December 12, 2017 / 7:23 PM / 3 years ago

Commentary: How Trump can get tough on Ukraine corruption

Ukraine's Western allies may finally have run out of patience with Kiev's unwillingness to fight the country's endemic corruption. The United States, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have all criticized the recent undermining of an independent corruption investigation by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office – an organization itself accused of rampant fraud.

Ukrainian protesters rally in Kiev to demand that lawmakers suspected of corruption be stripped of their parliamentary immunity, July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

“Recent events – including the disruption of a high-level corruption investigation, the arrest of officials from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and the seizure of sensitive NABU files – raise concerns about Ukraine’s commitment to fighting corruption,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement on Dec. 4. “These actions undermine public trust and risk eroding international support for Ukraine.” The EU and the IMF expressed similar concerns.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is right to react angrily to the attacks on NABU. The agency was established with American support, and Washington has assigned FBI agents to NABU to help train its agents. To see the PGO undermine the FBI by leaking the names of NABU undercover agents – potentially putting them in danger – represents nothing less than Kiev sticking an ungrateful finger in America's eye.

The war on NABU is simply the latest step by Ukraine’s corrupt old guard to destroy reformers' anti-corruption accomplishments. That old guard also undermines other Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions created with Western support, as well as a law requiring all public officials to file a declaration disclosing their assets.


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But the situation is worse than just a crackdown on institutions. Law enforcement agencies also use fabricated criminal charges and petty harassment to single out Kiev's anti-corruption activists and organizations. The outspoken watchdog Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) says it is being harassed by the tax authorities, and that its leaders have been victims of defamation and intimidation campaigns orchestrated by Ukraine’s secret service, the SBU. Two other NGOs that are helping to break the grip of illegal drug procurement schemes run by Ukraine’s corrupt “pharma mafia” are also targets of serious harassment campaigns and trumped-up legal charges. Perhaps most frighteningly of all, two activists in the city of Kharkiv were violently beaten by unknown assailants, prompting the EU to demand authorities protect activists from future attacks.

The United States has much at stake in Ukraine. Washington is trying to establish a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine by guaranteeing billions in loans to Kiev – meaning American taxpayers would foot the bill if Ukraine can't repay these loans. The United States has also supplied the country with $750 million in non-lethal equipment like body armor. In addition, Washington and its allies have supported Ukraine by implementing economic sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine; freezing nuclear security cooperation with Moscow – potentially raising the risk that nuclear weapons could be obtained by militant groups like al Qaeda or Islamic State – and ending all “practical cooperation with Russia,” according to a senior NATO official.

Washington and its allies need to protect their investment in Ukraine and support Ukrainian anti-corruption measures by pushing Kiev’s officials back on the right path. Without American “tough love” Ukraine risks replicating the outcome of its 2004 “Orange Revolution,” where faltering reforms led to the election of a pro-Russian president, thereby dragging Kiev back into Moscow’s orbit.

First, the West should use its financial leverage against Kiev. This means at a minimum that the IMF needs to enforce its demand that an independent anti-corruption court be established. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission recently provided clear guidelines on how to structure this court, and there's no excuse to stall any further. The U.S. and EU must also jointly make clear to Kiev that until the war on NABU and anti-corruption activists ends all aid – with the exception of humanitarian assistance – will be frozen.

Second, the West must face the fact that it backed the wrong leader in Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko has largely failed in his promise to wipe the country clean” of corruption. Indeed, the disturbing reality is that since Poroshenko himself controls the PGO and the SBU – the very agencies accused of undermining Ukraine's war on graft – many believe that he is cracking down on dissent and discrediting anti-corruption activists to head off opposition to his re-election. That’s not the type of leader Washington should trust, and while the West (and Ukrainians) are stuck with Poroshenko for now, America and its allies should be prepared to work around him when necessary.

This means no more diplomatic red carpets like invitations for Poroshenko to address joint sessions of Congress. Washington must also publicly align itself with reformist politicians such as the former head of the Ukrainian Parliament's anti-corruption committee Yegor Sobolev. Support to anti-corruption NGOs should also be increased. Finally, Tillerson should establish an advisory board consisting of representatives of leading civil society organizations, and when senior American officials visit Kiev they should meet publicly with these reformers to demonstrate American support. These steps would convey a clear message to Poroshenko and the rest of Kiev's political class: the West is committed to Ukraine's people, not to the personal political fortunes of its leaders.

The West should also hit corrupt politicians and their cronies where it really hurts – their wallets. Billions of dollars of dirty Ukrainian money leaves the country each year – and much of it gets parked in the West. U.S. and European officials should prioritize freezing the Western assets of corrupt Ukrainian officials' and their oligarch friends under the 2016 global Magnitsky Act, which allows the Trump administration to impose visa bans and sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world guilty of human rights violations or gross corruption. Senior leadership from the PGO and SBU should come in for particular scrutiny. Ukrainian officials found to be complicit in the violent attacks on anti-corruption activists should also be targeted under the law.

Ukraine is not the failed state that some analysts have claimed. Indeed, given its well-educated population and proximity to Europe, the country’s long-term prospects are bright. But as Tillerson has warned, Ukraine could "lose its soul to corruption” if it continues on its current course. It’s up to Ukraine’s reformers and their Western friends to make sure this doesn’t happen.

About the Author

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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