The procurement of eggs and pickles for Ukrainian soldiers defending their country amid the carnage of Russia’s invasion is not the gravest problem confronting President Volodymyr Zelensky. Still, recent reports that officials in his government were profiteering from wildly inflated prices for those goods were a useful reminder — for the Ukrainian leader and public alike — that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions are not the only peril facing their country. Another is the threat posed by scandal or misuse of funds, particularly involving the billions of dollars of Western aid that have enabled Ukraine to defend itself, to what has been solid U.S. and European support of Kyiv.
The corruption scandal that broke at the end of January has burgeoned, with 10 high-level officials having been fired or forced to resign, including the president’s deputy chief of staff. Separately, the authorities raided the property of a media mogul who was a key backer of Mr. Zelensky’s 2019 presidential campaign.
Not all the alleged malfeasance is related to the original news that a deputy defense minister was implicated in the scheme to overpay for food to feed the troops. Other reports implicated a senior official in the presidential office who had been using an SUV — donated by General Motors to help evacuate Ukrainian civilians — and a deputy prosecutor who borrowed a Mercedes-Benz from a wealthy businessman to take his family on vacation in Spain. Both lost their jobs, and the government banned officials from leaving the country except for business trips under the martial law that has been in place since the start of the war.
There has been no suggestion that Western military assistance to Ukraine has been diverted or misappropriated. But Mr. Zelensky is shrewd not to ignore graft, sweetheart deals and the vestiges of oligarch capitalism that were a stain on the country’s reputation long before Moscow launched its full-scale invasion a year ago. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, for 2022, Transparency International ranked Ukraine No. 116 among 180 countries — an improvement over the previous year but still second-worst in Eastern Europe, behind only Russia. On Capitol Hill, where some Republicans in Congress have threatened to challenge aid for Ukraine, Kyiv should expect lawmakers to demand accountability for the funds flowing from Washington.
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By most accounts, the economic distortions and drain on Ukraine’s resources — caused by billionaire oligarchs who control television stations, industry and much else — have been tamped down. That has occurred partly because of the war itself, as Russian attacks over the past year have leveled swaths of Ukraine’s industrial base. It was also given a push by a law limiting oligarchs’ political influence, passed in 2021 in partial fulfillment of Mr. Zelensky’s campaign promise to root out corruption and influence-peddling.
That’s a step in the right direction, not least in furtherance of Ukraine’s hopes for eventual membership in the European Union, for which it became an official candidate last year. But even if the war were to end soon, which is unlikely, Kyiv would face a lengthy reform agenda before it could join the E.U. — in which it would be by far the poorest member state — and become as fully European as most Ukrainians want the country to be.
Ukraine has made some improvements in terms of transparency, especially in tracking and accounting for foreign economic and military assistance. The country also has developed a vibrant civil society, the skein of citizen-run, nongovernmental organizations and associations that infuse a healthy democracy with pluralism, participation and political vigor. However, it has mostly failed to establish a system that guarantees the rule of law, a key shortcoming in surmounting its Soviet legacy.
Central to that problem is the ongoing resistance to judicial reform among Ukrainian judges, who have been repeatedly cited by Western experts as corrupt, overtly political and, too often, in thrall to Russia. Last fall, Ukraine’s Supreme Court fired the senior judge on its Commercial Court of Cassation, the country’s top court for economic and property disputes, after it was revealed he held Russian as well as Ukrainian citizenship. Judges are not allowed dual citizenship under Ukrainian law.
A major international conference of donor countries devoted to helping Ukraine last summer concluded with a statement urging that the rule of law in the country be “systematically strengthened.” A raft of reforms has been proposed by outside experts, including vetting judicial nominees for competence, integrity and political independence.
Mr. Zelensky has been an advocate for judicial reform, but he lacks the power on his own to implement it. The push, if one is to materialize, will have to come from Ukraine’s Western allies, whose influence is enormous — but who might be reluctant to divert attention from the overarching international priority to help Ukraine fight the war.
It might be the case that a country struggling for its survival is poorly positioned, and too distracted, to carry out systemic reforms. But Ukraine’s day of reckoning cannot be delayed indefinitely. Kyiv’s own aspirations depend on establishing the rule of law. It has work to do.
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