Within the last few weeks, Ukraine has found itself at the epicenter of one of the greatest controversies of Donald Trump’s tenure as president. The question regarding whether Trump has abused his presidential power following the publicization and confirmation of a phone call between him and the recently-elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has dominated headlines domestically.
In this phone call, Trump is recorded asking the Ukrainian president to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, as a favor for much-needed military assistance to Ukraine. Additionally, the current investigation of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and recent insight into the controversial recall of the former Ukrainian ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch have only further deepened concerns about whether there was an abuse of presidential power. The implications of this scandal are wide-reaching with an impeachment inquiry formally initiated at the end of September by the current US Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
This controversy, however, highlights a significant issue: Ukraine has an international reputation for internal corruption that has the potential to be exploited by foreign powers. Both the perceived corruption of Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Joe Biden’s son was formerly on, and the belief that President Zelensky would actively consider President Trump’s proposal are great causes for concern. As such, there are three pertinent questions that need to be asked:
(1) What is the legacy of corruption in Ukraine?
(2) Why is this an issue for the international community at large?
(3) What are policy solutions that can address this problem?
A Brief History of Corruption in Ukraine
Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, corruption has significantly influenced the political landscape of the country. The legacy of Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, is one of embezzlement and cronyism as highlighted by the bankruptcy of the government-owned Black Sea Shipping Company, once the world’s largest shipping company. Shortly thereafter, the tenure of Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, was defined by extensive censorship, which infamously culminated in the kidnapping and murder of opposition journalist, Georgiy Gongadze.
In addition, corruption was a driving factor in the start of the two revolutions that made international headlines: The Orange Revolution of 2004 and The Maidan Revolution of 2014. The Orange Revolution was a series of non-violent protests that arose following claims of ballot fraud by independent monitors which eventually led to the peaceful election of Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency. The Maidan Revolution, ten years later, was instigated by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign the European Union Association Agreement which was perceived as a sign of his close ties to Russia.
In addition, corruption was a driving factor in the start of the two revolutions that made international headlines: The Orange Revolution of 2004 and The Maidan Revolution of 2014.
This year, popular actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, was unexpectedly elected as the President of Ukraine with 73% of the votes, as a response to the continuing corruption of then-President Petro Poroshenko’s government in a sluggish economy that lagged well behind its European counterparts.
Ukraine’s presidents, however, would not have been mired in such controversy over corruption without the Ukrainian oligarchs who have exerted great political influence over them. They do so through a variety of means including the creation of networks with political leaders, increasing ownership in Ukrainian mass media, and of course, monetary influence.
Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian natural gas production company at the center of this scandal, is considered to be influential over politicians in these ways. Mykola Zlochevsky, Burisma’s founder, formerly served as the Minister of Environmental Protection during the tenure of former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Additionally, Burisma Holdings was investigated by national prosecutors since 2014 for tax violations until the company paid over $7 million USD.
International Perceptions of Corruption
Given Ukraine’s modern history, international perceptions of corruption in the country frame it as a norm that makes it difficult for foreign business dealings. Currently, Transparency International ranks Ukraine as the most corrupt country in Europe following Russia. Ukrainians overwhelmingly agree with this judgement with a low 9% confidence rate in its government.
In American politics especially, corruption is inextricably linked to the politics in Ukraine. Joe Biden, in addressing the Ukrainian parliament, is recorded saying: “But as history tells us and shows, and as we know, Ukraine’s leaders proved incapable of delivering on the promise of democratic revolution…and [we saw] the bright flame of hope for a new Ukraine snuffed out by the pervasive poison of cronyism, corruption, and kleptocracy.” As a retort to being asked what he said in his phone call to President Zelensky last month, Trump asked: “Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
As such, the Trump-Ukraine controversy can be seen as based on this persistent international perception of corruption. In its short modern history, Ukraine has been regularly plagued with this issue of corruption and other powers have noted this. Although President Zelensky is viewed as actively tackling corruption within the Ukrainian government, international perceptions of corruption in the country are still a major concern.
The first and foremost step to countering corruption should be to address its judicial system. With the presence of corrupt judges, any progress made by the Ukranian President and parliament could be dismantled. Mykhailo Zhernakov, a judicial reform expert and activist, advocates for giving independent, international experts the right to veto court choices. This has been successfully implemented through the recently reformed Ukrainian Supreme Court and has great potential to work throughout the entire judicial system. The United States has demonstrated support of these measures through foreign aid given for this particular intention.
Another consideration should be made towards focusing on government transparency, especially digitally. Since the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine has made significant progress by increasing government transparency via both an online asset declaration system for all public officials and an online government procurement system visible to the public. What Ukraine can do next, in this respect, is to increase digitalization and accessibility of information related to work conducted by both local authorities and major governmental bodies such as the Ukrainian parliament.
In addition, Ukraine needs to directly address the oligarchs who contribute to the corrupt atmosphere. This can come from a variety of factors including sanctioning individuals and firms when credible allegations are raised against them and forcing convicted individuals to face non-monetary punishments such as prison time. The actual ability to implement these reforms is easier said than done. In the meantime, Ukraine’s current leadership is showing a desire to tackle corruption with expediency and the results of these efforts will be seen in due time.
Teddy Horowitz is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with concentrations in international development and international economic affairs. He received Bachelor’s degrees in both Economics and Anthropology from the University of South Florida. As an undergraduate student, Teddy received the Critical Language Scholarship and the Gilman Scholarship to study Russian in Vladimir, Russia and Astana, Kazakhstan respectively.