Members of the Ukrainian Parliament have begun the process to impeach President Petro Poroshenko after a media report was released linking him to a corruption scandal in which the president’s friends and high-ranking defense officials allegedly stole millions from the country’s military industry by receiving kickbacks for smuggling spare military equipment parts from Russia at inflated prices. The announcement was made last Tuesday by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of the Batkivshchyna (All-Ukrainian Union Fatherland party); Tymoshenko, who will run against Poroshenko in presidential elections next month, accused the president of involvement in criminal activity and stated that his actions amounted to treason “‘at the expense of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability, defense, and economic security of Ukraine’” and “collaboration with the enemy.’”
In response, President Poroshenko has fired the official central to the scheme, National Security Council official Oleh Hladkovskyi. Meanwhile, others besides Tymoshenko have criticized Poroshenko, including Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is a frontrunner in the presidential race. Ukroboronprom, the state-owned enterprise supervising Ukrainian defense industry production facilities and which agreed to buy the smuggled parts despite knowing their origins, has called the media report “‘manipulative’” and has called for a legal assessment of the report by authorities. Amidst the scandal, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court overturned a law criminalizing illicit enrichment; in response, the World Bank and G7 nations, as well as anti-graft group Transparency International, have urged Ukraine to step up its fight against corruption, with the World Bank and G7 decrying the court’s ruling as a “‘serious setback’” and weakening of the country’s anti-corruption architecture.
The impeachment process, which involves multiple votes in parliament and an investigation by a special prosecutor, may be a step in the right direction in combating corruption at high levels of the Ukrainian government. The start of the impeachment process and the publicity that came with it in the face of an upcoming election seemed to have compelled President Poroshenko to fire his allegedly corrupt friend and ally from government. The impeachment process may also result in Poroshenko’s own removal from office, which may help to further remove corrupt officials from government if his links to corruption are proven. The launching of the impeachment process has helped to sustain corruption at the fore of public concern and during election season, which may signal a future of stronger anti-corruption policies. With critics accusing him of not fighting corruption enough and in response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Poroshenko has recently proposed new legislation aimed at fighting corruption to avoid having the country being seen as backtracking on anti-corruption policies and likely motivated by hopes of boosting his poll numbers. In spite of the start of the impeachment process and Poroshenko’s new legislation, it is crucial that efforts to fight corruption are not rooted only in motivations for political gain; anti-corruption efforts must be ongoing and not simply supported when trying to gain or stay in political office.
The smuggling scheme started in 2015, a year after Russia seized Crimea and began supporting militant separatists in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, corruption has been a persistent and widespread issue in Ukraine, with Transparency International ranking the country 120th out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perception Index in 2018. President Poroshenko, despite succeeding Viktor Yanukovych—criticized for massive cronyism and corruption and ousted in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution—and establishing a national anti-corruption bureau to take apart the Ukrainian oligarchy, has not only overseen only limited results but is perceived to be watching out for his personal political interests, including previous links to other corruption schemes, namely one involving the purchase of Ukraine’s largest media group in 2013.
Overall, the impeachment process and anti-corruption efforts must go beyond personal political motivations. For both those members of Parliament who have launched the impeachment process and President Poroshenko, anti-corruption must be prioritized and real, serious, sustained measures must be taken. As Transparency International states, corruption is an obstacle to the rule of law and can result in a government’s loss of legitimacy; it undermines trust in political institutions and leadership, and it prioritizes politicians and oligarchs at the expense of development and the country as a whole. At its worst, corruption can cost lives, and in Ukraine, corruption continues to contribute to unrest and instability in the country and in the region. Political leaders in Ukraine must continue to prioritize corruption as a major problem to address, but they cannot continue to engage in hypocritical acts of corruption at the same time. They cannot only speak of combating corruption, but they must be held accountable to implementing serious structural changes within the political and economic systems of the country. The impeachment process is a start, but real efforts must be continued, even after election season.