Ukraine’s never-ending fight against corruption

By Jelle Baartmans

February 22 marked a major breakthrough in one of Ukraine’s most high-profile anti-corruption cases. Volodymyr Yatsenko, former Deputy Chairman of PrivatBank, was spectacularly arrested at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv. Yatsenko, who is suspected of abusing his position at PrivatBank and embezzling large sums of money, was already on his way out of Ukraine in a private jet when the National Anti-Corruption Bureau forced air traffic control to make the plane land in Kyiv. Although Yatsenko’s arrest is a hopeful sign for progress in the PrivatBank case, one should be cautious not to attach too much significance to it in terms of the wider fight against corruption in Ukraine.

Many in Europe still vividly remember Euromaidan, but by now it has been over seven years since President Viktor Yanukovych fled his own country and found refuge in Russia. Euromaidan started as a protest against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, but as Sakwa notes, soon the “focus broadened out from European issues to become an insurrection against the corruption, nepotism and general malfeasance of the Yanukovych regime.” In the West, Euromaidan raised optimism. It was the second revolution against corrupt and anti-democratic practices in Ukraine in ten years’ time. Was this the final blow to a system of large-scale corruption, and the first step towards good governance in Ukraine?

Petro Poroshenko was elected the country’s new president in June 2014. One of his first acts was to sign the Association Agreement that Yanukovych had refused to sign. Poroshenko’s outspoken, pro-Western position was enough for the West to embrace him. In late 2015, Leiden University invited Poroshenko to give a Europe Lecture, in which he urged his Dutch audience to vote in favor of the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement in an upcoming referendum. “By working together with the EU, Ukraine will introduce important reforms and will become a better nation”, said the president.

However, in spite of Poroshenko’s big promises, his presidency was a disappointment in terms of the fight against corruption. For instance, as The New Republic notes“his campaign promise of an anti-corruption court lay unfulfilled for years.” In the 2019 presidential elections, Poroshenko suffered a humiliating defeat against comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who made the fight against corruption one of his main campaigning messages and received almost 75 percent of votes.

But so far, Zelensky’s anti-corruption achievements have not been any more impressive than Poroshenko’s. In September 2020, the International Monetary Fund withheld the second tranche of a 5 billion dollar stand-by agreementbecause it was unsatisfied with Ukraine’s reform progress. In July 2020, Yakiv Smolii, chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine —an institution that is supposed to be independent— resigned under political pressure. Important anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC) and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO),  fall under the control of the presidency and are therefore not independent. In fact, the latter refused to bring a high-profile corruption case around government-set coal prices to court, even though the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) said it had found “clear evidence” against six suspects, some of which were government officials.

NABU is Ukraine’s only anti-corruption institution that can be considered genuinely independent. Apart from its efforts in the coal price case, the Bureau also leads the investigation into the earlier-mentioned PrivatBank case. Without going into details on this complex case, it suffices to mention that the bank belonged to Ihor Kolomoyskyi, one of Ukraine’s most notorious oligarchs, before it was nationalized in 2016 after a 5.6 billion dollar bailout. Ever since, Kolomoyskyi and the state have fought over the question of who owes what to whom. It has brought President Zelensky in an uneasy position, since Kolomoyskyi’s TV channel 1+1 was one of the promoters of his presidential campaign, and previously Zelensky’s comedy show ‘Servant of the People’ aired on the same channel. So far, the President has failed to demonstrate that his previous ties with the oligarch do not hamper his fight against corruption. For instance, in March 2020 he forced Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, a young and ambitious reformer, to resign, just days after Honcharuk had tried to reduce Kolomoyskyi’s influence over state-owned power generating company Centrenergo.

Between 2013 and 2020, Ukraine has slowly climbed from rank 144 to rank 117 in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International. Undeniably, some some reforms have been implemented, but the overall situation has improved only slightly. VoxUkraine, an independent analytical platform founded after Euromaidan, has kept track of reforms since January 2015 in its ‘iMoRe Index’. On a scale from -5 to +5, the overall reform score over the past six years is a mere +0.4. However, apart from Russia, Ukraine is still Europe’s lowest-ranking country in the Index. Meanwhile, a new draft law initiated by the Cabinet of Ministers threatens to jeopardize the independence of NABU by giving the government and the presidency more control over the Bureau. In other words, the driving force behind Ukraine’s fight against large-scale corruption risks being undermined by the government. And for what the arrest of Yatsenko at Boryspil Airport is worth, it is important to question why the suspect was already on his way to Vienna in a private jet less than two hours after Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General signed a notice of suspicion. It appears that not everyone inside the state apparatus wants NABU to succeed in its mission—which should be the country’s main mission, three decades after gaining its independence.