Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev, Ukraine. Melinda Haring is the editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
On June 15, Ukraine’s presidential race officially began when former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko straightened her blond locks, donned hipster glasses and outlined a manifesto to revive Ukraine’s economy in a 2 ½-hour-long speech in Kiev.
Three days later, current President Petro Poroshenko launched his own reelection bid with an op-ed in The Post taking credit for just about every major anti-corruption reform since 2014. With Ukraine on the explosive front line of a deepening confrontation between Putin’s Russia and the West, this election, slated for spring 2019, matters.
Poroshenko is right that Ukraine is changing, and that one major breakthrough took place this month, but the accomplishment isn’t his to claim. In fact, his role is more deserving of questions than kudos.
Four years after the street protests that ousted the notoriously venal President Viktor Yanukovych, corruption is the wound that won’t stop bleeding. The breakthrough that came earlier this month was that Ukraine’s parliament finally passed a bill creating a High Anti-Corruption Court that might finally put high-level crooks behind bars.
The anti-corruption court is supposed to be the third leg of a tripod of new institutions. Two others already exist: the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. But NABU and the anti-corruption prosecutor cannot bring real justice to this nation of 44 million in an existing court system that is hopelessly corrupt. Since 2015, NABU has sent more than 140 investigations to court, but it can’t get many convictions because the courts and judges are part and parcel of the dirty system NABU is trying to dismantle.
Creating a specialized court to try corruption cases has been a central focus of Ukraine’s activists, but Poroshenko has not had their backs. Instead, the president fought the idea energetically, ridiculed it at high-level conferences and blocked legislation that was proposed in early 2017.
Poroshenko relented in December 2017 only when he faced the grim prospect of not receiving $2 billion in credits from the International Monetary Fund and potentially defaulting on international obligations. Even then, the court bill his party sponsored was riddled with problems, primarily involving the selection of judges. (Corrupt judges are the primary problem in the regular court system.) The international community and Ukraine’s muscular civil society applied pressure, and a provision was added to the bill allowing foreign experts to block bad judges.
Unfortunately, the bill that parliament just passed contains a poison-pill amendment that ensures that all of the cases NABU has already initiated will remain locked in the old court system (even for appeals) once the anti-corruption court is launched. This sneaky addition could prevent at least 140 pending NABU cases from getting a fair hearing. If Poroshenko wants to be perceived as an anti-corruption champion, he should fix the problem as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering over NABU itself. The presidential administration has tried and failed to fire NABU’s director. Now, Poroshenko might manage to decapitate the anti-corruption body. The president is taking advantage of a looming audit of NABU by stacking the team that will review the anti-corruption watchdog with his own allies. The anti-corruption court won’t have much to do if the independent director of the investigative body that brings the cases is removed.
Ukraine’s path toward democracy remains fragile and reversible. Activists and reformers within government fight every single day to defend the gains they have made since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolution. The president offers verbal support for anti-corruption tools, institutions and activists, but the authorities he controls attack them.
Kiev’s fight against graft has brought successful results, mostly in spite of the president.
Poroshenko called the anti-corruption court “the jewel in the crown of the architecture needed for Ukraine to build a rule-of-law state.” On closer inspection, the jewel might have a fatal flaw. With the new court cut off from ongoing anti-corruption proceedings and an audit hanging over NABU, it’s impossible to take Poroshenko’s promise to defeat corruption seriously.
Ukraine must step up its fight against corruption. When President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet, likely next month, many expect Trump to write off Ukraine as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This is not true. Major political changes take decades, and Ukraine has shown considerable progress in the last four years. Yet these achievements must be cemented and accelerated.
Make no mistake about it. Ukraine’s corruption fighters want the Poroshenko government and every successive one to succeed. Should the president truly declare war on corruption at the highest levels, all of Kiev’s watchdogs would work day and night to publicly support his steps.
We remain optimistic. Ukrainian civil society has shown remarkable resilience and strength. Citizens continue to exert pressure for real reform. The West should do everything it can to support their efforts.