It is no secret that Ukraine has struggled with corruption, a problem dating to the cold decades of Soviet rule. This, and wider failures in the rule of law, have seriously hindered Ukraine’s ability to develop, and gave its enemies the chance to smear it as no better than Russia, the gold standard of European graft. 

It is tempting to slow the effort to bring Ukraine into line with its European friends. After all, Russia is waging war to destroy the Ukrainian nation, its aimless missiles kill civilians in their beds, vast swaths of the country lie in ruins, and tens of thousands are dead, some after grotesque acts of torture by invading forces. 

But a purely emotional response, while understandable, does not help Ukraine or the main victims of systematic corruption; its own people. Having made enormous sacrifices to win a heroic war for independence, there will be few willing to tolerate a return to the old ways. Nor will the West be willing to bankroll the $1 trillion or more needed for Ukrainian reconstruction if the problem persists. 

There are encouraging signs that Europe and the US are pressing this theme. The European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told Ukraine last summer that: “You have created an impressive anti-corruption machine. But now these institutions need teeth, and the right people in senior posts.” And former US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch warned that while it would be hard to be forceful with post-war Ukraine, it will be necessary. 

“There are going to be billions of dollars’ worth of assistance coming in,” she said. “It’s going to be important that there is lots of oversight. And conditionality, frankly. That’s going to be tough after this very difficult period for Ukraine. But I think it’s going to be crucially important.”

Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, corruption and the lack of proper legal mechanisms have stifled the growth of Ukraine’s democracy. In 2000, Georgiy Gongadze, the journalist who worked to uncover the illicit dealings of the Ukrainian elite, was kidnapped and murdered; his decapitated body was later discovered in a forest. President Leonid Kuchma was caught on tape saying something needed to be done with the journalist, and many suspected he was involved. He denied the allegations. As elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, an oligarch class arose, owning fabulous wealth and wielding considerable political influence. This has been stilled somewhat by anti-oligarch legislation and by the war, a trend that will need to be maintained afterwards. 

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The Ukrainian people’s thirst for change was clear long before Russia launched military action in 2014. The desire for closer ties with the European Union (EU), which became a symbol of the rule of law and good governance, were clear when millions took to the streets and demanded a course in alignment with Europe in the Orange Revolution in 2004. With Russia continuing its attempt to subdue Ukraine, the people rose again in 2013 with the Revolution of Dignity.  

Ukrainians look back to their roots for inspiration. In 1710, the exiled Cossack leader Pylyp Orlyk established the Bendery Constitution. This document, written 77 years prior to the Constitution of the United States, introduced the separation of powers and established a range of civil liberties, influencing Ukrainian thought and nation-building for centuries to come. 

There is another pressing reason for reform. Russia has long weaponized corruption to stifle Ukraine’s democracy. Corruption is a tool of statecraft used by Russia to spread its influence, such as using secret funding to build networks of corrupt officials who help push countries to achieve its goals.  

It’s therefore key that Ukraine has a well-functioning judiciary, a branch of the state that is currently seriously corrupt. Some progress has been made over the last few years, through Ukraine’s national anti-corruption agencies and a special anti-corruption court. It is more than significant that in Putin’s declaration of war speech on Ukraine in February last year, he cited the “Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the High Anti-Corruption Court” to justify his invasion.  

Ukrainian “judges have a long and troubling history of sabotaging judicial reform,” as one report put it. This is just one among many problems with Ukraine’s judicial system; most notably corrupt, pro-Russia judges. 

The US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stated in 2018 that, “It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption.” These words are now more relevant than ever. It can be hoped that the national fight for survival will have helped Ukraine rid itself of this plague, and that the common experience of joining together in a national endeavor will make corruption socially unacceptable. 

Western pressure cannot be applied in full at the moment. There’s a war to fight and win. But it must form part of the mood music as it continues to supply multiple billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial aid. Preparations now will help ensure that Ukraine has all the right pieces in place to build a strong foundation for the future when the guns fall silent, ease its entry to the European Union and provide a brighter future to its people. 

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press. He can be found on Twitter @DVKirichenko.   

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