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How the West helps corruption in Ukraine

Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency is facing a public image crisis at home. Changes are opposed by the West, which is focused on aiding in the fight against corruption in the country.

December 22, 2020 - Ihor Stakh - Articles and Commentary

Headquarter of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine in Kyiv. Photo: Mr Rosewater (cc) wikimedia.org

Just as in the days of Yanukovych, corruption still remains a difficult issue in Ukraine. In the latest corruption perception rankings by Transparency International, Ukraine scored only 30 points out of a possible 100. The country ranks 126th in the world, close to Azerbaijan, Djibouti and Kyrgyzstan. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Social Monitoring Centre in November, 63.6 per cent of Ukrainians believe that corruption is still one of the country’s major problems.

Whilst Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskyy both promised to fight corruption during their campaigns, the situation in the country remains the same. Despite this, it cannot be said that no attempts have been made to fight corruption in Ukraine. It should be remembered that the West also promised assistance regarding this issue and actively contributed to the creation of new anti-corruption bodies.

Ukraine will soon celebrate the sixth anniversary of the establishment of the country’s main law enforcement body, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). This organisation was created after the events of Euromaidan with assistance from Western institutions.

This law enforcement body initially gave Ukrainians hope that the situation could soon change in the country. However, after five years the organisation has turned out to be a disappointment. According to another opinion poll conducted by the Social Monitoring Centre, NABU is the least trusted official body among Ukrainians today. This can be seen in how 38.3 per cent of respondents do not trust NABU at all, whilst 34.7 per cent are less likely to trust the group. At the same time, 9.2 per cent said that they were likely to trust NABU. Only one per cent of respondents stated that they had total confidence in the bureau. As a result, 73 per cent of those surveyed do not trust the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and only 10.2 per cent trust it to some extent. Even when compared to other state bodies this is an abysmal result.

This low level of support is caused primarily by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau’s lack of results and its current role within Ukrainian politics.

Today, NABU has more than 650 employees. Despite this large number, these people have only managed to bring 41 petty corrupt officials to justice over five years. This is in striking contrast to neighbouring Romania, where thousands of top-level officials were investigated during the same period of time. In Romania these figures include deputies, ministers, city mayors, media owners and even the former president’s brother.

At the same time, for over six years the state budget has given approximately 120 million euros to NABU. This is a huge amount for Ukraine, where millions of people are forced to survive on incomes of less than 100 euros per month.

NABU claims to be an investigative body and that its effectiveness cannot be measured by the number of corrupt officials that it brings to justice. The bureau recently reported that in the first half of 2020 it started 406 criminal proceedings. Simultaneously, 125 persons were notified of suspicion and 33 cases were sent to court. A significant amount of funds have been returned to the state budget by persons currently under investigation.

It is impossible to fairly assess the activity of NABU. An audit of the state body has never been carried out despite the fact that it is required by law. However, it is unlikely that figures could change the Ukrainian population’s overall perception of the NABU. They have yet to see figures that were involved in huge corruption scandals receive punishments that were promised by NABU. Ukrainians also regularly face issues of corruption when dealing with the authorities.

In addition, NABU has suffered from serious problems with its public image. This is especially true following NABU head Artem Sytnyk’s attempt to cover up a luxury vacation at a holiday camp. This was paid for by an unknown third party and ultimately resulted in Sytnyk being placed on the corrupt officials register.

The need for a change of head and ‘reboot’ of the bureau has been discussed for years. However, for some reason, these attempts have been sharply opposed by Western organisations. These organisations continue to insist that Artem Sytnyk should keep his position.

This position seriously undermines Ukrainians’ confidence in their Western partners. In Ukraine more and more people do not understand why the West supports an ineffective body and objects to changing its leader.

Due to this, conspiracy theories claiming that NABU is actually being used as an external means of control over the Ukrainian state are becoming more and more common. The anti-corruption body opens many proceedings that lead nowhere. However, this makes it possible to have a hold over officials or deputies.

Recently this fact was openly discussed by Oleh Tatarov, the deputy head of the Office of the President of Ukraine. He called on Artem Sytnyk to resign, stating that “NABU is not the Ukrainian story… Artem Sytnyk is the root of the problem regarding the anti-corruption policy of our state”. By saying this, Tatarov expressed what many other officials and politicians were unwilling to say aloud.

This statement made front page headlines. However, it did not lead to any changes. The support offered by Western ambassadors to Artem Sytnyk appears to be unshakable. Even the Constitutional Court’s ruling in August that Sytnyk was made head of NABU unlawfully did not change their opinion. Sytnyk is now above the law in Ukraine. He has a unique status that is backed not by effective work but by exclusive foreign support.

The problem here is that by defending Sytnyk and NABU, the West is actually defending corruption in Ukraine. Ukrainians know this and are now making wider assumptions that could seriously undermine the country’s relations with the EU in the future.

Ihor Stakh is a Ukrainian journalist, blogger and author of numerous corruption investigations. In 2019, he was beaten several times by unknown persons for his activities. Currently, he resides outside Ukraine.


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