Anti-corruption failure. How centralization of power affects the effectiveness of the fight against corruption

Corruption scandals in Ukraine are increasingly provoking public outrage. If it weren’t for the state of war, they would almost certainly lead to demonstrations and other forms of civic activism with political demands on the government. However, the inability to express protest in public and mass forms means that internal discontent will only continue to grow. And it will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the ratings of the government and public trust in it.

This prompts the current government to seek unconventional measures to reduce the level of public anger and shift the focus of attention. One of such measures is the proposal by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to equate corruption during the war with state treason.

The role of media and civil society in exposing corruption

At first glance, strengthening the accountability of officials and public figures for corruption during times of war seems like the right move. Part of the Ukrainian population received the president’s proposal with enthusiasm. However, overall, such a proposal from the government appears somewhat insincere. Ukraine’s main problem is not the severity of punishment for corruption but primarily the lack of inevitability of punishment. Corrupt individuals have a unique ability to evade accountability. Under such circumstances, increasing criminal liability as much as you want will have no real significance, as most wrongdoers will still escape justice.

Furthermore, the majority of corruption crimes and abuses in Ukraine remain unknown to the general public. Not because corrupt individuals skillfully disguise themselves and use encrypted methods to deceive law enforcement but because Ukrainian anti-corruption agencies and the law enforcement system, in general, are ineffective at detecting corruption. So much so that corrupt individuals can steal right under everyone’s noses, and their illegal activities are not a big secret to anyone except those who should be the first to notice these criminal actions.

A significant portion of corruption crimes has become known to the public not through the principled and honest work of numerous state specialized agencies but thanks to the investigations conducted by journalists and civil society activists. If it weren’t for these investigations, Ukrainians might not have learned that during the war, there were so many corrupt officials eager to enrich themselves dishonestly. That eggs could be bought for 17 hryvnias (0,46 dollars) and sold by the kilogram. That certain military commanders became dollar millionaires in a year and purchased foreign villas. That due to corruption, thousands of people left the country using fake documents. That the Ministry of Defense paid billions to dubious firms but never received the ordered weapons. That members of parliament and top officials could use their powers during the war for personal enrichment rather than serving the people.

Challenges and solutions in the fight against corruption

It seems that responsible authorities in Ukraine have instructions from above not to notice the corruption of certain individuals. Or they are afraid to show initiative and wait for orders to react. Whether it concerns embezzlement in the defense sector, bribery at customs, activities of military enlistment offices, or violations during tenders and procurement. But then, why are numerous anti-corruption bodies formed in Ukraine if their function is carried out by investigative journalists?

See also: Millions of taxes into the Russian budget. The company of a Ukrainian oligarch continues to operate in Russia

There is a widely held myth that very harsh punishments for corruption guarantee a successful fight against this phenomenon. There are examples of countries where the death penalty or amputation of hands is prescribed for corruption. However, in reality, these draconian methods do not contribute significantly to combating corruption.

In the book The Narrow Corridor by James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, they describe how deeply corrupt Chinese society is. One would think that an authoritarian state with extensive powers of coercion and control would promote accessible education because it is generally in its interest. However, reality looks different. In the Chinese education system, one can even buy seats at the front row desks and the position of class monitor.

The authors tell the story of a Chinese woman named Zhao Hua, who went to enrol her daughter in elementary school. She was met by education department officials with a prepared list of how much each person should pay. Zhao was required to deposit $4,800 in the bank to secure her child’s enrollment. Officially, school education in China is free, so these “contributions” are illegal. The Chinese government banned this practice several times since 2005, but it had little impact.

In another elite school in Beijing, students receive additional points for every $4,800 their parents transfer to the school’s account. The cost of a bribe for admission to an elite school in the capital city can exceed $16,000. Teachers also expect gifts from parents throughout the academic year.

Corruption thrives in the Chinese system of state governance as well. Positions can be bought with money, and career advancement is often driven more by connections than intelligence and abilities. For example, from 2001 to 2013, 50 officials convicted of corruption on average sold 41 positions. County-level leaders sold positions for an average price of $1,500 to $2,000. However, at higher levels of the state apparatus, positions can cost up to $60,000. According to the political scientist Minxin Pei, the average corrupt Chinese official earns $170,000 from the sale of positions. In 2011, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, was found to own 350 apartments and over $100 million in cash. Of course, he “earned” them through his position. However, most officials avoid punishment for corruption schemes. It’s not surprising that the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has accumulated immense wealth. As we can see, despite strict anti-corruption legislation and government rhetoric, China is permeated with corruption. And in the context of a one-party dictatorship, there is no one to hold the government accountable.

In Iran, there is also strict anti-corruption legislation. Corruption can be punished by execution, flogging, or finger amputation. The death penalty for corruption is in effect in countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, one can lose a hand in accepting large bribes. However, most of these countries still rank low in anti-corruption ratings. Harsh legislation has not become an effective tool in the fight against corruption. Instead, authoritarian models of governance allow individuals in power to evade punishment for corruption. Corruption becomes a special privilege for the ruling elites. Nepotism and kleptocracy can undermine even the most stringent anti-corruption legislation.

If the Ukrainian Parliament truly supports President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s initiative to equate corruption to state treason, it would allow such cases to be handled by the Security Service of Ukraine. Experts rightly express doubts about the independence of this organization. While anti-corruption agencies like the National Anti-Corruption Bureau may have some degree of autonomy from direct government influence, the same cannot be said for the Security Service of Ukraine, the Prosecutor’s Office, or the police. It could lead to a situation where a form of “privileged corruption” emerges, where certain individuals close to the government are not held accountable. Because they are considered “insiders” or people with connections to those in power.

For a more effective fight against corruption, there is actually no need to enact extraordinary or unusual changes in legislation. The initiative to significantly increase punishments for corruption is also questionable. The main problem in Ukraine lies not in the absence of laws but in the lack of systematic efforts from relevant agencies and the political will to combat corruption.

To reduce corruption, simple and obvious steps need to be taken. Anti-corruption agencies must carry out their functions independently, regardless of the positions and connections of the suspects. Law enforcement and judicial authorities should operate within the framework of laws and the Constitution, rather than special rules or instructions. Furthermore, the government should make a principled decision to genuinely combat corruption, especially within its own ranks, instead of trying to make anti-corruption agencies more dependent and less effective.

Originally posted by Petro Herasymenko on Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Money at the expense of blood. How an inconspicuous Polish company took away a billion dollars from the Ukrainian army

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