Western aid programs designed to attack corruption in Ukraine are failing. Instead of acknowledging the significant degree to which Ukraine has changed for the better, Western-backed approaches misrepresent ongoing reforms as woefully inadequate. In so doing, they discredit the reforms, polarizing the country’s elites, promoting mass mobilization, encouraging left- and right-wing populism, weakening Ukraine at a time of war and Russian occupation, and contributing to the country’s instability.
Ukraine is a pivotal country on the frontline of an aggressive Russian state. Its success in countering Russia is a crucial part of the West’s effort to contain and push back against President Vladimir Putin. But as a country under constant Russian pressure, Ukraine can benefit from a more comprehensive reform approach. More specifically, it needs a pragmatic anticorruption and reform policy, carefully designed to enable Ukraine to progress without reinforcing Russian efforts to undermine the state and create instability.
THE RECORD SO FAR
Ukraine is a pluralistic society with highly competitive democratic politics. Twice in its recent history it has seen months-long mass protests (once in 2004 and again in 2013–14). Its citizenry has demonstrated a high degree of grass-roots organization and activism in support of democracy and rule of law.
At the same time, as a legacy of its transition from communism, the country has inherited an oligarchic economic system, widespread corruption, massive tax evasion through a gray economy estimated at around 40 percent above the official GDP, weak protection of property rights and contracts, and largely dysfunctional courts. Not surprisingly, efforts to root out widespread corruption have been a long-standing policy priority of Western aid since independence in 1991. Progress in this area was negligible until 2014, when the Euromaidan revolution toppled then President Viktor Yanukovych and brought to power pro-Western and pro-reformist elites. That same year, businessman Petro Poroshenko, one of the principal financial backers of the protests, was elected president and created a largely reformist coalition government.
Western donors saw in the government’s mix of new and older faces the signs of political change and an opportunity to rapidly reform the country. To aid in this project, they funded a wide array of proxies in the form of anticorruption nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and public policy institutes with the aim of developing, lobbying, and speeding through legislation and institutional changes.
Initially, the new government and legislature pliantly implemented virtually every reform idea that was presented. Simultaneously, a team of reformers succeeded in making deep inroads into the major corruption schemes that had been in place for decades and had metastasized under the Yanukovych regime.