Why you should care
An eye in the sky should worry every corrupt official.
The entire operation spans just a few minutes: After zipping off the ground in a nondescript field just outside Kiev, the quadricopter whirls its way over the elite gated community nearby, where at least one Ukrainian judge is believed to own property with an estimated value far exceeding the funds disclosed in her official declaration. Collecting photo and video evidence of the impressive estate and its carefully manicured lawn, the device returns safely and quietly back to the car by the time a perplexed security guard calls the cops.
Later, at the headquarters of Prosud, a civil society organization that pushes for transparency in Ukraine’s judicial system, director Kateryna Butko explains just how crucial drones have become to her group’s work — as well as to that of so many other like-minded organizations and citizens across Eastern Europe and parts of Central Asia. Activists around the former Soviet Union, where corruption remains ingrained, have increasingly relied on drones as a powerful tool to back up the allegations they’d long chanted at rallies or chattered about online. Especially in often Byzantine political systems, where hard evidence of official graft is difficult to come by, flying over lavish properties belonging to officials with nominally meager salaries is the perfect visual retort to claims by those very officials that they live within the law.
In Russia, opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, for example, has examined the ill-gotten gains of Russia’s top leaders from on high since 2016. Some of its most explosive discoveries have included mansions and vacation homes suspected to belong to President Vladimir Putin and his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Combined with Navalny’s political savvy, the resulting videos have helped fuel protests in Moscow and across Russia.
Sometimes it seems like they [drones] were developed exactly for this purpose.
Kateryna Butko, director, Prosud
But there’s no shortage of corruption in nearby states, most of which watchdog Freedom House categorizes as “Partly Free” or “Not Free.” And droves of determined activists are now turning to drones there too, seeking to make a difference. In Armenia, where popular protests led to regime change earlier this year, local activists provoked another political stir in June when they released drone footage revealing a palatial property allegedly owned by Taron Margaryan, mayor of the Armenian capital Yerevan. He resigned two weeks later. In Kyrgyzstan, investigative website kloop.org in 2016 used a drone to capture images of former president Almazbek Atambayev’s palatial compound with a three-story manor and gazebos on the outskirts of Bishkek, which would have been impossible to build with his officially declared wealth of $111,000 in 2015. And in Ukraine, where civil society experienced a rebirth following that country’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, Prosud alone has filmed at least 600 properties across the entire country, members say.
“Sometimes it seems like they were developed exactly for this purpose,” says Butko.
Some governments are even using drones to tackle local corruption, especially in Africa. The governments of Zimbabwe and Malawi, for example, are using drones to monitor wildlife reserves in their fight against poaching. The government of South Africa’s wealthiest province, Gauteng, has been using drones since last year to monitor construction sites in the hope that this will dissuade corruption in infrastructure projects.
But the ease of use and relatively low cost make drones particularly attractive as an anti-corruption tool against oligarchies and authoritarian regimes, say analysts and the groups using them. “The barrier to use is really quite low,” says Philip Chamberlain, head of the School of Film and Journalism at the University of the West of England. What’s more, drone regulation is either far less rigid than in the West or simply nonexistent, leaving plenty of opportunities for experimentation in the skies.
Drone-led probes are often also much more powerful and hard to ignore than traditional journalistic investigations. Whether slapped together into a several-minutes-long highlight reel and sent to news agencies or law enforcement authorities — as Prosud does — or as part of a broader investigative report, such as Armenia’s First AntiCorruption Television did with Yerevan’s mayor, the high-quality, well-produced videos offer a look one won’t find anywhere else. “Simply driving up to the building and photographing it from outside doesn’t compare to when you’re flying over it and see there’s not just a high wall, but also a pool, a tennis court and so much more,” Butko says.
Prompting action, however, is often another matter. For instance, Russia’s stifling political system and carefully managed media leave little room for critical voices. Even Navalny’s impressive investigations are mostly limited to the well-educated and mostly urban audiences that rely on the internet for their information — while the vast majority of Russians still support President Vladimir Putin’s government, thanks to widespread propaganda on state television. In Ukraine, meanwhile, the law enforcement system remains too corrupt to effectively prosecute even those whose graft has been revealed. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which has been unable to successfully prosecute their high-profile cases against top officials, knows that all too well.
There are also signs that some governments are becoming increasingly aware of the potential dangers drones pose to their rule. In Moldova, where activist Constantin Celac says he and his colleagues have significantly ramped up their probes in the past two years, officials are preparing what they say are European-style regulations for drone use. But he sees it differently. “There was this wave of drone investigations, and it was only after that when they started preparing this,” Celac says. In Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev’s guards saw the kloop.org drone flying over the former leader’s compound, brought it down, caught the cameraperson who was controlling it and made him delete the videos. Luckily, once back at the office, the investigative team was able to recover the videos from the drone, says Rinat Tuhvatshin, co-founder of kloop.org.
It’s unclear for how much longer anti-corruption drones will be able to continue roaming the skies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But while they’re up there, crooked officials may want to keep their eyes open — and pocketbooks closed.