The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
Over the past several weeks, Ukrainians have been treated to a digital feast, of sorts. Although most of the population has long resigned itself to the fact that its leaders are corrupt and, as a result, financially well-endowed, never have the particulars of that wealth been laid bare in volume and detail—until recently, that is. Thanks to Ukraine’s new “e-declaration” system—an online database through which public servants are required to openly declare their assets—citizens can now behold the spoils that their politicians and others across the state bureaucracy collected during nearly three decades of misrule and widespread graft.
The declarations are startling and also downright ludicrous. Besides suspiciously large bundles of cash, parliament deputies and ministers registered multiple properties, extravagant watches, and extensive collections of wine and antique art. One lawmaker even declared his private chapel, and Borys Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, a major city in Ukraine’s southeast, logged a ticket from Virgin Galactic, a commercial spaceline for outer-space travel, valued at around $175,000 at the time of purchase.
Of course, a public servant might have entered politics after a successful business career, as did Filatov, who was a local tycoon. But in a country where the average monthly wage is around $200, and where soldiers are sent to the frontline for not much more, few find that explanation acceptable. And far more baffling was the record of a 27-year-old lawmaker with little to no business links and a yearly salary of around $2,700 who keeps the equivalent of $215,000 in cash. Many Ukrainians were predictably stunned, and the declarations sparked a maelstrom of commentary in the press and on social media.
The much-vaunted e-declaration system, known as the Unified State Register of Declarations, would not have been possible without the persistence of a robust civil society. Empowered by the 2014 Maidan street revolution, activists across the country have worked tirelessly to hold Ukraine’s politicians to their promises of ensuring democracy and justice. In Kiev, groups such as the Anti-Corruption Action Center and the Reanimation Package of Reforms have been instrumental in designing and lobbying for the implementation of anticorruption measures meant to bring Ukraine closer to a transparent, European-style of governance.
Pressure from Western partners has also been crucial. Ukraine’s cash-strapped economy, which contracted sharply thanks to the revolutionary turmoil and Russia’s covert invasion of Crimea, has been propped up by loans from the International Monetary Fund. The money comes with requirements that Kiev streamline its bureaucracy and clean up corruption. Meanwhile, securing visa-free travel with the European Union, which received preliminary approval last week, was a major impetus for establishing the e-declaration system.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman hailed the database as “an important step,” declaring confidently that “things will never be the same again.” Such lofty rhetoric might seem hollow coming from an official who, along with his wife, declared nearly $2 million in cash and a dozen luxury watches, among other astonishing assets. But he is correct in cautioning that publicizing politicians’ assets was “far from the final step.”
Now that tens of thousands of officials have released their declarations, as they’ve been legally bound to do, the country’s anticorruption bodies have begun checking for irregularities and, ideally, will successfully prosecute those individuals they’ve found to have broken the law by illicit profiteering or by falsifying information in their disclosures. Journalists and civic activists will most certainly play a part in the process by helping to flag suspicious declarations, but the burden is on newly created institutions such as the fledgling National Agency for Prevention of Corruption and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) to fulfill their designated functions and prove the state can rein in its own. The former is tasked with maintaining the database and monitoring the declarations, while the latter is meant to investigate potential wrongdoing.
This will no doubt be a long and difficult process, not least because of the bureaucracy’s resistance to change, a fact that was evident long before the e-declaration system went live. Earlier this year, lawmakers had been blamed for attempting to both stall and water down the anticorruption draft law by decriminalizing false declarations. In another disappointing move, days before the system’s October 31 deadline, officials submitted a piece of legislation that called for activists to publicize their own assets. Critics such as Freedom House believe that such a law is essentially a pretext for government harassment of the very anticorruption fighters responsible for pushing reform.
Now that the system is finally up and running, even its staunchest defenders are urging caution amid high public expectations. One of the most disappointing issues, according to Vitaliy Shabunin of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, is a loophole in Ukraine’s criminal code that essentially renders assets that may have been illicitly acquired before 2015 legally unactionable. Still, activists hope that naming and shaming could be just as effective in kicking corrupt politicians out of office. “We can’t put thousands of people in jail for this, but clearly it’s necessary to dismiss them,” Shabunin said. The country has a robust group of competent political and investigative journalists who work at outlets such as Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) and Novoe Vremya (New Times) and can drum up public pressure.
As for NABU, it stands to face a number of institutional setbacks. Although it is empowered to launch criminal investigations, the body nevertheless relies on a judicial system that Shabunin and many others say is crooked. NABU can investigate as thoroughly as it wishes but can ultimately do little if, for example, a mysterious fire suddenly incapacitates a court that is due to consider its requests. That is what happened last June in a Kiev district court to which NABU had filed many of its motions. As another frustrating measure of evading justice, a court can set a disproportionately low bail in high-level embezzlement cases—or even release a suspect from custody, as it did for Serhiy Pereloma, the deputy head of the state-run energy company Naftogaz, who some worry is now a flight risk. Theoretically, there is also nothing that could prevent a judge from simply ignoring the evidence presented by prosecutors. “Corrupt, inadequate courts will do exactly that,” Shabunin said.
These are among the primary reasons why none of the three dozen cases NABU has sent to the courts so far have resulted in outright convictions (there have been six settlements, however). Judicial reform is currently under way, and activists hope a draft law on the creation of anticorruption courts will be submitted to the parliament by the end of the year.Nevertheless, few believe that the road ahead will be smooth. “The problem is that for 25 years, corruption was a method for managing the entire country,” NABU Director Artem Sytnyk recently told local media.
Even more difficult is grappling with a factor far less tangible than dysfunctional courts, legislation, or law enforcement: a lingering Soviet mentality that often includes a fatalistic acceptance of leadership, however corrupt. Two and a half decades of corruption in an independent Ukraine—to say nothing of 70 years of Soviet rule—have created a ruling class defined by impunity and largely free from public scrutiny. As a result, large parts of society have been conditioned to regard public servants as something akin to royalty, said Sasha Borovik, a prominent government critic and ex–deputy governor of Odessa—or at least feel powerless when their leaders operate outside the rule of law. “For as long as that mentality is dominant,” he said, “there won’t be much of a change.”
This mindset helps feed the often dangerous passivity commonly found in post-Soviet societies, which in turn can make it difficult to build a critical opposition force when needed. Ukraine has been in a similar circumstance before: despite the high hopes for reform after the Orange Revolution in 2004, the return of scandal and political infighting led to quick public disillusionment. Back then, both civil society and the greater public failed to keep up pressure on the administration of then President Viktor Yushchenko to propel meaningful change. And his government’s inaction helped set the stage in 2010 for the election of Viktor Yanukovych, the “villain” of the Orange Revolution.
To be sure, the country experienced a sort of breakthrough with the 2014 revolution, which galvanized larger swaths of the population in civic engagement, such as through volunteering, donating to the military, or simply taking to the streets. But many in Kiev warn that the country has not yet reached safety—to keep the momentum going, people must believe that their efforts will eventually lead to success.
Ultimately, rigorous law enforcement and transparent prosecution are the most effective ways to demonstrate to the public that no official is above the law. But there must be enough prosecutions of crooked bureaucrats to convince the public that it is a widespread and lasting trend, not a demonstrative spectacle that claims a handful of sacrificial lambs. Prosecuting only a few, while leaving others untouched, would further erode the already low levels of public confidence in reform efforts. Right now, frustration is only mounting: a recent poll by the International Republican Institute found that 72 percent of the population believes the country is headed in the wrong direction. Stalling is not something Ukraine can afford.