Protesters hold the Ukraine flag and anti-government signs at a rally in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 17, demanding that lawmakers lift their parliamentary immunity and establishment an anti-corruption court. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

For the last three years, Ukrainian activists have been trying to beat back systemic government corruption — but now that “Revolution of Dignity” is hanging by a thread. In mid-December 2017, anti-reform forces in President Petro Poroshenko’s government moved to suppress anti-corruption forces, including efforts to sideline the most prominent anti-corruption member of parliament and to subordinate the country’s independent anti-corruption bureau to the very politicians it is supposed to investigate. Here’s what’s going on — and how it matters to anti-corruption efforts worldwide.

A new approach to rooting out corruption: The ‘sandwich’ model

For the last three years, Ukrainian civil society and the international community have been experimenting with a new way to force the government to undertake major anti-corruption reforms called “the sandwich.”

Typically, when international organizations try to help eliminate government corruption, they focus on providing political and technical support, helping reformers in incumbent governments push through reforms. Or they support the parliamentary opposition running to oust anti-reform incumbents.

But these aren’t options in Ukraine; neither the ruling parties nor the opposition supports real reform.

The “sandwich” model is quite different. Domestic civil society activists pressure the government for reform from one side; the international community does so from another. The activists propose reform ideas and monitor the government for backsliding. The international community uses money and leverage to pressure the government to adopt reforms and to punish any backsliding. The idea is that together they might be able to squeeze the reluctant, often hostile, government into action.

This model offers a new way the international community can cajole governments into economic and political reform.

How ‘the sandwich’ works

The sandwich model grew out of the contradictory results of Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity,” which overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. The revolution helped forge a network of civil society activists and liberal politicians who have fought for institutions that could genuinely transform Ukraine so it would no longer have one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

But those liberal politicians are few. Most of Ukraine’s political class remains corrupt and largely unreformed. Despite two revolutions in a decade, many Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs work hand in hand to loot the state.

Nevertheless, real progress has been made over the last few years. Among other things, an independent anti-corruption corruption agency has been set up to investigate graft at the highest levels and all public officials now have to make annual asset declarations that have highlighted the enormous gap between official salaries and the wealth that much of Ukraine’s political class has accrued.

This progress has been due to an informal alliance between domestic activists and international organizations who have prioritized anti-corruption reform as a condition for providing financial and political support.

Typically, governments are able to circumvent most international efforts to put conditions on aid. But Ukraine has been different. Domestic activists have proposed and designed many of the key reforms and have vigilantly policed backsliding. In doing so, they have vigorously lobbied the international community for backup. The international community has, for the most part, been willing to provide that backup. Consequently, when the cash-strapped government negotiated a $17 billion program with the International Monetary Fund or visa liberalization with the European Union, real conditions were attached to both deals.

Nevertheless, throughout these reform efforts, Ukraine’s political elite has used subtle, and not so subtle, tactics to discredit the reformers or undermine the institutions they have tried to create. Most recently, in December a parliamentary coalition — formed between Poroshenko’s party and the main opposition bloc — voted to fire Yehor Sobolyev, chair of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee and one of the leading anti-corruption reformers. The independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) has also been under attack. In November, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, publicly revealed NABU’s undercover operations — and in doing so, rendered those investigations fruitless. Then in December, members of Poroshenko’s party and former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk introduced a bill into parliament to remove Artem Sytnyk, the NABU’s highly effective director.

Once again, the “sandwich” coalition jumped into action. Domestic civil society activists and anti-corruption politicians quickly organized a social media campaign to defend NABU. And Ukraine’s international partners were quick to condemn the bill. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption.” Similar statements came from Canada, the European Union and other governments, as well as the IMF and the World Bank. Together, domestic anti-corruption activists and the international community were successful (at least for now) in removing the bill from consideration in parliament.

The ‘sandwich’ has its limitations

Keeping the sandwich together, however, is not easy. As we show in a forthcoming policy analysis on Ukraine, the model requires at least two things. First, the international community needs to be both motivated and paying attention — a high bar. Second, domestic civic society needs to be united around a clear set of largely uncontroversial demands. While this seems to work in an area like anti-corruption, the model is limited in other areas, like security service reform.

Consider, for instance, Ukraine’s recent controversy over education reform. On Sept. 26, Poroshenko signed a new education law that changes Ukraine’s education system in some useful ways — but also severely restricts the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities to education in their own languages. Ukraine’s neighbors Hungary and Romania have objected vociferously on behalf of the Hungarian and Romanian minorities living in western Ukraine. But the biggest losers will be Ukraine’s millions of Russian speakers, who will face strict limits to education in their native language beyond primary school.

So far, effective efforts against this measure have been few. Ukrainian civil society did little on the issue; the most prominent reform group, the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), actually backed the bill’s passage, though it did not endorse the language provision. And international pressure has been weak, beyond the Hungarian, Romanian and Russian governments — none of which have much traction with Poroshenko and his government. In fact, in a statement mildly upbraiding the Ukrainian government, the German ambassador to Kiev both criticized the Hungarians for overreacting and failed to mention Russian speakers.

But in fighting corruption, the sandwich model has been reasonably effective — so far. For Ukraine, this is an existential battle. As the fight has increasingly spilled into the open, the sandwich model’s viability will be sorely tested.

Graeme Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Grigore Pop-Eleches is a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.