Ukraine’s patience wears thin with new leaders’ old ways

Civil society, not politicians, forced to lead fight against corruption

Waving Ukrainian and European Union flags, the crowd met on a Kiev street where people died while demanding change, close to a parliament that many say is an insult to their memory.

"On Maidan, people stood for freedom and against corruption," former prosecutor David Sakvarelidze said at Sunday's rally, referring to the nearby square where police shot dead scores of protesters in February 2014.

“But the mental model of the government and the bureaucracy was not destroyed. The system hasn’t changed and people are very frustrated.

“So, this is the time to unite the healthy parts of Ukrainian society and create an alternative.”


As Sakvarelidze spoke, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili told the crowd what their new movement proposed: snap elections, a sweeping reform drive and zero tolerance for corruption and cronyism.

"Enough! It's time to tell this gang that, from today, the people will decide the direction of our country, the government will answer to the people and not the 'oligarchs'," said Saakashvili, who recently broke ranks with billionaire Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Wealthy elite

Saakashvili is only the latest politician to promise bold change to Ukrainians, whose pivot to the West has been compromised by Russian aggression and the refusal of their own officials and deputies to clean up their act.

As people continue to lay flowers and candles at simple memorials to those killed on Maidan, a short walk away – in parliament and government headquarters – a wealthy elite drags its heels over vital reforms.

"Poroshenko is the best representative of the old corrupt system," said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

“He knows very well how the Ukrainian system of governance operates. He made billions from it . . . He had great potential to destroy the system because he has knowledge and power. But it seems he doesn’t have the courage and will to do it.”

Instead, Poroshenko and his allies appear to be seeking a fine line between reforming just enough to satisfy Ukraine’s western creditors and preserving an old system of covert, lucrative deals between officials and businessmen that bleed billions from state coffers.


Occasionally, pressure from Ukraine’s vibrant civil society and international backers forces the establishment to give ground, most spectacularly last month when deputies and officials were forced to reveal their assets for the first time.

The new electronic declaration system confirmed what Ukrainians suspected – that civil servants on small official salaries had somehow acquired immense wealth.

"The question is what comes next but, in any case, this was also a milestone for Ukraine, " said Jan Thomas Hiemstra, country director for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which helped develop the e-declaration system.

“Now, Ukraine has a database full of detailed and rich information, and it is a criminal liability not to declare everything . . . It could be a turning point in the whole equation now that Ukrainians can use the system to check on how many houses, cars, watches and cash officials have.”

Ukraine’s new and well-regarded National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) is now examining the declarations, but any investigations that result will ultimately run up against a largely unreformed system of prosecutors and law courts.

“Throughout Ukraine’s independence, the prosecutor general’s office and judicial system have been used for political bargaining and control,” said Kaleniuk.

“Poroshenko is used to this system and doesn’t want to change it. Instead of giving power to pro-reform people, he has decided to increase his power and control. He probably can’t even imagine it is possible to run Ukraine without controlling the prosecutor general’s office.”


Sakvarelidze was sacked as deputy prosecutor general in March, having clashed with an old guard that he accused of blocking reform. The current chief prosecutor is Yuriy Lutsenko, a long-time ally of Poroshenko.

This year has seen reformers steadily depart in frustration, with Sakvarelidze among the first and Saakashvili one of the latest when he quit as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, citing Poroshenko’s refusal to back his reforms and crush organised crime in the Black Sea port.

"When the prosecutor general is against reform and when the president supports this prosecutor general, and chooses him over a new reform team, you can't talk about any real systemic reform," Sakvarelidze told The Irish Times.

No major politician or businessman has been jailed since the 2014 revolution, tens of billions of dollars allegedly stolen by the ousted pro-Russian regime are still missing, and no one has been convicted over the killings on Maidan.

"In many cases, we see the prosecution intentionally fails to deliver. It is leaking information and not doing key steps," said Kaleniuk. "Why? Because many who were part of the gang of [former president] Viktor Yanukovich are still influential and have power here."

Yanukovich fled with his close allies to Russia, but many of his associates remain in Ukraine and retain their wealth and ties to Moscow – despite its annexation of Crimea and key role in fomenting a separatist conflict in eastern regions that has killed some 10,000 people.

“It’s very dangerous to use war as an excuse for no reforms. Lives are priceless, but who does more economic damage to Ukraine – Russia or tax officials whose corruption stops foreign investors coming here?” asked Kaleniuk.

“The people defending Ukraine in the east risk their lives and see their close friends dying. When they come home and see no change they ask – ‘Why?’ They demand that the government delivers.”