Ukraine’s fight against corruption deserves EU support

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Ukrainian independence day march, 2013. [refleXtions / Shutterstock]

It is crucial that the EU continues to help Ukraine fight its ‘culture of corruption’ in its struggle to establish democracy and integration into the West, writes Mark Demesmaeker on its 25th independence day anniversary.

Mark Demesmaeker is a New Flemish Alliance MEP (ECR) and a member of the parliamentary delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee.

Ukraine continues its tireless and persistent struggle to integrate into the West. What has seemed to be a never-ending process since the country’s independence in 1991, which the Ukrainians celebrate today, now seems to be finally delivering some concrete steps forward.

Corruption is Ukraine’s biggest problem and has been a deep part of the ruling system and daily life in the country. Especially, it is an integrated part of the mentality of the Ukrainian elite.

Ukraine realises that corruption is the most severe obstacle on the way to integration in the EU, and that it requires an extra effort to fight years of ingrained habits in society.

Since Euromaidan in 2014, the EU’s rescue package has helped Ukraine to speed up this process, and we actually see some improvements. It will take years to reform the entire system, but the tasks and outcomes already completed, show at last some progress. It is important to take stock of progress in Ukraine and make Europe aware of the ongoing positive results in the country’s development.

After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, three presidents, eight prime ministers, six general prosecutors, six ministers of justice, eight heads of the state Security and four heads of the Supreme Court were replaced. There was a general civil service reform as well.

Political and judicial reforms, constitutional, parliamentary, administrative and territorial reforms took place. But the high level of corruption still exists. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) Ukraine takes 130th place out of 167 countries. Why? What is behind all these reforms? Is it a real desire for changes or simple change of names?

Ever since the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has struggled to establish democracy. The country has been strongly marked by the influence of the former Soviet Union, which, among other things, involved corruption. Ukraine’s challenge consisted of creating a state based on its own constitution, democracy, and a market economy. However, subsequent governments and institutions have been characterised by a culture of corruption and a state planned economy, which has been the main obstacle to reforms in the country. This has also left space for oligarchs and business men to offer bribes in exchange for power.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 marked a new hope of change in Ukraine. This was the beginning of Ukraine’s democratization process and the hope of integration in the West. Unfortunately, the following leadership failed to make new coherent reforms, but the revolution showed the peoples’ wish and will to integrate in Western democracy.

After the signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement on March 21, 2014 and after the full and effective implementation of all agreements related to visa liberalization by the EU for Ukraine, we could see a stronger effort than ever from Ukraine’s side to become part of the EU. This effort is based mainly on the reforms related to the fight against corruption, which from the EU side is the most unacceptable part of Ukraine and hereby blocks the way for Ukraine’s integration in the European Union.

The most recent Judicial Reform marks a significant change as it means that Ukraine now is on the way to a more or less independent judiciary. The reform makes sure that judges will have to pass the lustration and assessment of their qualifications. The first stage of the qualification assessments started in the form of an exam. The results are remarkable: only 60% of the judges got through the test. 12% of them decided to resign instead of passing it altogether.

Furthermore, a new e-declarations law was approved this spring. The law obliges employees, who are paid from state budget (for example doctors and teachers, etc.), to declare their full income and assets. The new electronic system is a more efficient way to submit declarations instead of submitting papers, and it will play an important part in enabling Ukraine to be part of the European Union’s visa-free travel.

In 2015, Ukraine adopted new anti-corruption legislation, created new institutions to implement anti-corruption policies, and took steps toward transparency in political party financing and public procurement. At the same time, there has been limited progress to date on removing factors that contribute to corruption, such as overregulation of the economy and the power of oligarchs.

As part of the agreed rescue package, the European Commission proposed to create a joint agency to fight corruption in Ukraine. A new law creating a National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) came into force in January 2015, and the institution was formally established in April.

As of October 1, 2015, the bureau’s first 70 investigators have been selected and started their work. The head of the NABU and an anti-corruption prosecutor were appointed in a transparent and accountable manner, and the bureau has launched its first investigations.

The EU seeks to make this body independent of commercial interests, primarily from oligarchs who might be trying to bribe employees. Furthermore, a Civil Society Council has been established to ensure the citizens’ involvement in the processes. The council consists of selected citizens who participate in the selection of analysts in the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Among other tasks, the bureau seeks to ensure that judges are clear of corruption.

On April 29, 2015, the Cabinet of Ministers approved a State Programme for the implementation of its 2015–17 anti-corruption strategy. The plan calls for additional laws on lobbying, whistle-blowers, and the release of registration information about some state-owned enterprises. To eliminate the basis for corruption among elected officials, the strategy also requires a review of the electoral law and the creation of effective mechanisms to eliminate conflicts of interest. The strategy further envisions the creation of an open register of enterprises with over 50 percent state ownership, and the release of data on state procurement by June 2016.

On February 18, another law was adopted concerning money laundering. There were debates about establishing a special National Authority on recovering money and assets obtained in a criminal way. This authority is not established yet. And it is uncertain, whether or not it will be. If yes, will it be the independent body or will it be part of some law enforcement agency or another state authority? What mechanism of refund will it be? Will any international specialists be involved in the process of refund or not? These questions remain open.

Corruption is a cancer of each society. The fight against corruption is never easy. To fight a ‘culture of corruption’ is a long-term process, and it requires the people’s confidence in the rule of law.

It is crucial that the EU continues to help Ukraine along this path. This means a stronger approach towards corrupt top officials in Ukraine and a persistent effort to ensure that the anti-corruption agencies become established as permanent institutions together with an independent judiciary.

However, the EU should not forget to acknowledge the change in Ukraine, which is going in the right direction, and will continue to change through education of the young generation.

Subscribe to our newsletters


Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Click here!