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  • Writer's pictureOlha Chernovol

Two Years into the War in Ukraine: the Status of Anti-Corruption and the Challenges Ahead

Dr. Olha Chernovol, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Droit civil section, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Fellow and Member of the Scholar at Risk Program at uOttawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre


The Russian aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has left a lasting impact on Ukraine and the world. It was the biggest attack on a European country since World War II, involving high numbers of civilian and military casualties. The war has also had a hugely detrimental effect on the global economy, with growth declining from 6.0 percent to just 3.1 percent in 2022. The corrosive effects in Ukraine have been wide-ranging: vastly depleted human, social, economic, natural and environmental resources. And crucially, anti-corruption efforts have been eroded and institutions hollowed out.


Historically, Ukraine has had high levels of corruption with a reputation for dishonesty and unethical behavior at the heart of government. Corruption at the political and judicial levels and in the public and private sectors is common. Numerous attempts to eradicate it have not been resoundingly successful, while some of the gains made are sadly being reversed by the war.


A brief history of anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine


1991 – 2014: From independence until the Revolution of Dignity

After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the government started to build its own anti-corruption system. However, all efforts were undermined by the corrupt governance and legal system and legislation inherited from the Soviet Era. The new government’s attempts, such as introducing new legislation and national anti-corruption programs, did not have teeth. And so, the endemic corruption persisted.


2014 – 2022: The Revolution of Dignity and after
Mirror public art in Ukraine
Photo by Ohla Chernovol

In 2014, following the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine wanted to be closer to Europe. It signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, in which it undertook to establish more effective anti-corruption mechanisms. This would be largely achieved through new anti-corruption laws and anti-corruption institutions.


During this period, Ukraine established a comprehensive legislative framework to combat corruption (the Law On Prevention of Corruption, the Law On National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, and the Lustration Law. Several institutions were established (the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the High Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, the Asset Recovery and Management Agency and the Economic Security Bureau of Ukraine). The government also implemented digitalized systems and reforms in key sectors such as procurement, the judiciary, banking and energy. Anti-oligarchy legislation to combat state capture was also passed. While success has been patchy, the country has seen overall improvement, evident in the improvement on the anti-corruption Corruption Perceptions Index, measured over the last decade, with an increase of 3 points in 2023.


How the war has changed things: undoing the gains made

The war poses significant challenges for anti-corruption efforts. Following the Russian invasion, martial law was imposed in Ukraine. This resulted in the relaxation of some procedures and systems, such as the requirement for conducting background checks when appointing civil servants, and in the awarding of contracts for government procurement. These changes clearly increase the likelihood of corruption and pose a risk to the integrity of the government. Indeed, between 2020 and 2023, Ukraine slid in the rankings on the WJP Rule of Law Index in the ‘Absence of Corruption’ category.


The ongoing war has generated significant debate within the professional anti-corruption community about the effectiveness and robustness of Ukraine’s anti-corruption system. It is generally recognized, however, that if the system is weakened due to the war, it may undermine the success of post-war reconstruction and the country's ability to attract the necessary investments.


rusting ruined car left in field in Ukraine
Photo by Ohla Chernovol

Another significant effect of the war has been the severe shortage of staff in anti-corruption agencies. While this has been a problem since the establishment of anti-corruption systems in 2014, it has become much worse since the start of the war. A recent functional audit conducted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance shows that as of July 1, 2023, certain anti-corruption bodies in Ukraine had nearly 80 percent of their posts unfilled.


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What risks are being exacerbated by the war?


1. More loopholes in the system facilitate corruption

The current risks and challenges to Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts arising at the national and international levels are numerous: foreign corruption; the short-term nature of forms of aid to Ukraine (to support future reconstruction); the lack of a unified anti-corruption strategy; the incorrect prioritization of needs; the lack of concerted efforts by government and its partners to combat corruption; poorly designed and implemented anti-corruption projects; ongoing structural issues related to the post-Soviet Union transition; and uncertainty about political will after the war.  


anti-armoured vehicle barriers in Ukraine
Photo by Ohla Chernovol

There is also a greater risk of state capture despite the anti-oligarchic law being in place. While the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, UK Bribery Act 2010, and the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act that aim to address corruption at the global level are in force, the gaps in Ukrainian law and flawed procedures make it hard to uncover international corruption. This results in corruption involving high-ranking Ukrainian officials and foreign companies going unnoticed or being legitimized.


2. The negative impact of short-termism

The effectiveness of Ukraine's anti-corruption measures is directly affected by the risks associated with the short-term nature of aid, which is frequently diverted to support more immediate priorities and earmarked for future reconstruction efforts. For any reform to be effective, there needs to be a long-term view, and this also means financial investment over a longer horizon. The current approach to speeding up reforms within a relatively short time frame is likely to lead to imperfect mechanisms that are not able to follow the best international anti-corruption practices.


What needs to happen?

In the 33 years since independence, Ukraine has made good progress in fighting corruption after gaining its independence in 1991 – particularly in the eight years between 2014 and 2021. But the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, was a brutal interruption of the trajectory. While the government has implemented measures to ensure the anti-corruption system continues to function under martial law and to guarantee transparency in the future reconstruction process in the post-war period, the situation has put the system under strain and the country is more exposed to corruption.


Much work still needs to be done. For instance, there need to be more rigorous measures for improving transparency in resource and contract allocation, better mechanisms for tracking and preventing ‘foreign corrupt practices’, and innovative ways of addressing staff shortages in anti-corruption agencies. To achieve this, Ukraine requires long-term financial support from international partners. For its part, Ukraine will need to utilize the aid effectively, ensure its transparent distribution and management, and demonstrate that it is doing this.



 


Dr. Olha Chernovol is a Ukrainian citizen who left Kyiv in March 2022 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She holds a PhD from the V.M Koretsky Institute of State and Law of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, awarded in 2019. Dr. Chernovol’s primary research interests are concerned with the history of law and how it continues to be made. In particular, her work focuses on the analysis of the legal duties of citizens, theoretical models of legal provision and implementation and, most recently, anti-corruption policies.

Over the past several years, she has worked primarily on matters related to integrity due diligence, anti-corruption, anti-money laundering and financing terrorism. Since 2020, she has been a member of the Ukrainian National Bar Association, and she has 7 years of experience in legal practice in different areas of law in Ukraine, including civil law, corporate law, administrative law, criminal law, tax law, banking law, military law and labour law.

Dr. Chernovol's current project involves the discovery of anti-corruption mechanisms in Ukraine. The project's objective is to identify corruption risks in Ukraine both before and during the implementation of the current anti-corruption system, including recent developments that have arisen due to martial law being imposed.


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