Three years ago, on May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky said in an inaugural speech with a hint of irony that his election victory proved that Ukrainians were tired of the experienced politicians who had created a country of opportunity for the past 28 years – in terms of theft and bribery.
Ukraine has long been associated with corruption and its oligarchs, and Russia has used these topics of speech to partially justify its war against the country.
However, analysts say Ukraine has now taken significant steps to eradicate corruption, and Russia in particular is not in a position to criticize.
According to a 2021 report by Transparency International, Ukraine ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in a category with states like Zambia, Gabon and Mexico. That year, Ukraine was the second most corrupt country in Europe. They were surpassed only in the 136th place by Russia in this respect.
Undoubtedly, corruption has disrupted Ukrainian society and harmed its political situation, and Ukrainians have repeatedly called for the rule of law, democracy and self-determination, such as during the 2004 Orange Revolution and pro-European protests in the Euromaidan movement.
The Orange Revolution was a series of strikes and protests accused of falsifying votes in favor of Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian candidate in the 2004 presidential election. And the Euromaidan in 2013-2014 was the result of the government’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which had already been prepared. The protests ended with Yanukovych’s resignation and escape.
However, systemic corruption was widespread in Ukraine long before the Yanukovych era.
Bribes, or “gifts,” were common in the state system. Ukrainians must resort to bribing officials to gain better access to, or prevent denial of, public services such as education or health care.
The legacy of the Soviet Union played an important role, as society had to learn to navigate a system of informal relations and rules where on paper everyone had equal rights, but in practice some were more equal than others.
Of course, these are not unique to Ukraine, as most post-Soviet and communist countries have experienced this, including Russia, and in Hungary the legacy of the gratitude system has been. However, even in this region, Ukraine is an extreme case, along with Moldova.
However, since the 2014 Euromaidan, much has changed in Ukraine. The government is working with the OECD to curb corruption and has adopted a number of anti-corruption measures, including an anti-corruption strategy and a reform of the Penal Code, through which Ukraine now meets international standards.
Two anti-corruption bodies, the Anti-Corruption Agency and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, have also become operational, and the measures have tightened the formal declaration requirements for politicians and public officials.
After 2014, Ukraine moved closer to the European Union. With the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU, Ukraine has reformed the rule of law and the judiciary, while its economic relations with Russia have almost completely disrupted in the midst of the war, eliminating another source of high-level corruption.
However, reforms still have shortcomings.
It is very likely that widespread systemic corruption in society will persist after the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Corruption was one of the reasons Ukrainians became dissatisfied with former President Petro Poroshenko. The result was the election of Volodymyr Zelensky.
Incidentally, the corruption under Porosenko’s presidency is Al Jazeera prepared an investigative report back in 2018.
Although the former comedian has supported the implementation of the reforms required by the EU, his government has often passed laws that protect the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs. During its presidency, Transparency International registered an increase in the level of corruption perceived by the Ukrainian public.
In political and academic circles, Zelensky is often criticized for being in the pockets of Ukrainian oligarchs who could not get in under Porosenko’s presidency.
However, the adoption of a law abolishing political immunity, which has long protected political corruption, is a remarkable success. Reforms in the banking sector and other business areas have also taken place. Although more similar steps are needed in Ukraine, they have made much more positive progress in recent times than in Russia.
(Cover image: Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Stefanie Loos-Pool / Getty Images)