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Andrii Borovyk: A year of war – how is Ukraine transforming right now?

February 24, 2023 10:48 PM 10 min read
Andrii Borovyk
Andrii Borovyk
Executive Director of Transparency International Ukraine
Women wrapped in Ukrainian flags hold candles in front of the Frauenkirche church during a rally marking the first anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Dresden, Germany, on Feb. 24, 2023. (Photo by JENS SCHLUETER/AFP via Getty Images)
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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

Ukraine has bravely resisted Russia's full-scale invasion for a year now. The cold, ugly hands of war have invaded every sphere of our lives, testing our strength and resilience and the entire country. Ukraine has survived and shown its undeniable desire to join the greater European community during this time. How has Ukraine held its own in the most terrible battle for survival for a year now? Let us tell you in detail.

Feb. 24, 2022 – this terrible date will be etched in the memory of Ukrainians forever.

Four a.m., air raid siren, explosions, endless phone calls from relatives, and this message on all TV screens: "Russia has attacked Ukraine." That was the end of peaceful life for 40 million Ukrainians. The bloody confrontation of life versus death began -- the people's struggle for freedom and the state for existence.

Over the year of full-scale war, Russia destroyed $138 billion worth of Ukrainian infrastructure. According to the Ukrainian government, the European Commission, and the World Bank, the reconstruction needs for the fall of 2022 alone amounted to $349 billion.

The courageous Ukrainian people remain true to their democratic principles and, most of all, long for victory over the enemy, followed by the restoration of the country. In its stubborn confrontation with Russia, Ukraine has shown that it is ready to fight to the end so that every Ukrainian can live freely on their land.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine has become a candidate for accession to the European Union at such a difficult time. Joining the European family has always been important to us, but now our country is firmly on the path to full European integration.

Although it is still too early to talk about the total losses and needs of Ukraine, we can see the first results of the resilience of the country's anti-corruption system. Over the past nine years, Ukrainians have shown how they can transform entire sectors and industries, but there is still a lot of work ahead, including in the crucial sphere of anti-corruption.

Let's look at the changes that have taken place during the year of the war.

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Anti-corruption: relevant, despite missiles

The successful fight against corruption is one of the main requirements for full accession to the European Union.

This is logical because comprehensive integration into the European economic system requires fair rules of the game, including in the economy. This is impossible due to the high level of corruption in Ukraine.

Here, even during martial law, Ukraine has already taken many necessary steps to combat the problem of bribery systematically.

In 2019, Ukraine's anti-corruption infrastructure was finally formed. It consists of five central state bodies, each of which has its specialization:

  • National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP)
  • Asset Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA)
  • National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU)
  • Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO)
  • High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC)

They have proven their resilience and continue to operate during the war. Corruption cases are being investigated, examined, and heard in court.

For example, over 33 verdicts were handed down for high-level corruption during the year of countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. In 2022, the NABU launched 456 investigations, served 186 people with suspicion notices, and sent 54 indictments to court, including nine MPs. This testifies to the well-coordinated work of the anti-corruption infrastructure and its focus on fighting internal enemies such as bribery and corruption schemes.

However, at the same time, the employees of the anti-corruption ecosystem have not forgotten about the fight against the external enemy – the aggressor state Russia.

In the first days of the war, some helped with information analysis, and some employees went to the front or helped the military. For example, the former acting head and now SAPO prosecutor, Maksym Hryshchuk, continues to fight in a grenade launcher unit with the Kyiv territorial defense brigade. NABU detectives help to clear the liberated territories of mines.

Ukraine's anti-corruption infrastructure has undergone many changes over the past year, including personnel shifts. For example, SAPO finally got a new head, Oleksandr Klymenko. In February, the HACC announced that it had elected its new leader, Vira Mykhailenko, who was positively recognized by civil society and experts.

All stages of the competition to select the NABU head are moving forward as planned. This is important because the EU mentions this crucial selection as a condition for providing financial assistance to Ukraine.

At the same time, selecting the ARMA head is somewhat stalled, but it is moving forward.

In terms of legislation, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Criminal Code have undergone significant changes. For example, Ukraine is now changing the measures for suspects in custody if they join Ukraine's Armed Forces. A long-awaited step was the adoption of the Anti-Corruption Strategy, which is in force until 2025.

However, another legislative change was suspending the obligation to declare assets until the end of martial law. This is a challenge for anti-corruption reform. It is now necessary to resume the submission and verification of declarations, as well as public access to the register of declarations of officials.

In the context of Russia's full-scale war, ARMA has been given new powers, including the management of Russian assets that may be transferred to it by the court. This is not an easy challenge because managing property requires knowledge and specialists from various fields. The agency can also now buy government bonds, which supports the state budget in such difficult times for Ukraine.

Speaking of NABU, detectives have also started working on new tasks. For example, they are looking for Russian property that may be subject to confiscation. The NACP is also working on a related topic. It has created the War and Sanctions portal with the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which contains information about all sanctioned persons and their property in Ukraine and abroad.

It should be noted that these are new activities for such institutions. It is logical that in times of war, the state mobilizes all available resources to effectively confront all possible challenges in the public sphere and, of course, to win. But the fact that these bodies can combine their usual focus with a new one is an achievement to be proud of.

Naturally, Ukrainians themselves have also changed a lot over this time.

According to the USAID/ENGAGE program, as of November 2022, 64% of Ukrainians believe that corruption cannot be justified (compared to 40% in 2021), and 84% are ready to report cases of corruption (compared to 44% in 2021). The entire people of Ukraine are united as never before, and the public focus on European integration also creates the basis for further effective fights against corruption.

Despite the war, freedom of speech has not disappeared in Ukraine – where the state falls short, NGOs and journalists provide support. Even with limited access to data, they constantly monitor and investigate alleged abuses by government officials and prevent dishonest officials from profiting from the war.

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Public procurement: the fight for transparency

Ukraine's procurement system was rebooted and improved in 2016 when Prozorro was created. Prozorro is a portal where all public procurement is published, and everyone can view all the details about it, while businesses get equal access to online tenders.

However, at the start of the full-scale invasion, these rules had to be partially abandoned, as procurement had to be simplified and accelerated as much as possible. To provide the state with everything needed in war, budgetary institutions could sign contracts directly and report on them after martial law ended. Mandatory reporting of at least the existence of procurement, even without the publication of the agreement, was returned in the fall of 2022.

Therefore, it is currently impossible to know precisely how many procurements were made during the year and for what amounts. Publicly, Prozorro announced 2.68 million tenders worth $19.3 billion. Those open for bidding were only 242,720 lots worth $10.7 billion.

The return of competition to public procurement was discussed in April-May 2022 when the situation on the home front stabilized slightly. However, the first significant step toward this was taken at the end of June 2022 – but at the time, the mechanisms used were not entirely suitable for the new conditions. In addition, there were still quite a few exceptions when clients could buy something directly and not disclose information about it.

Therefore, on Oct. 19, 2022, Prozorro launched new rules that include the obligation to report direct procurement immediately and open bidding with special features, a mechanism created during martial law. This is a simplified and accelerated procedure specifically for working in war-torn conditions.

The return to competitive procurement is a crucial step in the field this year. It allows the state to save money and receive the highest quality goods, businesses to have equal access to budget orders, and citizens to control public spending.

Unfortunately, the lack of transparency in procurement has had its consequences. In 2023, Ukraine has already been rocked by two high-profile corruption scandals, both related to procurement.

Investigative journalists, as well as regulatory and anti-corruption authorities, continue to find cases of potential overpayments, division of orders between selected companies, and other abuses. At the same time, opportunities for civil monitoring of public procurement are still limited due to the lack of open data.

Now we need more transparency and competitive conditions, particularly in defense procurement (not weapons). In addition, procurement for the restoration of Ukraine, which has already partially begun, should also be conducted in Prozorro. This will allow us to track all stages of procurement and prevent corruption.

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Local level: resilient home front and self-organization

Ukraine has survived the war thanks to the resilience of its cities, which continue to hold the rear and help our heroic soldiers.

Even before Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine had implemented a decentralization reform. As a result, every city, town, and village head became the leader of their community. Even if they captured the regional center, the Russians could not maintain control over all communities. This broke the "logic" of the occupier, for whom the capture of the "heart" of the region automatically meant control over its entire territory.

Decentralization has developed local self-government, allowing for quick decisions to be made on the ground. And this, in turn, made it possible to repel the enemy quite successfully.

Ukrainian cities are seeking any opportunity to increase their resilience. Thus, since the beginning of the war, many cities have used the tool of "twinning" – cooperation between cities at the municipal level to achieve common goals. At the same time, they broke off partnership agreements with Russian cities and sought new friends around the world. According to the Association of Ukrainian Cities, over 100 have about 700 partner cities worldwide.

As for the level of transparency of local councils, the situation is ambiguous. On the one hand, Ukraine, until recently the leader in the publication of open data (sixth among 34 European countries), now has to restrict access to information because some data may be useful to the enemy. On the other hand, there are abuses under the guise of this reason.

Previously, Transparency International (TI) Ukraine compiled the City Transparency and Accountability Rankings. It was a revealing study that allowed us to track the progress of the same cities from year to year. However, conducting such studies is impossible now, as some cities are occupied, and others are close to the contact line.

Instead, the TI team conducted a different analysis on the publication of datasets, which may also indicate the openness of city councils. Although Ukrainian cities publish 25% of the required datasets on average, some bold examples exist. Consider, for example, the city of Dnipro, which, despite its proximity to the contact line, is among the cities that publish the largest number of data sets.

In general, local authorities are performing at their best not only in the temporarily occupied territories, but also far from active hostilities. We are talking about both small rural communities and large cities. Humanitarian headquarters and centers for internally displaced persons have been set up across the country, and communities are finding various ways to support Ukraine's Armed Forces. In the rear regions, people are raising funds, preparing food for the military, purchasing necessary equipment, weaving camouflage nets, etc.

But at the same, just like in peacetime, there are scandalous stories among local officials with exposures and suspicions served by law enforcement. For example, such a situation occurred in the summer of 2022 in Dnipro regarding the construction of roads under a non-transparent scheme. A little later, NABU and SBU detectives conducted over 20 searches in Zaporizhzhia's city council, regional administration, and warehouses on suspicion of embezzling humanitarian aid.

As we can see, there is a deterioration in openness at the local level but an improvement in community resilience.

If we take a comprehensive look at the picture of anti-corruption measures in Ukraine, we see that the situation in the fight against grand corruption and localized abuse is different and requires special approaches.

However, the citizens of Ukraine themselves show an unwavering desire to join the European family and thus share European values, including intolerance to bribery and scheming.

In the future, this brave country will face a major rebuilding. And how it organizes it and what safeguards it builds against abuse will ultimately show how quickly Ukraine can join the EU. All of this is possible only with the continued support of our European friends, both in terms of financial and political assistance.

Now the whole world sees Ukraine's readiness to defend its values on the battlefield, but it is our common power to do so on other fronts as well. Much has already been done, and more needs to be done. Still, Ukrainian society is ready for such changes, and the understanding that we are not alone on this path gives us more confidence in successfully completing all the reforms we have started.

In the end, unity and readiness for mutual assistance create the unbreakable force that has allowed Europe to survive the most difficult times for centuries.

This publication was made possible with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents and opinions expressed herein are the exclusive responsibility of Transparency International Ukraine and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States government.

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