Article published on bne IntelliNews on February 27th, 2018
Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau is on the frontline of the country’s fight against corruption, but its offices are in a quiet suburb of Kyiv well away from the rest of the imposing government buildings in the centre.
That’s probably a good thing, as NABU is not well liked by the other branches of government. Seen by some as the modern day equivalent of the US federal “Untouchables,” NABU in reality seems to spend more time fighting off attacks by Ukraine’s government than it does catching bent officials who are lining their pockets.
The agency was more or less explicitly forced on President Petro Poroshenko’s administration by Ukraine’s international donors, by being made a rider in the deal on the country’s $17.5bn standby programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and hundreds of millions more from the likes of the European Union (EU) and others.
NABU has been frustrated by the government’s increasingly transparent efforts to block its work. Corruption is the bane of transitional countries, but without strong and independent institutions most of the leaders of these countries use corruption as the easiest and most effective way to wield political power. In most countries, including Ukraine, corruption is the system. The point was highlighted yet again by the latest Transparency International Corruption Perspectives index, released at the end of February, which showed that Russia and Ukraine are the two most corrupt countries in Europe and Kyiv despite Ukraine’s attempt to “turn to the West”. On the ground, NABU has hundreds of open cases on official corruption, but has yet to see a single senior government official jailed.
The agency occupies a large, quiet building formerly owned by the Industry Ministry on the outskirts of Kyiv. There’s a lot of unused space, and it’s apparent that NABU’s budget doesn’t stretch to redecorating. The only really discernable touch made by NABU’s management after taking the building over was the addition of the wooden letterbox that stands by the entrance with a sign inviting Ukrainian citizens to drop off documents proving acts of corruption by high-level officials.
Yet the agency is committed to making a change. NABU has been targeting increasingly senior officials in the last year which has caused the blow back to escalate dramatically. In late 2017, the agency faced an unprecedented number of open attacks by the other law enforcement branches that culminated in an attempt to place the bureau under the direct scrutiny of parliament – something antithetical to the whole idea of an independent agency as conceived by the donors. The move, Western backers complained, would have effectively killed the hard-earned independence of the bureau. The outcry was unprecedented, with a storm of tweets and EU officials making midnight calls to the president’s office ahead of the vote the next day. Ukrainian authorities backed down and killed the offending bill.
The dust has now settled. But NABU director Artem Sytnyk has grown weary. “Right now is a decisive moment, not just for the bureau but for the entire anti-corruption cause in Ukraine,” he told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview at the agency’s headquarters.
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