On April 24, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor of Ukraine detained parliamentarian Oleh Lyashko and interrogated him for three and half hours. Lyashko was accused of illicit enrichment from the state. It turned out that Lyashko’s inner circle had been stealing from a state-owned factory and was engaging in public procurement fraud. Law enforcement is still investigating the case, and it remains uncertain if the politician will face trial.
The reason Lyashko faced interrogation was because of a segment broadcast on Nashi Hroshi (Our Money), a TV program that I anchor. The piece revealed that he lived in a million-dollar home that he could not possibly have afforded on his salary. The ensuing outrage from the Ukrainian public pressured the authorities to open an investigation.
Three years after the Revolution of Dignity, Ukrainians have taken important steps towards improving the accountability of our government. In that time, the country has climbed thirteen places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Media outlets have become more independent, moving a healthy distance away from their corporate owners. Legal groups are drafting legislation aimed at reducing and ultimately preventing corruption. Civil society is putting public pressure on public officials to pass and implement these laws. One of the most successful reforms has been the electronic asset declaration. All public officials, both elected and in the civil service, at all levels of government, must submit a form listing their household’s assets and sources of income. Failure to disclose this information truthfully is a criminal offense. These e-declarations are accessible for all through a government website, making it easier for journalists like myself to show the Ukrainian public who their leaders really are.
Still, there is much to be done before Ukraine finally fixes itself. Parliamentarians and television stations are still controlled by oligarchs—billionaire businessmen who essentially rule entire regions of the country. Anti-corruption investigators, prosecutors, and judges need the authority to stamp out bribery, blackmail, and under-the-table dealing. The country must strengthen the rule of law so that locals can enjoy equal protection, and so foreigners will invest here. Ukraine needs a new social contract, in which the government serves all people justly, regardless of who is in power.
The government has resisted reform efforts at every turn. In the case of the e-declarations, parliamentarians tried to weaken it with amendments and loopholes that would reduce its effectiveness and transparency.
Not satisfied with half-measures, a group of professional investigative journalists that I lead called TOM 14 has developed a database for e-declarations three and a half years ago. We recruited thousands of volunteers to collect data from their local and regional governments and developed a sophisticated array of features including full text search, red flags, and a data analysis tool kit. As of May 1st of this year, our website declarations.com.ua has attracted 650,000 visitors—more than its official government counterpart. Unlike the government database, which only includes information from 2016, ours shows the wealth officials have accrued over the past four years. Using this data, we uncovered evidence of corruption against more than twenty high-ranking public officials, including Lyashko.
While Ukrainians are determined to push reform efforts and transform their country, support and pressure from the international community, including the United States, is key to keeping the government on a pro-reform trajectory. Most international aid given to Ukraine is predicated on the implementation of reforms as suggested by civil society. The government approved the e-declarations program because it was required in order to receive a tranche of aid from the IMF. The government needs this money to keep the economy afloat and the country secure while the country faces Russian aggression in the eastern Donbas and in occupied Crimea. International organizations, and the countries that fund them, are making Ukraine a better place to live for its 44 million citizens.
On my first visit to the United States, the customs officer at the airport asked me who paid for my visit. I was here on a State Department exchange and so I replied, “the American government.” The officer said that the US government has no money; the citizens paid for the visit. In Ukraine, we do not think this way. Employers handle our taxes, and most citizens do not even know how much they pay. As a journalist, I need to remind my audience that when politicians and their cronies steal from the government, they are stealing from the people, from the viewers at home.
Our goal is not to shame politicians, nor to get anybody fired. I wish to change the mindset of Ukrainian citizens to build a culture in which people are honest, keep their promises, refrain from exploiting others, and together build peaceful, prosperous lives.
Denys Bihus is the leader of TOM 14, a group of investigative journalists in Ukraine. He is one of five anti-corruption activists honored with the 2017 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy.