Ukraine and the cancer of corruption: a conversation with Svitlana Zalishchuk

The rising star of Ukrainian politics tells openDemocracy that deep-rooted corruption is the greatest threat to the nation’s democracy 

Benjamin Ramm Svitlana Zalishchuk
9 February 2017
Svitlana Zalishchuk. (Credit: European External Action Service, YouTube; fair use)

Svitlana Zalishchuk. (Credit: European External Action Service, YouTube; fair use)

Svitlana Zalishchuk embodies an ideal of the European Union: an effortlessly multilingual, passionate advocate for liberal and democratic values. A former journalist and civil society activist, she entered parliament on the crest of a democratic wave after the 2013-14 EuroMaidan protests. To hear her make a persuasive case for the EU at a time of institutional crisis is to glimpse the potential of a project that so many take for granted.

For Zalishchuk, 34, the most pressing issue facing Ukraine is corruption – the “cancer” in the body politic. According to recent polls, over half the population agrees, despite the nation’s numerous challenges (war, annexation, the economy). Even by Eurasian standards, Ukraine’s corruption is extreme: the public space is dominated by billionaire oligarchs who own their own political parties, TV stations and even paramilitary battalions. Zalishchuk believes that very few in Ukraine’s parliament are not bribed: “It’s about 10% – approximately 40 people – that are not corrupt”, out of a total of 450.

In August 2016, three members of the ‘Euro-Optimist’ caucus – Zalishchuk, Sergii Leschenko, and Mustafa Nayyem; all former journalists – defected from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc to join the Democratic Alliance. This anti-corruption party is rare in Ukraine for being based on ideology rather than personality. Since 2014, 156 parties have been registered in the country, acting as a vehicle for ambitious politicians and their shifting alliances. Almost all preserve the landscape of post-Soviet politics – Democratic Alliance seeks to change it. Zalishchuk’s enthusiasm for the EU derives in part from her belief that accession would force the country to adopt strict measures of transparency.The anti-corruption mood is prevailing in political circles

Despite the considerable challenges facing her new political grouping, Zalishchuk is optimistic that Democratic Alliance’s message is gaining traction. “The anti-corruption mood is prevailing in political circles” after EuroMaidan, also known as the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. “People were fed up with how the elites were governing the country – they went into the streets to demand a new governing culture”. Ukraine’s politicians are responding to these demands: Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who became governor of Odessa in western Ukraine, recently began an “anti-corruption roadshow” to promote his new party, Wave.

Zalishchuk feels that the street protests have had a lasting positive impact: “I think EuroMaidan made us all a little bit better, even the oligarchs, who began to invest in civil society institutions. Their motives weren’t purely altruistic – already they are using these instruments to support their political activities, which also serve to increase their capital. EuroMaidan even made [President] Poroshenko and [Prime Minister] Groysman better, but they missed an opportunity to show leadership and pass legislation to tackle corruption”.

Impatient for change, Zalishchuk and her colleagues took the initiative, proposing a set of anti-corruption bills that became law. “We managed to adopt a number of good pieces of legislation – we can’t underestimate how progressive they are”, she tells me. There is a new anti-corruption bureau, a policy on public procurement transparency, and a law ensuring that all possessions worth $3,000 or more, from jewelry to furniture, have to be declared by parliamentarians. “Sergii and I were co-authors of the law on state financing of the parties – making it obligatory to report donations publicly, with sanctions if the law is violated. The first declarations were ridiculous – it turns out that we are the richest party in the country, officially, because all their funding is hidden. It is very difficult for us to compete with corrupt money”.We have to instutionalise change; this will be our next step

In an article for ODR in June 2016, Leshchenko wrote that “the danger of authoritarian rule is now very real in Ukraine”. He argued that “[t]he debating chamber of the Ukrainian parliament… is Europe’s biggest business club”, and that “we have the beginnings of a ruling clan centred on the president himself”. In the absence of an oligarchic patron, Zalishchuk and her colleagues have fundraised from small and medium-sized businesses. She tells me that “Democratic Alliance has got good preconditions: we have received a lot of independent funding, and are extremely accountable – we report more than Ukrainian legislation requires of us. We also have very developed internal democratic mechanisms – the leadership and board are all accountable”.

Leschenko made an intriguing comparison with another popular uprising: “Ukraine differs from the countries of the Arab Spring in the sense that a whole group of civil society leaders – journalists, public figures, anti-corruption campaigners – decided to become parliamentary deputies after EuroMaidan”. Zalishchuk agrees, but regrets that the influx of new activists only bolstered the existing system: “One of the biggest problems of EuroMaidan is it didn’t institutionalise into new forces: we don’t have a party of EuroMaidan. All these young activists and young leaders joined existing parties – even we were running with the presidential list. At that point, we lost momentum. We have to instutionalise change; this will be our next step”.

Zalishchuk is an evangelist for the European project: she believes it is a civilising force, rolling out rights and liberties to regions where authoritarianism has dominated. She regards the EU as “the most successful transformative instrument in the history of the world – in how you democratise nations, and guarantee better government in a very short period of time. It didn’t take centuries for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic to integrate into the European market and become successful. It’s not that the instrument has changed or lost its popularity or its power – it is European leaders that have lost the capacity and will to promote this instrument, which they ought to secure and expand. If Ukraine succeeds, it will be a model for other post-Soviet republics, like Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan – and ultimately Russia”.She describes the geopolitical shift in geological terms: “it is seismic activity – these tectonic plates are moving, but where they will go is anyone’s guess”

It may seem strange to consider Russia a future member of the EU, but Zalishchuk points out that in the 1990s this prospect seemed plausible; Yeltsin even entertained the suggestion of joining NATO. “I am sure this is the only way to transform Russia from the biggest challenge into a partner – but it is impossible before the regime is changed in the Kremlin. It is a threat to Putin personally, physically and financially”. Zalishchuk laments that the EU is not more welcoming to Ukraine: “I don’t think we are beggars knocking on the door – we are on the front-line, and can be a hub of expertise for other republics”.

Zalishchuk believes that “European integration is the most popular ideology in Ukraine – it has more popularity than any single leader, party, or ideology”. It has been argued that Ukraine’s politics can be understood in waves; a current of liberty (such as the Orange Revolution), followed by a rolling back of the tide. “All history develops like that”, Zalishchuk says: “now in the EU it looks like the pendulum is going back, too”. She uses a metaphor of a muscle weakening through inactivity, suggesting that complacency has made the EU weak. “We have learnt how quickly things can change: even half a year beforehand, nobody expected the collapse of the Soviet Union; nobody expected the fall of the Berlin wall, or the Arab Spring; just one month before EuroMaidan, there was a poll saying that just 2-3% of people were ready to go into the streets. So I think these ‘black swans’ of history should not be underestimated. No nation is incompatible with democratic values – it was Russia who started liberal reforms in the region under Yeltsin, and if the course of this development had continued, who knows where we would be now? It’s not about the nation or the people – it’s about their leaders”.it is ironic that we Ukrainians are so keen to join the EU, just as you here in Britain are so desperate to leave

I ask Zalishchuk about the infamous brawl in Ukraine’s parliament in 2016. It is notable that every person in the video is a man, and I wonder whether this is a reflection of Ukraine’s chauvinistic politics. Zalishchuk makes an affirming sigh. “I think that Ukrainian politics is so toxic that in the end you don’t feel that you are either a man or a woman! In recent years, gender has become a topic of public discussion. A new culture is emerging, and we have increased the participation of women in parliament: it is currently 12%, and it was our initiative to enact a law that rewards those who meet the quota of a third – 33%. We included financial incentives to meet the quota, ensuring that the parties receive an additional 10% from the state budget”.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to the Trump administration. Referring to the controversy surrounding his former advisor Paul Manafort, who masterminded the election of Viktor Yanukovich, Zalishchuk says “it is ironic that a Ukrainian corruption story could have an impact on the US elections. It just underlines the idea that the whole world is a global village – you are not immune, even in the most secure developed countries”. She understands the widespread fear that Ukraine will suffer from Trump’s close relationship with Putin. “Ukrainians are very worried. But the United States has strong institutions, and we are confident that our friends in Congress and the Senate will help shape foreign policy”. She describes the geopolitical shift in geological terms: “it is seismic activity – these tectonic plates are moving, but where they will go is anyone’s guess. I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that it will shift – that Trump will understand he is being used, and turn 180°. We cannot exclude that from his menu of maneuvers: I don’t think this dish is cooked”.

For Zalishchuk, “2017 is a year of total geopolitical uncertainty – the hybrid era of geopolitics”. After our discussion, she heads to Westminster to visit parliamentarians and meet the prime minister. She laments that President Poroshenko has yet to be welcomed to the UK, and hopes Theresa May can use her leverage with the Trump administration to support the sovereignty of Ukraine: “since the UK is trying to find a new identity in Europe, you can play a key role in security matters”. As Westminster considers how the UK will extricate itself from the EU, Zalishchuk reflects on the tide: “it is ironic that we Ukrainians are so keen to join the EU, just as you here in Britain are so desperate to leave”.

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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