Amid the justified anger, the scandal over Judge Kniaziev showed that anti-corruption bodies in Ukraine’s system of governance are working, and able to with cases involving the most senior officials. Bodies including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecution Office, the High Anti-Corruption Court, and the Asset Recovery and Management Agency, have seized bribes worth around $46m since the all-out war began in February 2022.
The case is a sign that Kyiv is willing to work towards an effective anti-corruption environment for its post-war reconstruction, by developing a consistent and investor-friendly legal system. The Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) has removed Ukraine from its blacklist, acknowledging it has “successfully implemented or is implementing to a satisfactory degree” 15 of its 31 recommendations, with nine more in the process of meeting requirements. This contrasts with 2019 when GRECO confirmed the implementation of only five of the 31 recommendations. Its most recent report described Ukraine’s continuing efforts, undertaken during a war of national survival, as “remarkable.”
But although the Kniaziev scandal highlights some progress, it also begs questions. While the judge has not yet been tried, it is clearly troubling that the country’s top jurist is alleged to have had stacks of illicitly acquired currency in his home. It is clear that the country cannot enjoy a functioning rule of law if the courts remain the weakest link.
Yet the judiciary is only one part of the problem. Legal systems have the fundamental task of ensuring stability and predictability for individuals, companies, and institutions, and stable, clear, and well-designed legislation is vital for the system to work at all.
Good legislation reduces the opportunities for judges to make arbitrary decisions, which is one of the key factors enabling corruption. With the ongoing alignment of Ukrainian legislation to the EU’s acquis, the improvement and consistency of Ukraine’s laws are critical.
Another way to reduce the arbitrary nature of the system is for judges to establish standardized interpretations of the law. The Ukrainian legal system does not accept court precedents, a stance increasingly at odds with a trend for standard interpretation of the law in both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.
The biggest external problem for the justice system is the influence of oligarchs, who instrumentalized it in the post-Soviet period to protect property and maintain their business empires. It may be symptomatic that Vsevolod Kniaziev is accused of taking a bribe from the billionaire investor Kostyantyn Zhevago.
Strategies to deal with this problem include enhancing self-regulation for judges and increasing their exposure to engagement with civil society to avoid a self-perpetuating group. The High Council of Justice, the central institution for self-governance, has formally existed since January 2017 but only restarted work at the beginning of 2023 following a hiatus. The High Qualification Commission of Judges, which is responsible for the formation of the judiciary, the transfer of judges, and ensuring their proper qualifications, has faced a similar situation.
So far, one of the few control mechanisms in place is the procedure for declaring assets. Established in 2016, a system of e-declarations allows the public to see the property of every civil servant, but the procedure has been controversial — and it is currently suspended for the war’s duration. Its reintroduction and an end to the endless fiddling with its content will be key to restoring public faith in the institution. Citizens need to see proof that their judges are honest and open.
Ukraine has an unanswered demand for mechanisms to enable civil society to influence the judicial system as much as possible, to ensure the fresh air of transparency reaches far into the system, and it needs to respond.
Oleksandr Moskalenko is an academic researcher focusing on European politics. He is an In-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA, Washington, DC). He is a Ph.D. in European Law .
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.