Vitaliy Shabunin is the head of the board at the Kiev-based Anti-Corruption Action Center. Olena Halushka is the center’s head of international relations.
KIEV, Ukraine — After the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday, the country will likely be stuck with an oligarch-linked president yet again. The two presidential front-runners are Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian linked to one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, and incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch himself. Zelensky is on track for a big first-round win, with about 30 percent of the vote, followed by Poroshenko, with about 16 percent, according to preliminary results. The two will likely compete in a runoff election on April 21.
From these results, it would be easy to conclude that Ukraine’s momentum for democratic reform is waning. But that’s not the case. In fact, the fight still rages on.
And there is much to fight against. Besides ongoing Russian aggression, Ukraine’s biggest problem remains its oligarchs. Many Ukrainian oligarchs rely on a network of Western banks and lawyers to launder the proceeds of their corruption and to whitewash their reputations in the West. Oligarchs own the top five television stations in Ukraine, and television still serves as the primary source of information for 74 percent of Ukrainians.
As the election approached, there was a series of dubious attempts to roll back recent democratic reforms. One decision by the constitutional court undermined the anti-corruption fight in a major way and caused the closure of 65 investigations into alleged illicit enrichment of top officials.
However, this definitely does not mean that Ukraine is abandoning democratization and going back to authoritarianism. And it absolutely does not mean that domestic and international investment and support for reform have been in vain.
The results of the presidential election will influence the pace of reform and the struggle for it. However, society, not the president, controls the direction of the country’s democratic transformation. Over the next president’s five-year term, civil society and journalists must guard the real gains that have been made.
A consistent feature of Ukraine’s democratization is that while the oligarch-controlled media outlets try to obstruct our transformation, independent investigative journalists reveal scandalous schemes and often trigger high-profile investigations. For example, it was investigative journalists who revealed that Zelensky had undeclared business in Russia, that Poroshenko’s associates were allegedly involved in a military embezzlement scheme and that the party of Yulia Tymoshenko, the likely third-place candidate in Sunday’s election, might be funded by fictitious donors.
And five years after Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, with the help of international partners, civil society is continuing to drive reform forward. Since the revolution, we have built tools to detect and investigate high-profile corruption, including an electronic system revealing officials’ asset declarations and an award-winning electronic procurement system that helps fight corrupt government purchases and boost competition.
In 2014, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau was established to investigate top corruption. As of March, it sent 189 cases to court, and its detectives are working on nearly 700 proceedings. In December 2017, parliament attempted to push through a bill that would have made it easier to dismiss the director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau but, working frantically overnight, democratic reformers managed to remove the draft law from parliamentary consideration.
In addition, this year Ukraine is establishing a High Anti-Corruption Court that will consider top-level fraud cases. In order to safeguard the new court’s independence, civil society and international partners demanded and achieved assurance that a special panel of foreign experts would be given a crucial role in selecting judges. All of these new tools and institutions will help us keep the next president and his team in check.
Grass-roots democratization is even more important to ensure that the gains of the past five years aren’t erased. Brave Ukrainians across the country continue to stand up to the old guard, who somehow still believe they can continue running their feudal businesses as usual. This ranges from monitoring public finances and local self-governance to fighting against illegal construction projects.
And while the old guard is accustomed to taking revenge against its opponents, this no longer works effectively. Last year, an outrageous acid attack against a prominent activist named Kateryna Handziuk led to her death — but it did not silence activists. Instead, they started a national and international campaign to bring her perpetrators to justice. Step by step, they are driving the official investigation forward. They will keep demanding accountability, not only for those who ordered her murder but also for those who contributed to its coverup, possibly including top law enforcement officials such as the prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko.
The people of Ukraine have learned how to get results, even with a resistant president. But five post-revolution years is too short a period to fully free the country from deeply rooted problems. Fostering new political leaders takes time. While this happens, it is important to pursue comprehensive political reform, including eliminating oligarchic influence over media, abolishing the immunity that members of parliament enjoy and reforming the electoral system.
Ukrainians know what they want: a normal, European democratic state free from Russia. A synergy of civil society, international partners and reformers in government will continue to push us in that direction, regardless of who becomes the next president.