As Russia’s war enters its twentieth month, the Ukrainians are continuing to gain ground in southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials shared that their forces “were making gradual progress in their southward advance to the Sea of Azov,” and several villages and towns have been liberated along the way. But as the Ukrainians make progress on the battlefield, there is a second battle they are facing. This is none other than the fight against corruption. For decades, Ukrainians have tried to reform their country, but they were faced with many hurdles. During the initial stages of Ukrainian independence, many government offices were scourged with corruption, and many officials were reluctant to implement change.
Now Ukrainians are taking graft more seriously. This first occurred in May 2014, when the Petro Poroshenko administration urged the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) to implement various rules and regulations to meet standards set by the European Union. For example, Ukrainian elites began the “process of reducing the scale of wealth diversion and other practices that subtracted value from the country.” In December 2014, Poroshenko signed an association agreement with the EU. The agreement stated that Ukraine would pursue economic, judicial, and financial reforms to meet EU policies and legislation. The Verkhovna Rada then passed a series of laws recommended by the EU, ranging from strengthening the judicial system and law enforcement to creating great media freedoms and transparency within the government. As a result of this work, the Ukrainians were awarded visa-free travel to the European Union.
The situation did not change much with the election of Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April 2019 and the new parliament in September 2019 where his party held the majority. On the bright side, they finally launched the Higher Anti-Corruption Court in the fall of 2019. However, they did not appoint the head of the Anti-Corruption Prosecution office who won the competition for over two years, until the EU threatened to withdraw Ukraine’s candidacy status.
Zelenskyy made history in February 2022 as he submitted a formal proposal for Ukrainian membership to the EU. In June 2022, Ukraine was officially granted EU candidate status. This was a monumental milestone, especially for a country defending itself from a full-scale invasion, although membership was granted in part for political reasons – to show solidarity with Ukraine – rather than the success of its reforms.
Following this achievement, Ukraine worked on seven recommendations provided by the European Union. The diverse set of tasks was for Ukraine to reform the judicial system, re-elect a Higher Council of Justice, fight and eliminate institutional corruption, address money laundering, implement law enforcement reforms, enforce further anti-oligarch laws, and others.
Ukrainians appointed the new members of the Higher Council of Justice through a transparent and independent process. Furthermore, Zelenskyy removed corrupt government officials, although this was done only after several corruption scandals. The European Commission said there was still work to be done, but it commended Ukraine for these actions.
“It is amazing to see how fast and determined Ukraine is implementing these reforms despite the war,” European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently stated. “They are defending their country and reforming.”
Ukrainians have implemented additional anti-corruption efforts. For example, Ukrainian authorities have cracked down on graft. Recently, Ukrainian law enforcement conducted a nation-wide raid and gathered “luxury watches, cars, and thousands of dollars in cash” to expose dirty money.
Implementing anti-corruption reforms was not a cakewalk. For example, in May 2023 the National Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested for bribes the head of the Supreme Court that was “reloaded” in 2017. This shows both the effectiveness of anti-corruption agencies and the incompleteness of judicial reform.
The Verkhovna Rada has also worked to reduce the oligarchy’s power over the media. In a recently passed law, the Ukrainians have “increased the government’s regulatory power over TV, radio, and news websites.”
As for transparency, the Ukrainians created an e-government program, known as Diia, to allow Ukrainians to “engage with their government online” by applying for “benefits and government programs to paying taxes, accessing important documents, registering and running businesses, and providing identification and digital signatures.”
“It is truly remarkable how Ukraine has managed to make significant strides in this digital transformation,” said Dragoş Tudorache, European Parliament’s Chair for the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence. It is a “transition that has yet to be achieved by some, even in times of peace,” he added.
Finally, the Ukrainians pursued legislation to protect national minorities. In December 2022, the Verkhovna Rada passed the Law on National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine. The law states that Ukraine shall guarantee the protection of the rights, freedoms, and interests of those belonging to minority groups. This ranges from the use of language and religion to economic and social life. Self-identification, participation in political, economic, and social life, education, and public and peaceful assembly are also addressed.
The law was welcomed by the European Community. In June 2023, the Venice Commission reviewed Ukraine’s minority laws. During its assessment, the Commission stated that Ukraine’s Law on National Minorities (Communities) provided a “number of guarantees in conformity with international standards.” The Commission concluded that there is still work to be done, but acknowledged that progress was being made.
Now, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal believes that Ukraine has “fulfilled all seven EU recommendations,” and his country has provided detailed documentation to EU officials. But the Europeans have stated that there is still much work to be done before Ukraine is considered for full EU membership status. Just recently, EU officials met with Zelenskyy to discuss Ukraine’s progress on its reforms. The European body then announced that it is “gearing up to open negotiations with Ukraine on its future accession … as soon as December.”
It is unclear how long it will take to assess Ukraine’s progress, and it is possible the EU may provide future recommendations. But what is known is that the European Commission is scheduled to meet in mid-December. In the meantime, Ukraine’s willingness and determination, and the speed in which it is conducting these reforms, shows that this Eastern European state is ready to take the necessary steps to become fully integrated into the European institution.
Ukrainians have earned much praise from their European counterparts for their anti-corruption work, especially as they complete these reforms while at war. Time will tell how things will transpire, but for now, the Ukrainians are working toward a brighter future.
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