Ukraine’s other battle: the one against corruption

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@Max Kukurudziak sur Unsplash Ukraine’s other battle: the one against corruption

@Max Kukurudziak sur Unsplash

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.


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You are postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer at the University of Surrey, in Britain, and you would like to draw our attention to the fact that Ukraine is not only defending itself against the Russian aggression, but also fighting a second battle, against corruption.

That’s right, and this second battle is a serious test for the promotion of democracy, not least in the post-war context.

However, measuring corruption’s impact and the success of reforms is notoriously difficult. What does, for instance, the revelation of corruption cases mean? Does it mean that corruption has become more widespread? Or does it mean that anti-corruption institutions have started to work more efficiently? There is a crucial need to distinguish facts from perception.


Tell us how the fight against corruption actually works.

It begins with the realization that policy makers in systems that are characterized by large-scale corruption have rarely an incentive to conduct reforms on their own. The EU’s mission to promote such reforms revealed a certain divergence within its own ranks: there are Realists and Idealists, and each group has its own definition of success and method of evaluation.

The Realists, emphasizing geopolitical stability, caution against vocal criticism of reform failures, fearing it might bolster counter-narratives. For them, the sole existence of anti-corruption institutions is sufficient to speak of a success of their “reform advice”.

Idealists, on the other hand, view institutional reforms as the bedrock of geopolitical strength and the most potent weapon in the ongoing conflict with Russia. As a result, they call for openly addressing shortcomings of local anti-corruption institutions and see only the processing and conviction rate of corruption cases as a sufficient measure to speak of success.

This antagonism reveals the complexity of internal assessments. The dominance of the realist camp in the EU explains the way in which the EU approached reforms in Ukraine and the corresponding language of official documents, which lacked consistency and clear yardsticks over the years.


How strong is resistance to reform?

The multifaceted nature of resistance to reform was visible in 2020, with the Constitutional Court ruling on asset declaration transparency, no doubt the most important backsliding event during President Zelensky’s tenure.

Traditional views see backsliding as a phenomenon driven by the executive. But this case unveils a whole network of opposition spanning the judiciary and the legislature, which the executive later used for its own benefit. That’s when coalitions between Western actors and the Ukrainian civil society become essential. The battle against corruption demands a decentralized, collective front, which can bring about actual results by incentivising policy makers to become active.


So what does this say about the reconstruction of Ukraine, once this terrible war is over?

The insights from recent years clearly advocate for a shift from passive declarations to active, committed engagement in real anti-corruption efforts conducted by Western actors.

This also touches upon the current debate on transferring Russian frozen assets to Ukraine. This approach might bring about moral hazard: Western actors might be tempted to disengage in the reconstruction due to the “easy fix” of these assets. Instead, these assets should serve as a partial refund mechanism for Western reconstruction aid given to Ukraine, which must, however, be conditional upon meeting institutional benchmarks first that would be elaborated and monitored together with Ukrainian civil society. This would bind Western actors to truly commit to good institutional outcomes in Ukraine and use their leverage to push policymakers in Kyiv to conduct the necessary reforms.


In a nutshell, what will be the key to success?

The integration of internal and external actors from the onset: any internal reform drive must be supercharged with external pressure to sustain it. The challenge hereby lies not only in implementing anti-corruption measures formally, but also in crafting a cohesive and realistic assessment of factual progress, one that bridges the gap between theoretical ambition and practical achievement.

The path to meaningful reform is fraught with challenges but illuminated by the potential for profound, transformative change. The insights received from Ukraine’s experience can serve as a beacon for future post-war reform efforts, guiding policymakers and international actors towards more effective cooperative reform strategies.


And guiding Ukraine to its objective of eventual membership. Thank you very much, Michael Richter, for sharing your research insights on this topic. I recall you are postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Surrey, in Britain.