were part of the party, which part of the instruments of the party, to enrich themselves. They literally robbed the country and used the country's resources to enrich themselves.

Then they used these resources to pay for various political party projects, to get seats in the parliament, and seats in the government. So we have now … that leading majority – even after Yanukovych – which sits in the parliament and controls state institutions, presents the interests not of the people of Ukraine, but the interests of some oligarchs, and their businesses. Unfortunately, it also includes the president, who is interested to have his very loyal prosecutor general and his very loyal prosecution, simply to cover the corruption of his friends who support him and who remain an oligarch himself. He promised to sell his businesses but he didn't do that.

oD: During his presidential campaign, Poroshenko – who made millions as a confectioner and was known as the “chocolate king”– vowed to fight corruption and sell most of his business assets. The Panama Papers revealed that the president set up a company in the British Virgin Islands and, after he won the election, transferred the assets. Poroshenko says he did nothing wrong. What do these events mean for your work and for corruption in the country in general?

DK: First of all we understand there is no sincere political will to tackle (corruption) in Ukraine. We understand we have the representatives of the old elite (in power). But we now have more power and more influence than we had under Yanukovych. So we have to use whatever possible means there are – national and international – to put pressure on the Ukrainian elite to change. Because Poroshenko cannot run away to Russia, no-one is waiting for him there. 

He needs support from the West, to win the war (in eastern Ukraine) and actually to keep him as president, to keep him safe. Therefore he listens to the pressure of the West. If the pressure would be more and more intense, if there would be more and more absolute conditions, like very concise and precise anti-corruption conditionalities. Let's say that President Poroshenko (is told) in parliament “You have to appoint the prosecutor general, and he has to be professional…and it has to be independent.”

This has to be the requirement now. And should president and parliament fail to deliver? There should be certain sanctions, no more funds. No more support. And it has to be said publicly. So I'm – then I'm positive. Because there are ways to influence the political elite in Ukraine. It was not like that during Yanukovych. But still we are in very shaken sedation. It can be – we still don't irrevocable change in Ukraine. There could be stepbacks, and we have to protect what already what achieved in regards to anti-corruption in Ukraine.

If there (is) no significant change, we have the risk of a new revolt in Ukraine. And it will not be peaceful.

oD: During the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian people made their anger at corruption quite clear. A president was overthrown, but the problem persists. How is the average Ukrainian affected by this problem and how do they feel about it?

DK: People are very angry. First of all they're angry because they feel there is more corruption because there's more information about corruption. They feel there is impunity, (forgetting) that we have a new agency. Everyone sees Poroshenko covering the corrupt prosecutor general and people are mad.

But what is more even important and dangerous is that people are became very poor, because of inflation…People are losing jobs, people are losing houses especially on the east where there is war. We have about one million internally displaced people. The radicalisation of society is increasing. And a lot of – hundreds of thousands of people now – have weapons, illegal weapons got from the war.

People have these weapons. People know how to use weapons. People go in the war, they fight there, they come back, and they know where to get weapons and how to use them. When they return and they compare their friends losing lives for nothing, for these (elites) stealing, they don't understand why (nothing is happening). If there (is) no significant change, we have the risk of a new revolt in Ukraine. And it will not be peaceful.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

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