KYIV, UKRAINE - To experience corruption in Ukraine, just go for a drive. The bone-crunching, bouncing ride over the countless potholes is a daily ritual for travelers across the country.
Campaigners say the local authorities’ failure to repair the winter road damage is just one symptom of the myriad corruption schemes that plague the country.
Tackling corruption is invariably among the issues Ukrainians cite as a top priority for the next president, as incumbent Petro Poroshenko and newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskiy face a final round runoff April 21.
?Anti-corruption law struck down
There are growing fears that government resolve is stalling, after Ukraine’s Constitutional Court in February struck down a law against officials enriching themselves. The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch recently demanded the government get a grip on the problem.
High-level corruption poses an existential threat, says Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, executive director of Transparency International Ukraine.
“Schemes which are now existing in the sphere of national security or the energy sphere, it’s really dangerous for not only [government] effectiveness but also it’s dangerous for the existence of Ukraine, because we are a country now in war. And this corruption helps our enemy make us weaker,” Yurchyshyn said.
Poroshenko’s bid to win a second presidential term has been caught up in corruption allegations over military procurement. He denies involvement.
Yurchyshyn says Poroshenko shouldn’t be singled out.
“When we see other candidates in the presidential campaign, for everyone we have several questions for his or their close affiliations with different corruption schemes,” he said.
Journalists, lawyers investigate
Many Ukrainians have had enough and are fighting back. The group BIHUS info consists of dozens of journalists and lawyers investigating corruption. Their results are put on YouTube, and they are not afraid to tackle some of the biggest scandals. One recent investigation looked into the funding of the Fatherland party, led by defeated presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Three residents of these two villages were among the party’s biggest contributors in 2018, donating more than $148,000 (4 million hryvnias),” according to reporter Maksym Opanasenko in a recent documentary on the BIHUS info YouTube channel. He then confronts one of the party donors as she is working at the checkout of a local village store. It is clear that she is not the real source of the money.
Such schemes use a typical formula, employing intermediaries to disguise financial transactions, says founder of the group Denys Bihus.
“A poor person is hired, and he or she then draws up financial documents for a silly amount of money. Then they pass the right to sign off on these documents to someone else, but formally, they remain the only one visible in [public] documents,” Bihus told VOA in a recent interview.
The Fatherland party denies accusations of corruption.
Bihus says they pass on evidence from their investigations to law enforcement agencies.
“But the problem is that, though we can initiate a case, we cannot force them to investigate it effectively. This is especially true in those cases where top politicians are involved,” he said.
?Symbol of graft
Decades of graft can even be seen along the Kyiv skyline. Construction on the vast Podilsko-Voskresenskyi Bridge, a rail and road crossing over the Dnieper River, started 26 years ago. Work has been halted repeatedly over corruption scandals. It is still not complete.
Anti-corruption campaigners say fighting corruption in the system is not enough for in Ukraine, the system is corruption.