June 1, 2018 / 10:07 AM / 6 months ago

Civil society steps in as Ukraine struggles to tame corruption

KIEV (Reuters) - During the day, Andrew Sherepenko builds IT systems for hotels in the United States. In his spare time, he’s trying to put Ukraine’s corruption fight on track.

Activists of different NGOs call for several Ukrainian lawmakers, suspected of corruption by the General Prosecutor's Office, to be stripped of parliamentary immunity during a rally near the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine July 11, 2017. Picture taken July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Ukraine’s Western-backed leaders promised reforms to clamp down on corruption when they came to power in 2014 after street protests toppled a pro-Russia president. Foreign donors tied billions of dollars of aid to the success of the reforms.

But four years later, corruption remains rife and the latest tranche of International Monetary Fund lending is on hold because of delays in implementing the reforms.

Now, civic activists like 28-year-old software engineer Sherepenko are increasingly taking up the slack. Though lacking resources, they are trying to provide some of the oversight of business and political leaders that the government does not.

Programming before work, and on trains and planes while on holiday, Sherepenko helped create a publicly accessible online tool for a non-governmental organization that calls itself Anti-Corruption Headquarter.

Using data taken from open sources, the “Hidden Interests” software can identify possible conflicts of interest by checking political leaders’ decisions or voting records against a list of companies or organizations linked to them or their relatives.

The data showed 423 lawmakers have ties directly or through family to about 5,500 companies or organizations. As a result, seven possible instances of illegal activity on a regional level have been identified and the authorities have been alerted.

“The system (in Ukraine) is sick,” Sherepenko, who lives and works in the capital Kiev, told Reuters by telephone, accusing the government of not being interested in change.

“The only way to change something is through NGOs and people in the country, and with international support.”

“THE ENGINE”

The findings by Hidden Interests have not led to anyone being jailed. But groups of civic activists like Anti-Corruption Headquarter have become much better organized since 2014.

    At least 50 civic groups, including Anti-Corruption Headquarter, have received funding from the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) to help fight corruption in local communities.

Some groups make up for a lack of resources by developing their own software thanks to volunteers such as Sherepenko who have specialist knowledge.

“Civil society has been playing a central role in fighting corruption in Ukraine and promoting access to information,” UNDP’s Ukraine office said.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, has praised civil society in Ukraine as “the engine that moves the institutional work.”

President Petro Poroshenko, who could seek re-election next year, says he is committed to fighting corruption and points to overhauls of the energy and banking sectors, and the state procurement system, as evidence. But his popularity has slumped as faith in his ability to implement reforms has faded.

The latest tranche of IMF aid is in limbo until parliament backs the creation of an independent court to consider corruption cases.

The court is vital to the corruption fight as few cases are successfully prosecuted because of the influence of business and political interests on the justice system.

Also crucial is the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NAZK), but it is mired in scandal. Ukrainian investigators opened a criminal case late last year into suspected extortion by officials at NAZK.

An online database of wealth declarations showed in 2016 that some officials had declared money and goods worth millions of dollars. But NAZK had by early 2018 processed less than 0.2 percent of the 100,000 most urgent cases.

NAZK declined comment for this story. But Nataliya Korchak, the agency’s head until her term expired in late March, said in February the NAZK was doing its best with the resources and software available.

“There are certain time frames and as a rule the shortest possible period for verification is three months per declaration,” she told Reuters.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DATA

Anti-Corruption Headquarter says NAZK has not acted on information about possible wrongdoing by officials which the NGO alerted it to a year ago.

But the group’s findings did lead to a city councillor in the western Ternopil region being taken to court for allegedly voting in the interests of her private company in a land management issue. She was found guilty, but the verdict was later overturned in the court of appeal.

The findings of another NGO, the Center for Public Monitoring and Research, led to the cancellation of local public procurement contracts amounting to 927 million hryvnias ($35.5 million) because of suspected corruption, the UNDP said.

Another group, “White Collar Hundred”, has a website — declarations.com.ua –- that analyses information from the official declarations database and raises red flags when it spots big discrepancies between declared assets and income.

The website also makes a copy of all entries. This ensures the data will not be lost if officials try later to withdraw or conceal information.

“We started (in 2014) by asking a load of people on Facebook who wanted to digitize one document. We gathered 3,000 volunteers. We sent them the declarations by mail — a crazy and inefficient process,” said its founder, journalist Denys Bihus.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“But in some way it worked and after that we built a website with special software to digitize them on this website,” he said.

The group now has a core of 6,000 volunteers and the state anti-corruption investigative bureau NABU has launched 25 investigations based on information it uncovered, Bihus said.

NABU told Reuters it “fruitfully cooperates” with NGOs and investigative journalists, “including Denys Bihus and his team”, and with the public.

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; editing by Matthias Williams and Timothy Heritage

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