Ukraine`s uphill battle against graft as election looms

Golden loaves became a symbol of Ukraine`s fight against graft after bread-shaped gold bars were discovered at Viktor Yanukovych`s lavish estate outside Kiev, one of the many symbols of the greed and tasteless excess of his regime.

Kiev: Golden loaves became a symbol of Ukraine`s fight against graft after bread-shaped gold bars were discovered at Viktor Yanukovych`s lavish estate outside Kiev, one of the many symbols of the greed and tasteless excess of his regime.

Seven months on, the new leaders who took office after the toppling of the Kremlin-backed president have done woefully little to tackle corruption, diverted they say by the deadly conflict in the east.

In a country where the average monthly salary is barely $250 (200 euros), Ukrainians were stunned at the grotesque opulence at the residence of the disgraced former president, accused of syphoning off billions of dollars from the public purse. 

But commentators say graft still permeates all walks of life, from traffic police to customs officials to top judges, and almost no form of business is possible without bribes or kickbacks.

"The prevailing opinion in Ukraine is that corruption is good," former economy minister Pavlo Sheremeta acknowledged this month.

"A man of integrity is an exception."

Sheremeta resigned in frustration at the slow pace of reform, failing to push through plans to slash red tape and eradicate the Soviet-era mismanagement and corrupt practices that have sent Ukraine to the brink of bankruptcy.

The justice minister said this month that the Yanukovych regime had stolen $11 billion through the abuse of government tenders alone in the last four years.

Transparency International still ranks Ukraine at a lowly 144 out of 177 countries on its corruption perceptions index, on a par with Nigeria and Papua New Guinea. 

And international lenders behind a massive $27 billion lifeline to head off total economic collapse say stamping out corruption is a must if Kiev wants to keep the aid flowing. Erik F. Nielsen, global chief economist at UniCredit, lumped Ukraine with other emerging economies such as Argentina and Russia which he said had "made little to no progress in terms of policy reforms".

Last week, it took at least three votes in parliament to adopt just one part of a government anti-corruption initiative -- to the anger of demonstrators who set tyres ablaze outside and unceremoniously dumped a former Yanukovych advisor in a rubbish bin.

Under the so-called lustration law, up to one million public servants -- including cabinet ministers -- will be vetted and anyone unable to explain their sources of income and assets will be banned from public office for five to 10 years.

The legislation also aims to purge officials from Yanukovych`s administration, particularly those accused of involvement in the bloody crackdown on protesters in Kiev last winter, as well as anyone linked to the separatists and the Russian regime.

But MPs notably failed to approve the creation of an independent task force that would have broad powers to investigate even top-level officials, with staff paid high enough salaries to deter them from bribe-taking themselves. 

"Shame," tweeted Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk when the proposal failed to make it through.

Tetyana Chornovol, a crusading journalist who rose to become Ukraine`s anti-corruption chief, also quit last month over what she said was the "lack of political will" within the new government to tackle the problem.

With barely a month to go until snap legislative elections on October 26, the government admits it has fallen far short on its promises of bringing about structural economic and political reforms.

"We have failed in tackling corruption, in overhauling the system," Yatsenyuk told an international conference this month, saying the judiciary was still blighted by corrupt judges, ineffective prosecutors and "Soviet-style militias" in the police.

But he blamed the war in the east and the Russian "aggressor" Kiev and the West say orchestrated the separatist uprising.

"It`s not easy to attract investors when you have Russian tanks and artillery in your country." A Gallup poll published in May found one third of all Ukrainians had been involved in bribery in some way.

Many admitted paying a nurse or doctor to receive better health care or a policeman to avoid getting a ticket, others to win a government contract or get their child into the university of their choice.

One of the problems, analysts say, is that the legislature has not changed, making it imperative that the election brings in new faces.

"The majority in parliament are supporters of Yanukovych or active participants in corruption scandals," Oleksiy Khmara, president of Transparency International Ukraine, told AFP.

Kiev has also been unable to track down all the ill-gotten gains of Yanukovych and his cronies, despite several countries freezing hundreds of millions of dollars in assets. 

But some remain suspicious of those now in the corridors of power -- President Petro Poroshenko himself is a former Yanukovych minister and was tainted by corruption allegations in the past.

And eyebrows have been raised now that his son Oleksiy is running for parliament on the president`s own "Poroshenko bloc" list.

Analysts warned that the lustration law could simply be pre-election PR and perhaps a way for the current leaders to get rid of political opponents.

"The government just speaks about reforms but there is no real action, so the risk is the system will remain rotten," warned Igor Kolyushko, head of the Centre for Political and Legal Reforms.

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