The re-affirmation of Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms, one of three key outcomes of the recent EU-Ukraine Summit, is an encouraging, albeit heavily politicized, sign of the post-Soviet republic’s commitment to tackling corruption. However, despite some promising initial results, the ongoing reform efforts are beginning to flag in the face of powerful political and corporate opposition. This phenomenon is not restricted to Ukraine; in fact, reform resistance is symptomatic of a broader continent-wide struggle against systemic corruption in the public and private sectors. Given such stiff opposition, it’s not surprising that endemic graft is still crippling Ukraine’s political and economic development 26 years after independence.
Although Petro Poroshenko’s government has promised transparency and reform, corruption remains ubiquitous throughout Ukraine. To get an idea of the actual prevalence of corruption and the back-and-forth effectiveness of the reform process, look no further than Naftogaz, the state-owned oil and gas company. During the Yanukovych years, Naftogaz was the embodiment of Soviet-era corruption and cronyism. But since Yanukovych was ousted, Naftogaz and other state-owned companies have been subjected to limited reform, leading to several widely-publicised arrests, increased foreign investment and more transparent business practices.
However, attempts to root out corrupt connections between Naftogaz and the Ukrainian government and improve corporate culture have been repeatedly blocked by Ukrainian politicians and Naftogaz board members. Unfortunately, in an environment where vested interests are the norm, high-ranking officials – eager to retain corporate influence and controversially attained assets – are stonewalling the landmark reforms. Faced with increasingly widespread pushback, Ukraine’s anti-corruption agenda – hailed by foreign investors as a bellwether for Ukraine’s economic stability – is nearing the current limits of its influence.
The European Union is hardly in a position to judge Ukraine’s ongoing struggle with corruption. Many of its own member states, including both new entrants and longtime members, are still dealing with their own issues with corruption. Romania, for example, is one of the poorest members of the EU but enjoys a wealth of high-profile scandals.
The bulk of these controversies centre on Liviu Dragnea, convicted of vote rigging and electoral fraud in 2015. Dragnea leads Romania’s governing party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which this year tried to grant amnesty to government officials convicted of financial misconduct. The PSD’s emergency law triggered massive protests across the country and forced it to withdraw the extraordinary directive. “I don’t understand what the protesters are upset about,” Dragnea told reporters, defending the integrity of a law that allowed him to run for office and effectively pardons a two-year suspended prison sentence. After months of political inertia and a political deadlock in which Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu refused to step aside at Dragnea’s command, public disillusionment is at an all-time high.
Like Ukraine, Romania’s opposition to the fight against corruption comes from inside the system. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), an agency well-known for high conviction rates and dogged commitment to investigations, continues to be obstructed at home and abroad. Some of the most virulent attacks in recent memory have come from the deceased business mogul Dan Adamescu and his UK-based son, Alexander. After discovering evidence of judicial bribery, the DNA successfully prosecuted Dan but exposed itself to a no-holds-barred campaign in the process. The wealthy and influential businessmen went to extraordinary lengths to get himself off the hook.
As Romanian media later discovered, Dan Adamescu is alleged to have contracted the services of an Israeli private intelligence company, Black Cube, to intimidate and spy on chief DNA prosecutor Laura Kovesi; Black Cube operatives even hacked Kovesi’s emails. As his father went to prison, Alexander Adamescu found himself fighting extradition from Britain and benefited from a media campaign against the push to apprehend him with a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) on bribery charges. Major British publications ran articles casting the charges and the EAW itself as politically-motivated oppression. It is a common refrain for those investigated by the DNA, but one that has not broken widespread public support for the agency. Despite the accusations levelled by the younger Adamescu’s supporters, the DNA seems to be one of the few state institutions in Romania to enjoy public confidence.
Unfortunately, not all anti-corruption officials in the EU are quite as dedicated – not even in the Union’s more established member states. In Spain, chief anti-corruption prosecutor Manuel Moix was forced to resign last month after his extensive holdings in an offshore Panamanian company were uncovered. Moix had already been under fire over allegations he had attempted to obstruct corruption cases against the ruling Popular Party. Those cases include allegations of embezzlement and a cash-for-public-contracts scheme that runs so deep that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been called to testify at the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s national criminal court.
Spain’s royal family has also become embroiled in its own corruption scandal: in 2011, Spanish King Felipe VI’s brother-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, was discovered embezzling millions of euros from the non-profit Nóos Institute. Urdangarin’s graft has proven a continual source of embarrassment for the Spanish monarchy since, and while Princess Cristina was acquitted, her husband received a six-year jail term in February. Corruption scandals continue to dog Spain, and despite external condemnation from the European Commission, pressure from Brussels has been uneven and ineffective in fixing the problem.
Without its own house in order and with corruption costing the EU up to €990 billion per year, the EU speaks with a weaker voice on governance. As Kiev is pulled closer into the EU’s orbit, fears remain that the anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine, widely seen as the most corrupt state in Europe, will do little to suppress the country’s ‘cultural’ acceptance of bribery, embezzlement, theft and fraud. Brussels can very well try to pressure Kiev to escalate the fight, but it has a limited ability to do so when its own members struggle with the exact same issues.