Argument

Kiev Versus Kiev

President Poroshenko promised to tackle corruption. Halfway through his term, Ukraine’s anti-corruption agencies are fighting each other.

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This August, an unusual episode occurred in the center of Kiev: a public confrontation between two law enforcement agencies. In broad daylight, two black minivans parked on a sidewalk, after which 12 men — masked, wearing helmets, and carrying automatic weapons — walked into a building and brought several others outside. The brief struggle (the nature of which is, of course, disputed) pitted agents from the General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) against special forces from a newly formed body, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). The NABU forces had come to the aid of several colleagues who had been confronted by GPO staff on suspicion of clandestine activity.

In the end, the tussle ended without serious bloodshed. But the clash between Ukraine’s two main anti-corruption bodies was emblematic of a wider political reality. We are now halfway through the first term of President Petro Poroshenko, a man who promised to do his best to dismantle the country’s corrupt networks. But, nearly three years since the Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine’s political order is still wholly corrupt from top to bottom. The conflict between the GPO and the NABU helps explain why.

Corruption is destroying Ukraine from within. It permeates the country on all levels — from the regular practice of bribing primary school teachers for good grades to vast schemes involving the president’s inner circle. According to Transparency International’s latest “Global Corruption Barometer,” 72 percent of Ukrainians say little has changed in terms of corruption since their country’s dramatic change of power in 2014. When electronic declaration of assets recently became mandatory for politicians and civil servants, Ukrainian society was stunned by revelations of senior officials’ multi-million dollar cash reserves. Meanwhile, the country’s parliament has become Europe’s largest and most exclusive business club, costing several million dollars to join (to buy votes). But the returns are worth it, as the earnings on Ukrainian corruption would be the envy of any Silicon Valley start-up.

Having thrust aside the authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych, the new government attempted two different approaches to reforming the country: Cleaning up existing government institutions; and building new ones from scratch and then handing over power at the right moment. Only the second approach has proven effective. Ukraine’s new police force and the NABU, both recently created, are almost the only examples of real institutional change in post-revolutionary Ukraine. On the other hand, attempts to reform the rotten prosecutor’s office and the court system from within have failed completely. Ukraine has had four prosecutors general in three years, and not one of them showed signs of any real progress.

Today, the NABU — created with the help of the U.S. government — is Ukraine’s only truly independent law enforcement agency. The model was pushed by influential members of Ukraine’s civil society, who were inspired by the success of an analogous body in neighboring Romania. Crucial to the NABU’s success is its independence from the usual corrupt networks: The law that created the body provided for competitive selection and independent vetting of its staff and ensured they would receive unusually high salaries. Artem Sytnik, the NABU’s head, was selected from among nearly 200 candidates in a competitive process overseen by an independent committee. On its very first day of work in December 2015, the agency went straight for the heart of corruption — opening criminal proceedings against some of the closest associates of Ukraine’s president and then-prime minister.

One year later, the NABU has distinguished itself by continuing to pursue high-profile cases against corrupt actors at the very top of Ukraine’s post-revolutionary establishment. Its first investigation, for example, targeted fraud involving the state energy company which implicated Igor Kononenko, the right hand of the president, and the powerful Surkis brothers. In addition, the NABU has launched three cases against Nikolai Martynenko, a high-level ally of former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Investigators were able to obtain documents from Switzerland showing that the legislator had received “commission” payments to his Panamanian bank account for deliveries of supplies and equipment to Ukraine’s nuclear power stations.

Never before in Ukraine has this level of investigation been possible. So it’s not surprising that the country’s elite launched a war against the NABU from its very first day of operation. In fact, it was an attempt by the General Prosecutor’s Office to interfere with a NABU investigation that led to the open clash of armed men in the streets of Kiev this summer.

Acting Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, who led the president’s parliamentary fraction just half a year ago, is one of the NABU’s main opponents. Current legislation clearly states that no other body can investigate crimes involving corruption. But Lutsenko is obsessed with the idea of changing this legal framework to enable him, as prosecutor general, to personally determine who will investigate particular corruption cases, thereby eroding the NABU’s independence.

In his first months at the post of the notoriously corrupt GPO, Lutsenko produced rhetoric that pleased Western diplomats and civil activists, promising to clean house and to prosecute the cronies of deposed former President Yanukovych. But in his attempts to undermine the NABU’s independence, the prosecutor general has shown his true colors.

Other authorities, too, have come out against the NABU. The Security Service of Ukraine launched a corruption probe against a NABU staffer for the “crime” of teaching a course for a German foundation. And even other agencies and officials responsible for fighting graft — such as anti-corruption prosecutors and an anti-corruption policy agency — have sought to block the NABU’s investigations through various legal machinations.

Surrounded on all sides, the NABU needs maximum support. This is especially important in light of the massive corruption scandals that have shocked Ukraine in recent weeks. Alexandеr Onishchenko, a legislator who is hiding from justice in London, has launched a full-out assault on President Poroshenko. He claims, for example, that the fraud he is accused of committing in the gas market was committed with the president’s blessing. Onishchenko has also accused Poroshenko of systematically bribing legislators and of trying to buy media outlets to ensure their loyalty.

Onishchenko himself had also been investigated by the NABU, but evidently hoped for an intercession from Poroshenko. It is, after all, thanks to the president that he was elected in the first place: The Poroshenko bloc chose not to run a competitor in his district, clearing his way to the parliament.

In the end, the investigation of Onishchenko was thwarted — predictably — by the prosecutor general, who refused to sign his indictment in time. This sufficed to prevent an international arrest warrant from being issued, enabling Onishchenko to flee to London. There he started offering Western intelligence agencies information about corrupt dealings in Ukraine in order to try to obtain political asylum. Today, he is one of Ukraine’s top newsmakers, scandalizing the public with tales about recording the president’s illegal orders on his wristwatch.

Such major corruption scandals shake the foundations of Ukrainian politics several times a year. But the only result is falling support for the president, who over 60 percent of the population hold responsible for corruption. And it’s no wonder: Poroshenko’s “deoligarchization” policy, announced in the spring of 2015, has failed. Ukraine’s privatization drive has been thwarted. The appointment of executives to state companies, meant to be a competitive process, has turned into a farce.

Instead of solving these problems, the president has been busy building his own clan of rich associates whom he intends to use as a base of support to secure his reelection to a second term. That’s why Ukraine’s largest state-owned enterprises have patrons among the president’s friends who pump hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state budget into the pockets of his cronies.

The NABU is the only institution corrupt officials are still afraid of. That’s why its friends are so few and its enemies so many. Its experience shows that any attempt to reform Ukraine’s old anti-corruption bodies is doomed to failure — instead, the country need new ones. This is particularly important on the level of the courts and prosecutors, where nothing has changed. It is inconceivable that Ukraine could ever become a normal country while its general prosecutor continues to participate in a group text chat with members of parliament, making a mockery of his pretensions to independence.

The NABU will need the United States’ continued support in the years to come. In fact, the agency’s performance has geopolitical significance. For millions of people under the yoke of authoritarian leaders in the post-Soviet world, Ukraine’s experience will offer a strong arguments in favor of challenging their government through popular protest — but only if it succeeds.

In the photo, activists protest in front of the General Prosecutors Office (GPO) in Kiev on August 17.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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