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Opinion: Hunting the corruption hunters in Ukraine

The showdown involving Mikheil Saakashvili is a sideshow. But if those in power in Kyiv continue to block the fight against corruption, the consequences will be devastating, writes DW's Bernd Johann.

A group of activists led by Georgian ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is attempting an uprising in Kyiv. By doing so, they say they also want to fight corruption in the country. Ukrainians are following the goings-on, but are not taking part. They have long suspected that this conflict is only a sideshow: a personal conflict revolving around Saakashvili, who is wanted in his homeland, Georgia, for abuse of office, has not achieved anything in Ukraine as a politician and has now been arrested there on the charge of having attempted a coup with support from Russia.  

Read more: Controversial new amendment puts corruption fighters under pressure in Ukraine

Shattered reforms?

The real drama in Ukraine is happening elsewhere. The country's political leadership looks as if it could be driving the fight against corruption — a core element of broader reforms — into a brick wall. The main arena is a dispute over the independent anti-corruption authorities NABU and NAZK. For weeks now, the newly created institutions have been the focus of investigations by the secret service SBU and the chief public prosecutor's office, whose bosses are subordinates of President Petro Poroshenko. And he is observing events without taking any action.

Corruption hunters have thus become the hunted. The sad climax has been the failed attempt by lawmakers from the governing parties to oust the heads of the anti-corruption authorities. Fear and anger seem to have gripped Kyiv's power elite because NABU and NAZK — as is their designated task — could drain the swamp of corruption. The son of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the head of the tax office and several other high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Defense are on their investigation list — among many other cases.

Bernd Johann App photo

Johann heads DW's Ukrainian service

A lot at stake for Ukraine

In view of the allegations against the new authorities, the question has also been raised of how effectively and reliably the anti-corruption fighters are working. Do they have the right skills and sufficient moral integrity to deal with these cases? Ukraine has broken new ground. Mistakes can be made. Those that have occurred in ongoing proceedings can be corrected. Nevertheless, the fight against corruption requires the greatest possible degree of independence. Otherwise, the new institutions cannot do their job. Immediately setting the chief public prosecutor, the secret service or the parliament against them threatens to suffocate the nascent moves toward a corruption-free Ukraine.

A lot is now at stake. The people's hopes of an end to corruption must not be disappointed. Ukraine is also gambling with international trust. Partners like Germany, the EU and the United States are rightly appalled. EU funds are being held back because of the lack of reform progress. The US is also likely to cut aid to Ukraine if the anti-corruption authorities are tampered with. Even an end to visa-free travel with the EU could be a possible consequence, as the fight against nepotism was and is a central condition for Brussels' concessions.

Read more: Germany warns Ukraine over graft

Saakashvili not the main problem

However, instead of stopping the massive attacks on the anti-corruption authorities, Poroshenko prefers to sound the charge against Saakashvili. The controversial former Georgian politician was brought into the country as a supposed savior from corruption. Now the politicians who called on him to come want to get rid of him — first and foremost, Poroshenko. Serious accusations are fueling the conflict. The attorney general, Yuri Luzenko, who is a member of the president's party, has presented investigation files that could make Saakashvili an enemy of the state. Saakashvili allegedly received money from Russia to carry out certain operations in Ukraine. The allegations have not been proven yet.

But the Saakashvili case is, again, only a sideshow. The proceedings against the anti-corruption authorities are the real scandal. The president, ministers and parts of the Ukrainian parliament currently seem to be unwilling to support the independent anti-corruption authorities. But it is precisely this support that the new authorities need. They could help to free Ukraine from corruption and nepotism — but only if they have political backing.

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