KYIV, UKRAINE - Ukraine’s war drags on and the country continues to suffer the worst crisis of its post-Soviet era, one that many Ukrainians say is a result of corruption that made them vulnerable to Russian aggression.
Two years after the Maidan Revolution sought to end corruption, many Ukrainians say they see improvements, but that the leadership has yet to make good on its promises to end graft and mismanagement.
Their war on corruption, like the one against Russian-backed separatists, carries on intermittently.
The goals of the revolution have yet to be fulfilled in the eyes of many Ukrainians. Sergii Leshchenko, a legislator who leads anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine’s parliament, said corruption remains the biggest security threat.
“Because of corruption we lost the army; we lost part of the territory. Because of corruption, we elected a corrupt president who finished with bloodshed at Maidan,” he told VOA.
No match for Russians
After the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych, Russian-backed forces swiftly overran eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Ukraine’s armed forces, hollowed out by corruption and mismanagement, were no match for Russian power. That was 2014.
Ukraine’s defense minister, General Stepan Poltorak, believes things are different today.
“In just one year-and-a-half, we’ve managed to remove over 200 different military officials and civil servants from the Ministry of Defense because of corruption,” he said in a VOA interview.
A new system of electronic bidding has saved millions of dollars, more equipment has been purchased, and the military budget and manpower have doubled.
“The country has changed. Our people have changed. They do not want to live as it was before, in the past,” Poltorak said.
Change, however, is not coming fast enough for many. Residents in Izyum, a town of 56,000 people on the highway to the front line in Ukraine’s east, saw some fighting during the first days of the war against Russian separatists in 2014. Today, the main streets are riddled with potholes that residents see as a symbol of government negligence that threatens the country’s future two years after Maidan.
Some residents say the government is missing an opportunity to improve confidence at a crucial time.
“When they fix roads, it shows that financing is coming and the government is working. Then the government takes on an important meaning,” said an Izyum resident who asked not to be named.
The town recently took down a Soviet-era bronze statue of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Residents say officials told them the expensive metal would be sold, but the residents told a reporter that officials never made public what they did with the money.
In Kyiv, street-level corruption has largely disappeared. Residents say traffic police no longer demand bribes, but the public perception is that corruption is still endemic, chiefly among the oligarchs who dominate business.
“Honestly, I personally do not experience direct corruption, because I am not into any kind of big business relationships," said Yuriy Voloshyn, a Kyiv resident. "But at the same time, I think that for now the situation did not change much as a result of the acts of corruption, and all the foundations on which they are based are still happening.”
Street vendors once were easy targets for corrupt police. In these two years, the vendors have stood up to them.
A vendor selling coffee out of a van said police harassment stopped two years ago. A sign on his van reminds police he pays his taxes, his business is legal, and he will not pay bribes. It tells police to go catch real criminals, and then includes the words, “You are not going to break us.”
At Kyiv’s international airport, signs promote a “Ukraine Without Corruption.” Unlike in some countries that rate higher than Ukraine on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, there is no demand for bribes by border police. Uniformed customs officers, in a professional tone, ask travelers how much cash they are carrying, but there is no hint of any demand for illegal payments.
Much to do
Ukraine has come a long way in its fight against corruption, but there is still a long road ahead.
The Transparency International Corruption Index in 2015 rated Ukraine 130th out of 167 countries, the same as Nicaragua and only slightly better than Nigeria, which was 136th.
Two years after Maidan, there is a growing realization among Ukrainians that their future depends on actions, not just promises, to end corruption.
This month, the European Commission postponed a decision to grant visa-free status to Ukrainians because Ukraine has yet to enact the necessary anti-corruption measures.
The move was a disappointment for Ukrainians, but those interviewed by VOA said they expected it. Some, including anti-corruption crusaders like Olexiy Haran, a politics professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, even welcomed it as positive pressure to institute change.
“If we are going to be like normal European countries, then definitely we need to demonstrate that we are going to live according to the law,” he told VOA.