Light at the Bottom

27 January 2016, 20:25

At the International Anti-corruption Conference held in Kyiv in November 2015 President Poroshenko publicly promised that the government was already sharpening its axe against corrupt individuals and was ready to take action.

His metaphor was easy to understand: Ukrainians grow increasingly weary of the most corrupt officials. This leaves those in power with no much choice but to show at least some accomplishments in the feeble battle against those who steal from the treasury. 2015, however, was more of a warm-up before the battle. Those in power spent it establishing an infrastructure for anti-corruption bodies, pumping up anti-corruption standards, criminalizing corruption activities and opening registries and other state information to the public. When it came to the implementation of all this in practice, the process stalled: criminal cases against Yanukovych’s henchmen are being closed one after another; the henchmen themselves flee totally unobstructed and the law enforcements bodies turn a blind eye to all accusations of corruption among the ranks of the new reformers. This is a classic embodiment of the three wise monkeys: “Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing.”

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Whether there will be somebody to punch corrupt officials in the Year of the Red Monkey so far remains to be seen. An effective fight against corruption is based on four pillars: 1) maximum transparency of information; 2) irreversibility of punishment for corruption; 3) transparency of spending; and 4) readiness of citizens to counteract corruption. The government has actually done much to reinforce each of these pillars. It opened access to official information in registries and databases. Registries on real estate, land and owners of businesses are open to the public. The car register should be opened starting from January. A unified online base of electronic income and property declarations by officials should kick off in April. As soon as this is put into effect, everyone will be able to independently punish corrupt officials on-line. Say, you’ve seen a vehicle parked illegally on the sidewalk by a government building. You can check its owner in the open databases; if owned by an official, another online database will show you his or her declaration to see whether the vehicle is reported. If not, you can report spotting a potentially corrupt official to the police. Law enforcers will then launch criminal proceedings. If proven guilty, the violator will serve two years in prison. Similar procedure applies to officials who live in expensive estates, own large land plots or are ultimate beneficiaries of big businesses. Just like most corruption breaches, inaccurate information in declarations will be punishable by prison.

By the end of 2015, Ukraine basically had all the core anti-corruption bodies. The Anti-Corruption Bureau is already functioning in the country, with nearly a hundred carefully selected and well trained fighters against the most highly corrupted individuals employed. To help the ANB, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office is being finalized within the General Prosecutor’s Office. It will monitor the actions of ANB detectives for compliance with laws and accompany their investigations all the way through court verdict. Almost completed is the formation of the National Corruption Prevention Agency. Starting from 2016, it will review declarations, the lifestyle and conflicts of interest of all civil servants.   

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The establishment of the anti-corruption infrastructure has more than once sparked media scandals in the past year:  once over people who weren’t accepted to the ANB because they were inconvenient for the President; another time over attempts to shove candidates loyal to the current Prosecutor General into the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. The creation of the National Corruption Prevention Agency was launched twice: initially, the procedure to select its top officials betrayed too much of the Premier’s influence.

There is little reason to believe that the two most senior people in the country will quit their attempts to continue meddling with the newly-established anti-corruption agencies. They can keep doing so by stifling fighters with corruption financially, or by trying to red-tape their interaction with other services as much as possible. Therefore, the risk of the new institutions finding themselves paralyzed is still quite high.

The Europeans and Americans have made it clear though: they will give Ukraine no more money without anti-corruption efforts. And Ukraine needs money. So those in power are likely to take some steps in the implementation of the anti-corruption campaign in 2016. Clearly, they will hardly put the most notorious people like the Kliuyev brothers or Mykola Zlochevsky (Minister of Environment under Viktor Yanukovych and owner of Burisma Holdings gas extraction company – Ed.) in jail. But they may well prosecute many of the current and former MPs and ministers. Ukraine’s courts, whose corruption level is beyond legendary, will remain the weakest link in the chain.

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The major driver of change will, of course, be the citizens. Frequent journalist investigations, ongoing civil pressure and comprehensive independent control over the actions of officials – this is the simple recipe of the all-time driver of reforms in Ukraine. Today, this driver has been propped up with an effective “online brain”: new services to monitor expenditures, ProZorro electronic public procurement system, and a unified portal to monitor public spending are the new additions to the registers and databases opened earlier.

Corruption will remain the most notorious in the province. Decentralization will give local communities much more funding for their development. Yet, they will not necessarily spend the money properly, particularly as all of society and the newly-established anti-corruption bodies focus on the squabbles between Ukraine’s top leaders through the hands of valets from their closest circles. 

Oleksii Khmara is Executive Director at Transparency International Ukraine

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