With one year to go before the presidential elections in Ukraine, it was a full house with standing room only at the Ukrainian Institute to hear former investigative journalist Serhiy Leschenko elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 2016. Leschenko, a leading anti-corruption campaigner sees Ukraine on a cross roads between Europe and the ‘Soviet World’. An enthusiastic and cogent speaker, Leschenko was ‘hopeful for change’. There’s a whole new generation in politics as well as politicians re-elected for the eighth time in parliament. The hi-tech sector is developing along-side established commodity based production. People aren’t content with the political class, the conditions of their lives and there’s been a rise in nationalism and populism. However the biggest challenge facing the country – corruption and its shadowy influence stretches out across the globe.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex campaign director faces numerous charges in the Mueller probe. Manafort was alleged to have received millions of dollars of off-the-book cash payments, in a secret ledger published in 2016 by Leschenko and Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau, while he was advising Mr Yanukovych’s Regions party from 2005.
One of the most expensive residences in Britain, 1 Hyde Park was brought by a Ukrainian oligarch for £250m, Brompton Road tube station sold for £50m to a mystery Ukrainian billionaire, Grand Buildings in Trafalgar Square worth hundreds of millions and owned by another Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk. Leschenko made the tongue-in-cheek observation that London has become ‘the epi-centre of a vibrant Ukrainian political life’. There’s so many powerful and rich Ukrainians living here.
Ukraine wants to see Prime Minister Theresa May in Kiev as Britain’s seen as a supporter for reforms. Help’s sought in the investigation of money laundering and the links with Ukrainian corrupt politicians.
Leschenko sees the support of European institutions as good news especially as a recent poll indicated that 52% of Ukrainians were in favour of joining the EU. Recent institutional changes are also assisting in the fight against corruption. He cited the setting up of the anti-corruption bureau as well as the transformation in the public procurement process providing greater transparency. Increasing de-centralisation means that Mayors of big cities have more resources and power. And lots of young people are entering politics and state service.
The challenges aren’t to be underestimated. Poverty levels are much greater compared to five or six years ago. Pensions are down, while heating, water and energy costs have gone up. Unsurprisingly 42% of Ukrainians see their greatest problem as rising prices, 38% higher tariffs on utilities and over 40% see corruption as having contributed the most to the deterioration of the economy.
Ukraine has also to contend with Russian troops on the eastern borders as well as Russian money and influence. Leschenko raises the concern with a kind of Ukraine ‘fatigue’ – commanding less interest across the world stage. The country’s now surrounded by sceptical governments – Hungary blocking a Ukraine/Nato summit.
So what should be done next? Finish anti-corruption infrastructure, which only provides investigative powers. Prosecution and punishment must now be put in place. If society sees no results from identifying corruption then disillusionment will set in. Legislative time has been lost through a lack of political will from a political leadership weakened by corruption. However, European institutions such as the IMF have been a driving force behind the need to tackle anti-corruption. Parliament’s still a big business club. Electoral reform is important for a civil society, but continues to face legislative deadlocks in parliament.
Leschenko sees success in tackling corruption in Ukraine as a harbinger of change in the whole region, as a good example to less democratic countries mired in dictatorship. He’s optimistic about the increasing profile of Ukrainian talent in the world of media, fashion as young Ukrainians are making their mark internationally.
Leschenko made a call to action to consolidate and build on anti-corruption progress, support for an enlivened and functioning civil society as well as a plea for International support. A lively Q&A session followed.