Ukraine’s struggle with corruption has prevented it from becoming a full, prosperous democracy and hinders its ability to respond effectively to Russian violations of its sovereignty. This Helsinki Commission staff report examines why corruption has been so persistent in Ukraine. It provides a historical analysis of corruption in Ukraine from its break with the Soviet system to today, reviewing the current state of reforms and providing recommendations in context.
The resilience and influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs are at the heart of the country’s persistent corruption. Oligarchs have captured the Ukrainian state, crowding out non-corrupt political parties and competing with one another to steal Ukraine’s wealth. They are not so much businesspeople as courtiers, who transform political and personal connections into monopolies supported by the state.
Two phenomena in particular have given rise to this system of oligarchic competition: (1) the lack of reforms in the early years of independent Ukraine, which resulted in incomplete economic liberalization, and (2) gas arbitrage, which has been uniquely devastating to reform attempts due to building so many oligarchic fortunes and providing a backdoor for Russia to influence Ukrainian politics for decades.
Today’s Ukraine has implemented many important reforms that have helped to counter corruption, specifically in energy, finance, and economics. However, judicial reforms continue to lag behind. Commentators have observed that progress has slowed and frustration among civil society and the international community has increased.
This report recommends that Ukraine move forward with remaining reforms, supported by both civil society and the international community. Most important is that Ukraine not allow backsliding to occur. Ultimately, the oligarchs must be transformed from courtiers into entrepreneurs and businesspeople so as to finally end the pervasive institutionalized corruption. An empowered Ukrainian civil society—including independent media—will be paramount to such reforms, and has proven time and again that it is world class in its engagement. Key here is to condemn any attempt to hinder or harm civil society.
The report makes numerous recommendations by sector, with an emphasis on the importance of reforming the judiciary. In particular, Ukraine should establish an anticorruption court as soon as possible, so as to provide the final necessary piece of Ukraine’s anticorruption architecture.
Additional reform areas discussed include the safeguarding and further empowering of the anticorruption architecture; implementing privatization and additional regulatory and corporate governance reform as the next step for energy sector reform; pursuing consolidation and transparency as ideas for banking sector reform; and limiting parliamentary immunity.
This report also discusses greater e-government and press freedom as mechanisms to empower Ukrainian civil society, including independent media, to monitor the reform process and prevent backsliding. Finally, it encourages the international community to continue its support for Ukraine and dig in for the long haul.
This report was drafted by Helsinki Commission staff. Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, served as lead author.