Ukraine’s new president, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, ran for office promising voters that he would institute reforms to end the kleptocracy seen during the regime of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych.
His election was the culmination of reform demands expressed last winter on the Maidan, a square in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where at least 100 people died during the anti-Yanukovych protests.
“There is a huge desire and demand,” said Sarah Mendelson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “for real change. This issue of accountability was absolutely at the core of what people on the Maidan were asking for. When people were voting for Poroshenko…this is what they were voting for.”
In his inauguration speech, Poroshenko said, “We must eliminate corruption. We need a national anti-corruption pact between the government and the people. It is simple: Officials do not take, and people do not give. We won’t be able to change the country unless we change ourselves.”
Ukraine’s transparency and good-governance community marked Poroshenko’s inauguration with a list of measures he wants enacted immediately. Topping that agenda is the establishment of a national, independent, robust anti-corruption agency.
“It will be a new law enforcement agency. And, it will have a very clear focus,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv. “It will investigate grand political corruption – meaning abuse of power and theft of funds – conducted by senior state officials. And that will be the key focus of their investigations.”
Kaleniuk said that along with an anti-corruption office, three important reform laws are needed.
They are: new rules for transparency in public procurement through tenders, a law requiring public registry of immovable property, and a so-called law of beneficial ownership, requiring that corporations list who owns and controls those entities.
Another good-governance group, Transparency International – Ukraine, has put out a manifesto of changes it says are essential to bring the country into open operations and accountability. The list runs several pages.
Along with the creation of the separate anti-corruption office, it calls for the establishment of anti-corruption departments within government ministries and agencies, something similar to the U.S. practice of having inspectors general performing internal oversight.
Transparency-International – Ukraine also wants the creation of asset declaration requirements for government officials and lawmakers, covering all sources of income, properties, investments and other financial interests.
It seeks, too, protection for so-called “whistleblowers” – government employees who inform authorities about improper activities they know about. Kaleniuk said this is going to involve a cultural change for Ukrainians. Whistleblowing has not been encouraged or supported in the past.
Transparency also wants the construction of nationwide databases of people and companies that have abused the public procurement process in order to prevent them from bidding on future tenders. This is legally termed as “debarment.”
And it hopes to impose transparency and accountability requirements on Ukraine’s judiciary, including limiting judges’ immunity from prosecution, asset declaration, and strict rules designed to avoid conflicts of interests where judges may have an interest in the cases they rule on.
Poroshenko won’t be able to bring about this change by himself. He will have to get Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, to pass these reform laws.
Reformers await parliamentary elections
That parliament presently is the same one that was sitting when Yanukovych was president and, according to reformers, is poised to block any effort to change the system.
Anti-corruption groups said because of that, new parliamentary elections are needed to clear out a number of lawmakers who supported the Yanukovych regime.
Poroshenko, in his inaugural speech, promised new elections by the end of 2014.
But activists don’t want to wait that long. Many propose holding elections in a matter of three or four months so as not to lose momentum.
“There is a huge movement called the Open Government Partnership, which Ukraine is actually a part of,” said CSIS’ Mendelson. “It involves things like a robust, law-supporting civil society, freedom of information, budget transparency and financial disclosure by government officials. Ukraine is signed up for this.”
Kalenuik said her country is now in a moment in time she says cannot be squandered.
“Ukraine has the unique chance to change its system to where corruption is an exception to the rules, not as a rule,” she said. “But we have to realize that without pressure from civil society and pressure from international organizations and the international community, Ukraine and its government will not change.”