Taking On Corruption Inside Ukraine's War on Graft
Laying Down the Gauntlet
Corruption can rot a state from the inside out. It destroys people's faith in government institutions and threatens societal stability. More than 1.3 trillion euros are lost every year to graft around the world. As part of its sustainable development goals, the UN has identified the battle against corruption as a key element in building peaceful and inclusive societies.
What, though, might such a battle look like? Who has the courage to lead it? And what are the daily obstacles? SPIEGEL ONLINE traveled to Ukraine, the most corrupt country in Europe, in the search for answers.
The Patrol Police
Young, Engaged - and a Fig Leaf
It's time for a shift changeover at the Boryspil Patrol Police. Lieutenant Maya Breslavska is standing in front of two orderly rows of young men. Dressed in black uniforms with hands folded behind their backs, they are staring down at the asphalt of an unadorned courtyard not far from Kiev.
Some of the tall young men could easily spit onto the top of the 31-year-old Breslavska's head. But they don't. She is, after all, their commanding officer -- and a unique one, at that.
Breslavska is the first woman to lead one of the country's 28 police departments that have been established since summer 2015. In her first life, the petite Ukrainian woman was a top-class athlete. Her sport was fencing, which required discipline, endurance and quick reflexes -- qualities that come in handy in her position as commander of 178 officers.
Breslavska belongs to a new generation of police officers, one that has little in common with the paunchy crooks her predecessors were reputed to be in the militsiya, as civilian police are still called in some parts of the former Soviet Union. Since Soviet times, being stopped by a traffic policeman in Ukraine has almost always gone hand in hand with the payment of a bribe - an arbitrarily levied "fine."
But the new police force intends to put an end to the practice. Eka Zguladze of Georgia is the originator of the reform. She is close to the former president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, who was brought to Ukraine together with his team to battle corruption in the country. Experts say his efforts back in Georgia following the Rose Revolution were quite successful.
Breslavska studied ecology at university. The fact that she found her way to the police force is a product of the unconventional methods used by Zguladze and her team.
"The reform is unique because it provides people the opportunity to give it a try even if they don't have the appropriate educational background," says Breslavska. That openness is not, however, a function of generosity. The anti-corruption team would prefer a lack of knowledge to moral weakness.
Breslavska had to pass a number of tests before she was chosen from a pool of 4,000 other applicants. They included fitness and intelligence tests, but also questions designed to probe her knowledge and her integrity. "My motivation comes from the heart," she says. "I want to serve my country and defend the rights of its citizens. To begin something new, something bright."
The New Police Force - End of Bribery
A significant number of Breslavska's fellow officers likewise support the pro-European message of the Maidan protests -- also known as the Revolution of Dignity. And improved communication appears to be just as important as ideology. "The system itself has changed," she says. "Our supervisors are listening more than they used to. They are listening to us." She adds: "Smart, good people have joined the police force -- people who work toward the objective." The make-up of the force also contributes to the new atmosphere: The unit's average age is only 25 years and 15 percent of the new officers are women.
Boryspil is home to Kiev's international airport, a strategic, sensitive site, particularly in times of war. "There is a danger of terrorist attacks. We are on site 24 hours a day and work closely with the other security forces," Breslavska says. Many of the men on her team have battlefield experience from their time in the military and one of them even fought at the Donetsk airport against pro-Russian separatists.
Only 10 percent of the new police officers come from the old militsiya structure, says Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. In order to break with the past in appearance as well, the reformers introduced new black uniforms modelled on those in the United States. Mini cameras affixed to the officers' lapels produce videos that can later be used as evidence -- or even for reality TV shows.
The new police force is popular among Ukrainian citizens, with police repeatedly being stopped on the streets and asked to pose for selfies. "People feel safer because we are there 24 hours a day," says Beslavska. According to a survey carried out by the Kiev-based Institute for Sociology, only soldiers are trusted more than the new Patrol Police.
Now, the police force has public consultation hours, a telephone complaint line and carries out prevention projects in schools. Periodically, the young Ukrainian officers travel to the US, Canada or Germany to train with their counterparts overseas.
Reality TV in Ukraine -- How the New Police Force Works
"My people must be trained in operational tactics, but it is particularly important that they know the law and are able to de-escalate situations. The indiscriminate use of force is a thing of the past," says Breslavska. The acceptance of bribes has also allegedly been eliminated. "We quickly make it clear to people that attempting to bribe us is a crime that they can be prosecuted for," says one officer. Every now and then, the police post videos on the Internet showing officers handing out traffic tickets to judges or prosecutors, something that never happened in the past.
Money and uniforms from the US, cars from Korea and Japan and homemade video PR - reform opponents say the transformation is merely superficial, foisted on Ukraine from abroad, and that it will never get at the deeper roots of corruption in the country. That may be true, but a paradigm shift has already taken place among the Ukrainian population. For the first time, they have seen what it means when security personnel work on behalf of the people and not in opposition to them. Without this newfound faith in public institutions, deeper structural reforms are impossible.
The police officers receive between 350 and 530 euros per month, twice the average salary in Ukraine and five times more than members of the militsiya used to earn. Zguladze, the initiator of the police reforms, made sure that wages in the new force were attractive.
When asked how many hours she works, Breslavska furrows her brow involuntarily. "No idea. I get to work at around 8 a.m. and probably stay until midnight." One night recently, she found a body in a roadside ditch with 20 stab wounds in the chest. They weren't particularly deep; the perpetrator was likely a woman. "By the time we transferred the case to the criminal investigation department, we had been on our feet for 48 hours," she says.
Breslavska doesn't claim the overtime hours she puts in. Her job is her life. "Since April, we have brought in 1.5 million hryvnia in fines, more than 52,000 euros," she says proudly. Not much of that has remained in Boryspil, however. Breslavska dreams of setting up an exercise room for her officers and the break room also badly needs renovations. But there is no money available.
Some police stations also lack money for fuel, tires and important repairs to their cars. And reformers have warned that sustainable funding for the new police force is essential - otherwise it could fail. Indeed, some critics see the new Patrol Police as nothing but a tiny bandage on the gigantic open wound of corruption in the country. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index places Ukraine in a shameful 130th place out of 167 countries listed. Almost 67 percent of Ukrainians believe that corruptibility is a key element of their own mentality. And popular trust in state institutions is at a record low.
Public prosecutors, judges, politicians and tax officials are also considered bribable, not just security officials. There are frequent incidents of frustrated reformers stepping down from their posts - or being chased out because they get in the way of their dealings. Even Zguladze offered to resign in mid-May after some of her ambitious reform proposals failed. She has no illusions: Zguladze knows that the Patrol Police is just the tip of the iceberg and a kind of fig leaf - a reform project the government can point to when it is accused of doing too little to combat corruption. "We need more reforms in all areas," she says.
Just Shoot If You're Discovered
An incident involving a district court judge in Odessa shows just how indiscriminately Ukrainian officials flout the law. Because he was thought to have pocketed half a million hryvnia (almost 18,000 euros) in bribe money, Aleksey Buran received a visit at the end of March. Investigators from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) wanted to search his house. Buran didn't hesitate, grabbed for his weapon and fired several shots at the investigators, injuring one of them. He then set fire to deeds of purchase for overseas properties.
"The judges behave so poorly because they feel completely safe and protected from higher ups," says Oleksii Khmara of the Transparency International office in Kiev. "The law grants them immunity and they can only be prosecuted for criminal acts if parliament lifts their immunity. But that happens extremely rarely. As a rule, investigations are quickly suspended because local officials are just as corrupt."
In the case of Buran, things turned out differently: He ended up in pre-trial detention. "That's a positive sign," says Khmara. "The anti-corruption office is taking credible action against corruption. That would have been unimaginable just one year ago." The number of cases against parliamentarians, government ministers and public prosecutors has also increased, he says.
Transparency International is making an important contribution: The organization's Kiev office compares official statements made by corruption suspects about their assets with reality. Currently, the anti-corruption office is investigating a judge who owns eight homes and 12 cars and who was discovered in possession of 100,000 dollars in cash. Officially, the judge earns 10,000 hryvnia per month, or around 360 euros.
"Between 80 and 90 percent of judges are corrupt," Khmara says impassively. "Their verdicts favor those who have paid the most." The entire court system is also closely tied to the presidential administration, he says, and has been since well before the current president, Petro Poroshenko, came into office. "The government determines the verdicts handed down by the courts," Khmara says.
The Transparency International official also estimates that roughly 200 of the 450 lawmakers in the Ukrainian parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, are on the take. "They are all intertwined with each other and many of them do business together and have offshore companies. The probability that parliament will lift their immunity is extremely low."
"Ukraine isn't rich enough to be able to afford corrupt judges," Poroshenko said recently in parliament. Pressure on the president is immense, in part because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Western creditors are insisting on visible structural reforms. In May, the IMF made the payout of long-delayed emergency bailout funds contingent on additional anti-corruption efforts.
At the beginning of June, parliament did its part by passing important judiciary reforms in the form of law 4734. The law includes step-by-step increases to judicial salaries and annuls the president's right to appoint and recall judges. Furthermore, the absolute immunity enjoyed by judges is to be replaced with "functional immunity." The reform means that judges may be prosecuted for criminal acts that have indirect impact on their official duties - such as the acceptance of bribe money.
Justice Minister Pavel Petrenko said at the end of May that the judiciary reform plan will also result in the firing of 800 judges appointed by the administration of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Warning, War Profiteers
It is well known that countries suffering from rampant corruption are at greater risk of violent conflict. The violence between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in Donbass has cost the lives of an estimated 9,500 Ukrainians and done lasting damage to the country's economy. But there's also a lot of money to be made from the war.
"Ukraine is currently spending around 1 billion euros per year on the war with Russia," says Khmara. The government in Kiev "buys weapons and equipment for its soldiers domestically, but without a public tender process." He says it is conspicuous that the majority of companies supplying the weaponry have close ties to a group surrounding former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Interior Minister Avakov. There are also munitions companies with ties to President Poroshenko that have received government contracts.
"But nobody knows how many and what types of weapons have been purchased and at what cost - or whether they have even been used on the battlefield," says Khmara. Officially, military leaders have justified their refusal to provide more detailed information by pointing to security concerns. Transparency International, however, believes that corruption has played a role in the awarding of munitions contracts. "We estimate that roughly 30 percent of the budget, around 300 million euros, disappears into channels that have not yet come to light. We badly need a supervisory organ for military expenditures."
The Maidan Fighter and the Corruption Syndicate
Semen Kryvonos is in a bad mood. He angrily looks into the faces of the some 30 leading officers who have come for a briefing at the Odessa customs office. "Those who think they can flout our reforms can stand up right now and take their leave!" Kryvonos says. "Don't think we don't know what some of you are doing. Sometimes we don't react right away. But we will react, you can bet on that."
His words are met with silence. Some of those present drop their heads, like schoolchildren when the teacher gets angry. Others are visibly trying to conceal their dislike for the gruff Milyutin.
A short time before, the head of customs in Odessa, Yulia Marushevska, had amiably but resolutely called on the customs officials to discuss problems, pursue transparency, obey the law and help improve the custom agency's appalling reputation. She promised higher salaries and appealed to the accountability of each individual customs inspector. "Everyone is watching us. Thank you for resisting the temptations."
Such temptations are immense at the Black Sea port of Odessa, Ukraine's largest. The place is notorious for its tradition of criminality, with smuggling, theft, false declarations and bribery having been part of daily life for generations. A total of 1,303 officials work in Odessa at nine customs offices. Official statistics show that they bring in 1.2 billion hryvnia (42 million euros) for the state every month.
It is a lot of money, and greed is a byproduct. According to the Ukrainian corruption index, the customs office is seen as the second-most corrupt institution in the country. Marushevska says that, until recently, those wanting to ascend to the position she now holds had to fork over 5 million dollars in bribe money. "Senior officials gave their workers specifications regarding how much cash they had to generate each month. It was a kind of a planned economy of corruption," she says.
The fact that a 26-year-old literary studies graduate was named to head up the agency was a slap in the face to many of those who had spent their entire careers at the agency. Many considered her to be too young for the job, with a lack of training and experience. Others had a problem with her apparent determination to tackle the problem of corruption. During the pro-European Maidan protests in Kiev, she became something of a poster-child of the demonstrations after she appeared in a video clip demanding help from the international community. Now, she's become part of the battle against corruption and is faced with fierce resistance.
There are plenty of examples: Around a dozen leaders of the regional customs agency signed an open letter demanding her resignation; construction work on a new customs terminal in Odessa has slowed after the Ministry of Infrastructure applied the brakes; and Marushevska has enormous problems with representatives of the local tax office. "That's where the post-Soviet corruption syndicate that wants to get rid of me can be found," she says, smiling ever so slightly. Sabotage is the order of the day, she insists, with the old system defending itself against greater transparency and controls. Tax and customs investigators in addition to state security officials have sought to block the reforms with disruptive actions such as arbitrary searches.
Marushevska's tools in the fight against the imputations and defamations are Facebook and Twitter. She publicly documents the accusations, tries to rebut them and posts documents and statements. Recently, she wrote an open letter to President Poroshenko accusing the government of a lack of support. "Are you with us or with them?" Marushevska asked in the letter. The president didn't immediately answer. But then, at the end of May, Poroshenko suddenly threw his support behind the reformer. The new terminal, he said, should be rapidly completed and a new public prosecutor for the region appointed. He even called for the opening of a regional anti-corruption office in Odessa. New Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman visited Marushevska in the port city.
Customs has become a political issue. The leadership of Mikhail Saakashvili, the governor of the Odessa province, will be measured in part by the success of customs reform. Officials brought the former Georgian president and leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution to Ukraine as an expert in the fight against corruption. Back home, he was credited with cleaning things up and noticeably reducing day-to-day graft. Now, he has been charged with repeating the Tbilisi miracle on the shores of the Black Sea and Marushevska is Saakashvili's protégé. The customs office profits from his excellent connections in the US - in the form of assistance from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), among other benefits.
Marushevska has grand plans, including the modernization and complete restructuring of the customs office. "We want to reduce the human factor to a minimum so as to reduce corruption," she says. Jobs will be cut as part of the automation and digitization processes and corrupt officials are to be replaced. "We have hired 130 new customs officials, dedicated people who are untainted and who will be intensively trained." Getting rid of the dead wood, however, has proven difficult: Thus far, only interim solutions have been found, such as transfers, parental leave and sabbaticals.
There also have been no criminal penalties thus far. Incidents of bribery have been repeatedly documented and at least 30 officers are under suspicion, Marushevska says. But nobody has yet been fired because of corruption.
Still, she believes the last half year has been successful. The customs agency has become the first state institution to participate in the online auction platform ProZorro, which allows for public tenders to be posted transparently and allows all companies to bid on them. "The new system has the potential to change the country," say its founders.
How ProZorro Is Battling Corruption
Furthermore, the amount of time it takes for a customs inspection to be carried out has dropped from four hours to just one, according to Marushevska, and the process is broadcast live via webcam. The entire customs payment is computer documented, making it easier to reconstruct. When containers sit around for too long, the inspector responsible is held accountable. This is an important step because corrupt officers often artificially delay the inspection of perishable goods so as to increase the bribes they can demand.
When asked if Ukrainians are more prone to corruption than other nations because of their history, Marushevska shakes her head in vigorous denial. "In the Soviet Union, it was normal to steal. But that had nothing to do with mentality; rather it was because of the political situation." It's simple, she says: "You have to pay people a salary that allows them to live in dignity. Self-respect and a sense of personal responsibility must be strengthened."
Currently, a customs official earns around 2,000 hryvnia (70 euros) per month. "That's absurd. You can't even pay rent from that," says Marushevska. "Only when they earn 10 times that amount will they not have to steal anymore."
Even as some are hoping that the 26-year-old fails, others are praying that she perseveres. In addition to her youth and energy, Marushevska has another important quality: She enjoys the challenge. "It is exciting to change the future and whip things into shape," she says. Whether creativity and combativeness will be enough to destroy the corruption cartel remains to be seen.
Author and videos: Annette Langer
Photos: Mischa Friedman (all photos except the image of the high court (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko) and Nasar Cholodnyzki (Konstantin Chernichkin))
Text editing: Birger Menke
Video editing: Theresia Schneider, Anne Martin
Picture desk: Ireneus Schubial, Maxim Sergienko
Translation from Ukrainian: Maxim Sergienko
English translation: Charles Hawley, Daryl Lindsey
Fact-checking: Almut Cieschinger und Claudia Niesen
Final editing: Dörte Karsten, Hannah Panten, Eva Maria Hoerpel, Sebastian Hofer
Programming and infographics: Chris Kurt, Michael Niestedt, Aida Marquez Gonzalez, Christina Elmer, Anna Behrend, Patrick Stotz, Achim Tack
Editing, coordination: Jule Lutteroth
Coordination BeyondTomorrow project: Anna Behrend