Op-Ed by Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch: Courage to Move Forward

January 3, 2018

Twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the results are in: the new countries that pivoted most decisively from their corrupt legacy have fared the best, while those that maintained the old ways have faltered. Liberal democracies and market economies have consistently delivered the greatest freedoms and the broadest prosperity for their citizens.

Ukrainians have learned this lesson and have acted on it. Thousands took to the Maidan in 2013-2014 demanding transparent and accountable government. They were ready to join Europe.

From the Revolution of Dignity came a call for government to stamp out corruption. Once elected, officials, led by President Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, courageously established independent, corruption-fighting institutions, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAP), and the National Agency for Preventing Corruption (NAPC). Landmark reform required public asset declarations by public officials. ProZorro, the new electronic procurement system, increased transparency and reduced graft.

As in every successful democracy, civil society played a pivotal role in building Ukraine’s future. From the streets of the Maidan to the offices of non-government organizations, citizen activists have directed their energies to advocating for bold reform. Civil society now analyzes public procurements and judicial decisions and holds the government accountable. Civil society also helped draft Ukraine’s landmark judicial reform legislation, established the Public Integrity Council, and helps vet candidates for the judiciary.

And yet, four years after the Maidan, the question lingers:   is the courage to move Ukraine forward faltering? Political attacks on NABU and SAP have hampered their ability to dismantle networks of public sector corruption. Like the Ukrainian people, we remain deeply concerned that, despite over 100 major corruption cases sent to the courts by NABU and SAP, not a single significant judgment has been handed down. As long as corrupt judges can defer justice indefinitely, establishing an Anti-Corruption Court is imperative. Moreover, the public servant asset declaration rules adopted last year have been turned against the very activists who are fighting high level corruption.   Those who expose corruption are heroes, yet they are targeted by elements of Old Ukraine.

Corruption is not just a political issue — it has real costs for real people. Corruption deters foreign investment. It drags down GDP. It disincentivizes risk-taking and entrepreneurship, and robs citizens of hard-earned profits by taxation, budgeting, and procurements process that lines the pockets of the powerful. Corruption breeds poverty.

Ukrainians understand this. In polls and conversation, Ukrainians frequently rank corruption as the key issue preventing progress. Overwhelming majorities believe politicians pursue their private interests over the public good. Ukraine’s security and sovereignty depend not just on defeating foreign aggression, but on the internal struggle to defeat corruption, without which no country can develop institutions resistant both to foreign meddling and domestic manipulation.

For Ukraine to succeed, its leaders must reinvigorate their commitment to uproot corruption. That means: establishing an anti-corruption court of the highest integrity, based on the Venice Commission’s opinion; providing NABU and SAP with the tools and independence to do their jobs; and reforming the NAPC to fulfill its mandate to prevent corruption instead of undermining anti-corruption reformers.

It also means supporting and encouraging civil society, the bedrock of every democracy.

This is the path that the Ukrainian people chose: a European, democratic future, where liberties are protected and economic growth and jobs follow. Old Ukraine won’t give up without a fight. But Ukrainians from all walks of life are determined to push forward their European aspirations.

The American people believe in the change that is happening across Ukraine. We stand with the Ukrainian people in their fight for dignity and fairness.