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Ukraine's fight against corruption isn't new. It's still trying

Demonstrators burn flares and smoke bombs outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on June 5, 2020, during a demonstration calling for the interior minister's resignation over corruption suspicion.
Sergei Supinksy
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators burn flares and smoke bombs outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv on June 5, 2020, during a demonstration calling for the interior minister's resignation over corruption suspicion.

KYIV, Ukraine — The recent dismissal of senior Ukrainian officials has renewed attention to the country's decades-long battle with corruption.

Over the course of several days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and government Cabinet members ordered the removal of more than a dozen advisers, deputy ministers, prosecutors and regional administrators from their posts.

At least three of the officials were implicated in various scandals revealed by the press. Ukrainian anti-corruption officials arrested one on bribery charges.

"We will never return to how things were before, to the lifestyles that bureaucrats had gotten used to, to the old way of chasing power," Zelenskyy said in a video address late Sunday at the start of the shake-up.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. is not aware of its assistance being involved in the allegations, but teams in Kyiv and Washington are working to make sure the aid goes to its intended aims.

Here are some of the keys to understanding how Ukraine got to this point and what's being done about it.

It went from Soviet Union to wild west

When Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, control of the country's economy shifted from the former communist leadership in Moscow to what watchdogs called "clans" — private networks of ownership defined by intimidation, cronyism and crime. The free market that President George H.W. Bush encouraged Ukraine to adopt during his 1991 visit to Kyiv ended up a "wild west" of backdoor deals and power grabs as high up as the president's office.

"It was like the Middle Ages," says Vasyl Zadvornyy, the former CEO of Prozorro, Ukraine's public procurement agency. Many international monitoring groups named Ukraine as being among the most corrupt countries on Earth.

But after Ukrainian police responded to small pro-European demonstrations with excessive force in 2013, millions of Ukrainians took to the streets looking for answers behind the government's violence.

"It became extremely clear how much damage corruption had done to the institutions," says Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics. After months of protests culminated in more police brutality, Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych, himself a member of the "Donetsk Clan," fled the country.

A visitor to a collection of antique cars at Mezhyhirya, the former private estate of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in Novi Petrivtsi, Ukraine. After Yanukovych fled in 2014, the extravagant estate was opened to the public and returned to state ownership.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A visitor to a collection of antique cars at Mezhyhirya, the former private estate of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in Novi Petrivtsi, Ukraine. After Yanukovych fled in 2014, the extravagant estate was opened to the public and returned to state ownership.

Immediately afterwards, Russia invaded Ukraine and backed separatist movements in the Donbas region. Mylovanov says the episode revealed how corrupt practices hollowed out Ukraine's ability to defend itself.

"Security services did nothing. They simply weren't capable," he says. Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 in under a month without a shot fired. Ukrainians reached into their own pockets to restock military arsenals, emptied by years of embezzlement and bad contracts.

"A new civil society community of watchdogs was established to provide a great level of transparency and accountability," says Zadvornyy.

In 2015, his group worked with activists, software programmers and the Ukrainian government to unveil a brand new public procurement system called Prozorro, which means "transparent" in Ukrainian. Meanwhile, all elected and appointed officials had to disclose all of their finances or face hefty penalties.

"Access to our registries is much wider than in the U.S.," says Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Action Center, a nongovernmental organization in Kyiv.

A detailed database adds scrutiny

By 2016, Ukraine's parliament compelled businesses and government agencies to use Prozorro and disclose thousands of details from each transaction, down to the cost of a pencil in a rural school district, the pencil's intended use, competing costs for the same pencil, and contact information for the buyer and seller.

"It's very popular among the business community," says Zadvornyy, since it ensured fair market practices for the first time in Ukrainian history.

Still, Western countries urged Ukraine to do more as billions of dollars of public and private investments flowed into the country still at war with separatists.

"It's not enough to push through laws to increase transparency with regard to official sources of income," then-Vice President Joe Biden said before a session of Ukraine's parliament in 2015, where he promised a $190 million package to fight graft.

"Reform isn't just good governance, it's self-preservation," he added.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden (center), Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) and parliament speaker Volodymyr Groysman in Ukrainian parliament, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2015.
NurPhoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images
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NurPhoto via Getty Images
Then-Vice President Joe Biden (center), Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) and parliament speaker Volodymyr Groysman in Ukrainian parliament, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 8, 2015.

Still, the kinds of additional reforms Biden and European Union officials wanted to see in Ukraine, like better enforcement against publicly visible corruption, never panned out.

Responding to a scathing 2016 editorial from The New York Times titled "Ukraine's Unyielding Corruption," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused the newspaper of siding with Russia in its war with Ukraine. Poroshenko repeated claims that corruption allegations distract from national defense during his ultimately unsuccessful presidential race against Zelenskyy in 2019.

Military procurement was secret

When Russia invaded Ukraine again in 2022, Ukraine temporarily suspended transparency requirements out of national security concerns.

In the following months, civilian expenditures returned to the Prozorro database, but military procurement nonetheless remained secret. This led some observers, including a group of American lawmakers, to demand even more transparency in wartime.

While that's being debated, the issue of perception remains.

"The only way to restore trust is to be as tough as possible," the Anti-Corruption Action Center's Shabunin says of the government's recent moves to dismiss top officials, in lieu of transparency.

"Yes, we have many problems, but we are on the right track, but know how it should be," he says. "That's why I remain an optimist."

That seems to be, for the moment, the EU's assessment of Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts so far as well.

When the 27-nation bloc accepted Ukraine's candidacy to join in June 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised the country's recent reforms.

"A lot has been achieved, but, of course, important work remains," said von der Leyen.

Joanna Kakissis and Polina Lytvynova contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julian Hayda