Ukraine is progressing in its other war – the fight against corruption

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Ukraine has struggled with endemic corruption since the early days of its independence in 1991, and government officials and independent activists say the fight is key to winning its existential war with Russia.

They had some success. Anti-corruption organization Transparency International ranks Ukraine at its highest level since 2006: currently 104th out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

"Most Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions are showing pretty good results," Andriy Borovik, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, told the BBC.

According to him, one such result was the arrest of the then head of the Supreme Court, Vsevolod Knyazev, on charges of bribery in May 2023.

"This can be a safeguard because if you see someone arrested, you will think twice before doing something corrupt," he said.

There were other high-profile arrests, including the Minister of Agriculture, Mykola Solski, and an officer in the SBU intelligence service, Artem Shylo. All three have denied wrongdoing and have been released on bail. Investigations are ongoing.

A key turning point came in 2015, when a digital platform called Prozorro helped reduce corruption in state procurement, saving Ukraine nearly $6 billion in public funds in just four years.

Ukraine's task now is to focus on rooting out corruption in its tax and customs services, as well as improving financial oversight, Borovik says.

"A lot of money comes to Ukraine from the West and, of course, they ask if there is adequate control over this money," he adds.

In addition to draining Ukraine's scarce resources, corruption has in recent years hampered the flow of foreign aid. Donald Trump cited corruption concerns when he was challenged about delaying aid to Ukraine when he was US president.

Corruption was also a major obstacle to recruiting more men for the war with Russia. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy fired all regional officials in charge of military recruitment over bribery concerns. Thousands of Ukrainians also bribed their way out of the country to avoid being sent to war.

Zelensky / Photo EPA-EFE/UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE HANDOUT — MANDATORY CREDIT: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE — HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Andriy Sinyuk, deputy head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecution Service, argued that the frequent reports of Ukrainian officials being accused of corruption is a welcome sign.

"This does not mean that more crimes are being committed." This means we have become better at doing our job. "There are no people or positions left in Ukraine that the anti-corruption agencies cannot touch," he told the BBC. "This is probably our main achievement because a few years ago we couldn't even dream."

Dmytro Kalmikov, head of the anti-corruption policy department at the National Anti-Corruption Agency, a government agency, says bribery has been completely eradicated in some of the worst-hit areas – for example, government services such as issuing passports, permits and licenses. He also told the BBC that significant progress had been made in education and police reforms.

Kalmikov, however, admits that the government has been less successful in rooting out corruption in the use of natural resources (for example, in mining and forestry), regulating monopolies and large infrastructure projects.

"Progress is slowest where big interests and big players meet," he says.

According to him, "in the next five to ten years, the government should focus on purifying the judiciary, which will make the general system of public administration healthier."

Anti-corruption activists agree that the Ukrainian government has become much more active in the fight against corruption.

"Something clicked in their heads last winter, their attitude really changed, which is important at the top." "Maybe they realized that things were going pear-shaped," or the government in Kyiv might have been under pressure from Western donors," said prominent Ukrainian anti-corruption journalist Yuriy Nikolov.

The fact is, he continues, "law enforcement has stepped up its game."

What is the reason for Ukraine's anti-corruption push?

Vitaly Shabunin, chairman of the board of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Ukrainian NGO, believes it is a combination of pressure from the Ukrainian public and foreign donors.

"Whether or not the government wants to fight corruption and regardless of who is in government, public pressure and the effectiveness of civil society and the media means that no government can ignore corruption," he says.

As an example, he mentions the reshuffle of Ukraine's government in 2023, which followed allegations by defense officials that they procured food for the Ukrainian army at inflated prices.

"The scandal started institutional changes in defense procurement, which means there will be no corruption there even after the minister has changed," he told the BBC. "Corruption scandals can force state institutions to change for the better."

Shabunin dismisses concerns that Western military aid to Ukraine may be embezzled. "All the weapons supplied by the Western allies end up in the hands of Ukrainian troops who use it effectively. It is impossible to steal Western weapons."

But experts say the Ukrainian government needs to do more to eliminate corruption. This is especially important in times of war, says Nikolov.

"Corruption is killing us. If you want to run out of ammunition at all, if you want to run out of money to buy ammunition, if you want to welcome the occupiers to Kiev, then yes, close your eyes to corruption. But believe me, the first thing they will do once we are occupied is they will shoot us all, so the fight against corruption is a matter of survival."

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