Why you should care

Because it’s hard to cure anything without seeing all of its ills.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science and a Ukrainian politics expert at Rutgers University.

When you think about Ukraine, corruption is probably the first word that comes to mind. It’s undermining the country, hollowing out the state, destroying society and preventing reform — or so the media says. Western newspapers are awash in headlines like “Why Ukraine Is Losing the War on Corruption” and “Corruption Is Killing Ukraine’s Economy.”

Concern is merited, of course, because corruption remains one of democratic Ukraine’s greatest challenges. But the hyperbolic language, and the implicit — sometimes explicit — claim that Ukraine’s existence and transformation are incompatible with corruption, derives from six myths. Like all myths, these serve as convenient oversimplifications that overshadow the need for genuine understanding.

Don’t buy into this corruption narrative. What it really represents is the West’s failed imagination and policy.

Myth No. 1: Corruption is the greatest threat to Ukraine’s existence.

No way. The tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, tanks and artillery sitting along Ukraine’s southern and eastern borders are Ukraine’s sole existential threat. If Vladimir Putin gives the command, they could invade and possibly destroy large parts of the country. Corruption, by comparison, could eviscerate Ukraine’s institutions, but only in the long term.

Myth No. 2: Corruption is an obstacle to reform.

Ukraine has embarked on impressive political, economic and social reforms since the Maidan Revolution of 2014. Democratic institutions are now fully functional, no longer hollowed out; banks are being fixed; energy prices have been raised to market levels and energy dependence on Russia has been slashed. State procurements are now transparent; bureaucracies have been trimmed; the health system is being overhauled; education has been thoroughly reformed. If corruption makes reform impossible, then how did Ukraine pull this off?

Myth No. 3: Corruption is the greatest obstacle to foreign direct investment.

Nope. There is no correlation. Ukraine experienced a boom of FDI during Viktor Yushchenko’s corrupt but pro-democratic government from 2005-2010, a decline during the exceptionally corrupt and dictatorial Yanukovych years (2010-2013), and a virtual halt since 2014. The current government is the least corrupt and most democratic of the bunch, but investors are staying away because of the war in Ukraine’s east.

Myth No. 4: Corruption is the greatest obstacle to economic growth.

Nonsense. If that were true, then highly corrupt countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China — ranked 76th, 119th, 76th and 83rd out of 168 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index, according to Transparency International — wouldn’t have experienced impressive growth rates. As for Ukraine, ranked 130th, its growth rates were negative in the 1990s, positive in the decade-plus that followed and deeply negative since 2014. Corruption had nothing to do with it. The contraction in the 1990s was a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet economy; subsequent growth took place despite Ukraine’s remaining corruption; and the post-2014 contraction was the result of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the eastern Donbas.

Myth No. 5: Corruption is the greatest obstacle to democracy.

Really? Then how did Ukraine make very impressive strides toward consolidated democracy status since the Orange Revolution of 2004, despite suffering from corruption?

Myth No. 6: Corruption can be eliminated quickly with political will.

Since corruption is largely the result of bloated state apparatuses and inefficient market mechanisms, political will and the attendant arrests of corrupt officials is never enough to get rid of it. The costs and benefits of corrupt practices and, in particular, the incentives and disincentives to engage in them must be changed. States and economies must be streamlined. That takes some political will, but mostly it takes sustained reform and time.

So what is the reality?

Corruption in Ukraine is both deep and widespread, making it harder for survival, reform, investment, growth and democracy to be pursued and consolidated. But it does not make it impossible to achieve these goals. Were that the case, no country in the world — including the United States, which was notoriously corrupt in the 19th century — would have been able to become a functioning market economy and democracy.

Ukraine has made significant progress in combating corruption in recent years and has still managed impressive reforms, prompting former Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko to say that Ukraine has changed more in the past three years than in the 20-plus years since independence in 1991. On December 13, 2016, the EU concluded that Ukraine is carrying out intense and unprecedented reforms across its economy and political system, while its democratic institutions have been further revitalized. That report, unlike years of headlines about corruption in Ukraine, did not catch the media’s eye.

So why is the fixation on Ukrainian corruption? Partly because it provides a simple theme around which to organize ignorance about Ukraine, as well as a convenient rationale for Ukraine fatigue in foreign policy. Corruption provides Westerners with an attractive us versus them picture: there, the bad, corrupt Ukrainians; here, honest, virtuous Europeans and Americans. Russian propaganda has managed to spread this image of Ukraine in a bid to reduce it to an irredeemably failed state unworthy of the West’s attention.

But don’t buy into this corruption narrative and its “failing state” corollary. What it really represents is the West’s failed imagination and policy more than anything about Ukraine, which is doing almost as much as it can to combat corruption. If the United States and Europe genuinely want to help Ukraine, they’ll have to discard their myths and start seeing its true complexity.

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