Fighting Corruption in Ukraine

The following is an interview with Bohdan Vitvitsky, a Ukrainian-born corruption expert and former US federal prosecutor and assistant attorney.


MOTYL: You were in the running for the position of director of Ukraine’s newly established Anti-Corruption Bureau. Although your candidacy was deemed invalid due to Ukraine’s age limits on public office, will you be helping out in some formal or informal way?

VITVITSKY: I am willing to be helpful in whatever way is feasible and I have recently been approached about one such advisory possibility.

MOTYL: Given your experience implementing anticorruption projects in Ukraine, your writing and lecturing on corruption in Ukraine, as well as your long experience as a federal prosecutor in the District of New Jersey, what advice might you give the head of the bureau, the 35-year-old Artem Sytnyk?

VITVITSKY: I don’t know Mr. Sytnyk and therefore do not know what he may or may not know about what needs to be done, but if he or anyone else were to ask I would strongly recommend the following. Despite the tremendous pressure being exerted from all sides to launch the bureau yesterday, it is critical to stand up to those pressures and take the time to select the bureau’s employees very carefully and then to train them appropriately. Six months are too short a time to accomplish that. It will probably take nine to twelve months. Where the process has been rushed, the bureaus have suffered catastrophic setbacks. For example, two employees of one such bureau in an Eastern European country stole $300,000 in connection with their employment, which caused a scandal that set the bureau back for many months while it tried to rebuild its credibility.

MOTYL: Corruption appears to be a catch-all term for all possible forms of public malfeasance. How do you define it?

VITVITSKY: Corruption refers to the misuse or abuse of public assets by public servants, either by themselves or in combination with other public servants or private individuals, for personal, familial, partnership, or partisan gain. The public assets most often are money, but may also be real estate, personal property, or information. Examples include bribery, kickbacks, theft of state assets, and conflict of interest.

MOTYL: What can and should be done about the high level of corruption in Ukraine?

VITVITSKY: All countries and societies have corruption, so the distinction is not between those that have it and those that do not. The distinction is between those with systemic corruption and those with episodic corruption. For Ukraine to move from systemic corruption toward episodic corruption, a majority of Ukrainians must understand that corruption is not acceptable in a healthy society. No law enforcement system can investigate and punish a quarter or a third of a country’s population. Happily, as a result of the Maidan, attitudes toward corruption have undergone a major shift in a positive direction. Next, economic incentives and disincentives are imperative. If a public servant earns a salary that cannot support a normal life style, then bribe-taking may be inevitable. Ukrainian business must understand that paying higher taxes to provide public servants with a decent salary is infinitely preferable to spending the same amount of money on bribes to those same public servants. Finally, an effective system of law enforcement is an absolute necessity.

MOTYL: What exactly would such a system entail?

VITVITSKY: Ukraine needs to start by establishing model units that would set an example for the rest of the legal system. Fortunately, the legislation on the anticorruption bureau already provides for such units to be set up to a large degree. In such a system the unit of the judiciary responsible for hearing corruption cases, the unit of prosecutors responsible for taking corruption cases to court, and the unit of investigators and analysts responsible for discovering and gathering evidence of corruption should be staffed by individuals with high levels of integrity and competence. Given the state of the post-Soviet legal system in Ukraine, finding such units of judges, prosecutors, and investigators may not be easy, but it can be done, because there is for the first time both a will and desire in Ukraine to make this happen and an international commitment to help with resources and advice. What Ukraine needs to do is to find appropriate leadership for each of the units I’ve mentioned.

MOTYL: Where are these leaders supposed to come from?

VITVITSKY: They should be sought both in Ukraine and among current non-citizens of Ukraine.

MOTYL: Which policies should the Ukrainian government adopt immediately in order to begin tackling corruption?

VITVITSKY: I think that two important policies have already been adopted and now await implementation. These are, first, the complete reform of a specific agency and, second, the creation of an anticorruption bureau. With funding from the United States, the Kyiv traffic police is being transformed and, as I understand it, the traffic police in Lviv is next. These new police forces will be paid higher salaries and are being trained to understand that their principal reason for being is to serve and protect the public rather than to extract petty bribes. This project is an important first step, because it will affect average citizens directly and demonstrate to them that real change is under way. The new police should be established throughout all of Ukraine, and especially in the southeast, as soon as possible. I have also advocated jury trials in general and for corruption trials in particular. Finally, there’s the need for extensive public education about how and why corruption harms the entire society.

MOTYL: Many Ukrainians are demoralized by the seeming lack of progress. What would you say to them?

VITVITSKY: It is understandable that Ukrainians are frustrated, but it is important to avoid cynicism and the intellectual laziness of analysts and journalists who simply throw up their hands and say that nothing has changed. There has been some progress in the last year. Even if corruption declines by a small amount, this decline must be acknowledged and further encouraged. If cynicism prevails, even those small gains can be reversed and lost.

MOTYL: So there is hope for Ukraine?

VITVITSKY: Absolutely. I have been coming to Ukraine since 1989 when it was part of the Soviet Union. Although one wishes that Ukraine had made much greater strides in shedding its extraordinarily harmful Soviet legacy, the changes since then have been remarkable. But one thing that needs to be addressed, which few in Ukraine seem to realize, is the systemic deformities in the entire legal system going back to Soviet times.

MOTYL: A successful anticorruption drive would appear to be a precondition of this next step.

VITVITSKY: A precondition suggests that one thing has to precede another. Since a well-functioning legal system is necessary for a country’s normal political and economic development, a successful anticorruption drive and real reforms of the legal system need to be attempted in tandem. That said, you’re right to state that legal reform without real corruption reduction will not work.

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