Corruption is a customary problem-solving mechanism in our society, says Oleksandr Sushko

For almost 30 years, the International Renaissance Foundation has been working in Ukraine, contributing to the development of the open and democratic society. One of the Foundation’s top priorities is the protection of human rights and lobbying Ukraine’s interests abroad.

ІА spoke about the Foundation, which promotes a robust civil society and reforms in Ukraine, with one of the leading experts in the field of international relations, Executive Director of the International Renaissance Foundation Oleksandr Sushko.

– How has the public sector and grant policy in Ukraine changed over the last five years?

– These two topics are inter-correlated, but only in part, as the grant policy applies to a much greater number of actors than the civil society organizations. In fact, the main recipient of the grants has always been and continues to be the government. Therefore, when we talk about the grant policy of donors, first and foremost, we mean their interaction with the government. To date, only about 10% of grants are awarded to NGOs. Our Foundation is not quite typical in that sense, because we always relied on NGOs as our main partners, whereas other donors, including the largest ones, such as the EU, the USA, international organizations, as well as individual countries of Sweden, Canada, Poland, provide the lion’s share of funding to the governments. This is, by the way, an important factor, given the traditional manipulative attitude to civic activists and NGOs, as demonstrated by some politicians, humiliatingly referring to them as “grant-eaters”, whereas the main “grant-eater”, in fact, has always been and continues to be the government. Hence, we have to differentiate between these two issues: changes in grant policy and changes in the public sector.

As far as grant policy is concerned, clearly, over the last five years we have witnessed a huge increase of grants’ volume. Ukraine never received so much grant funding, as the amounts provided by international donors in the period following 2014. It does not mean that all donors have a common logic, however, as far as the European money is concerned, it marks a significant rapprochement with the EU. From the very beginning of the implementation of the Association Agreement and the relevant policies directly related to our relationship with the European Union, the EU has been providing assistance to Ukraine, including financial aid, to ensure the European standards. That is why the number of European grants provided to the government to implement this policy has increased significantly. Apparently, grants represent only a part of the international assistance. Much more money comes in the form of loans, or macro-financial assistance provided to the government. Such loans are provided at a very low interest rate, that is why the government institutions are eager to take them, as borrowings on the commercial market on such preferential terms for them are now possible.

So, first of all, changes in the grant policy are taking place due to the recent rapprochement between Ukraine and the European Union, resulting in the increase of the European funding. We see that growth is driven by the fact that Ukraine has taken on far more commitments, in particular, in the area of various narrow-field reforms, which it had declared and commenced; hence, it attracted large international donors. The most visible side of this financial assistance is the creation of the new National Police, Patrol Police, which were supplied with the necessary equipment mainly due to the efforts of the international donors; for example, police cars were purchased for the Japanese money. A large share of the necessary equipment, the supply of which was required within the framework of the reform in the police and law enforcement authorities, was purchased for the US money.

As far as NGOs are concerned, the international donor market has diversified. 10-15 years ago, there were only three or four, maybe five donors, which worked on the international donor market since the 1990s, including the International Renaissance Foundation. In fact, the IRF is the oldest international donor, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of international donors, both public and private, working with non-governmental organizations. Each of those donors has their own objectives and strategic goals; however, to a large extent they demonstrate a common vision of the Ukrainian problems from abroad. Hence, the foreign donor policy is aimed at solving problems that are most visible from the outside. I would say that one of the priority problems to solve is corruption. Ukraine has an image all over the world as a country of high corruption risks; hence, the international donors involved in this issue provide funding to organizations dealing with corruption. There are donors that work only with the media. There are many examples of international donors working with human rights advocacy organizations. There are also specific donors, which support the cultural projects and artists. Unfortunately, there are not many donors like that. By and large, it can be said that the international donor market does not cover the full range of needs of the Ukrainian society; hence, it is not enough to rely solely on the international donors’ resources. In view of the above, it is very important to make sure there are internal mechanisms in place in Ukraine for non-governmental organization to receive funds both from the state budget as well as from private donors. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

– From time to time, information waves appear in Ukraine around “foreign agents”, “grant-eaters”, and George Soros, who allegedly wants to be an influencer in the Ukrainian politics. Who, in fact, is behind such information injects and spin-outs?

– In countries with less established democracy, there are groups of impact that have always sought to monopolize influences over politics and citizens’ consciousness. For such financial groups, referred to as oligarchs, or oligarchic groups in Ukraine, it has always been a problem, when voices appear outside their control. In other words, I mean weighty civic organizations, media that could not be influenced by blocking their financial oxygen. Oligarchic groups do really feel jealous, when it suddenly appears that not only them alone can shape up the agenda. The question then emerged how to discredit those voices that did not fit their vision of the situation. One of the ways to do it has been and still is an attempt to blame civic activists, NGOs, the media for being agents of foreign influence. The links of those NGOs with international donors were used as an argument in favor of this version. Clearly, some NGOs, but not all of them, may not have survived without the support of foreign donors. However, this phenomenon is not purely Ukrainian, in other words, there is an international donor market worldwide, or international organizations that operate globally, as well as private donor organizations. Yet in the authoritarian and corrupt countries, funds received from foreign donors may become a problem for their recipients. In democratic countries with the established rule of law, there is never a problem for organizations to use international funds. In other words, if you see a country chasing after foreign agents, harassing them, trying to narrow their field of work by imposing legal restrictions, you can be almost a hundred percent sure to deal with a country where human rights are not respected, or where top elites are trying to establish an undemocratic order.

As I have been observing this situation for decades, I can clearly state we see this problem reoccurring, every time in new political configurations. Obviously, this is about the way, in which oligarchs try to take control of, or remove actors out of the market, or at least discredit them in the eyes of society, because it is no secret, since it has been confirmed by opinion polling, that non-governmental organizations are highly trusted by society, often even much more than the state authorities, not to say about oligarchs-controlled media. In other words, civil society organizations enjoy public trust, and in order to reduce this level of trust, oligarchs are trying to discredit them, blaming them to have taken foreign money and to have become dependent on foreign centers of influence. Last time we saw this problem being exacerbated in the late days of Yanukovych, with passing the so-called January 16 laws, with one of the laws particularly referring to the registration of foreign agents. As far as I know, MPs from the Kolomoysky group are now trying to revive and re-submit such draft laws to the Verkhovna Rada. And it shows very clearly that there is a particular group of interests that is strongly disturbed by the presence of a robust, independent civil society. We are fully aware of this problem and of the people who are trying to keep us in the past.

– Many civic activists go into politics, become members of parliaments. How do you evaluate their activities? Do you see it as a positive step?

– First of all, this process is rotational. In other words, it is not only the movement from the public sector to politics: some politicians return to the public sector after their work in politics. Hence, it is a normal process for any democratic country and in general it is good. It is important to make sure that people, going from civil society into politics, clearly identify that they cease to be public figures and become politicians. That would be at least fair. This is important because if they do not do so, then they create the grounds for certain manipulations, aiming to discredit them and many of their colleagues. For example, when a politician engages in his or her own political activity and continues to be guided by non-partisan, public-sector standards of behavior, it may create a specific problem that would need to be addressed through clear identification. In other words, one person can be a public figure, a politician, and a civil servant throughout his or her career, but it cannot all happen at the same time. If civic activists going into politics realize this, it will help them reduce the possibility for opponents’ manipulations aimed at discrediting their careers, as well as that of their colleagues.

In general, it is very positive when the political class is renewed due to skilled civic activists, because we see very well how obvious skills shortage is among the political class and political elites. This year we saw a very significant renewal of the political elite, new people without a prior political experience coming into politics. Some of them came from the public sector. However, in my opinion, people from the public sector are the most qualified among the newcomers in the Ukrainian politics, while many other people without a prior political or civil society experience clearly lack the due skills and competences. Since we all agree that the political class needs to be renewed, and it is actually happening right there in front of us, I think that it is the public sector that becomes the most natural source of skilled individuals for renewal of the political elite.

– In recent years, a great deal of attention was paid to anti-corruption projects and programs. To what extent have they succeeded, in your opinion? Has Ukraine advanced in its fight against corruption?

– There is no doubt that corruption is a huge problem for our country. The level of corruption in our country is quite high, and it consumes a lot of internal resources, which are redistributed through the corruption mechanism and are basically taken out of our domestic product, making Ukraine one of Europe’s poorest countries. In other words, this problem exists and costs us dearly. In recent years, a lot of efforts were taken to curb corruption. One should not expect corruption can be done away with swiftly and irreversibly. However, the practical experience of other countries has shown that it is possible to curb corruption by implementing effective anti-corruption policies. A certain progress has been made in Ukraine in combatting corruption practices. In particular, the introduction of tools to ensure transparency of income of civil servants and politicians was fairly successful. For those who cannot explain the origin of their fortune, those tools can make their lives miserable and, in some cases, lead to opening up criminal proceedings. Clearly, in that sense, the life of corrupt officials has become increasingly uneasy in Ukraine.

Now we are witnessing that after the renewal of the Prosecutor General’s Office, there is a chance that at least some of the corrupt officials can get under the law enforcement machine. Having said that, there is a certain predisposition to simplify the essence of corruption as a problem, and as a result, it is leading to simpler decisions and responses that are proposed in an effort to fight corruption. In particular, such simplification can be illustrated by focusing only on the fraudulent maneuvers of the notorious corrupt officials, who have been in power for too long, usually representatives of the previous government. They become targets for investigation. This is not good or bad. I hope that most of those who come under investigation are indeed corrupt, and their prosecution is not for political reason. However, even if all those investigations are honest and professional, focusing solely on this method of fighting corruption is not enough, since corruption had become a customary way of life for a large number of citizens, it is a way, in which our society is used to solving its problems. It’s part of the cultural code and a lifestyle of a great number of people. Opinion polls show that many citizens do not even consider corruption to be dishonest, including relationships in the healthcare system and education, where bribes are a standard practice. In other words, daily, routine corruption at the grassroots level is often shyly concealed as being irrelevant. It is not coming to the spotlight, because if politicians pay attention to this kind of corruption, they risk losing their rating. Respectively, very few politicians are ready to bring a question to the political agenda as to how we can overcome those habitual practices that make us tolerate corruption, create a great deal of corruption practices in all domains of public life. Moreover, focusing only on the problem of corruption among the country’s top elites leads us to believing that the phenomenon of corruption is an unalienable attribute of the political class. As a result, this makes the gap between the citizens and the elites even wider, which, in its turn, becomes a nourishing ground for populists who say: “You are very cool people, but there are bad corrupt politicians out there. Let’s kick them out, all those corrupt ruling classes, who are, in fact, to blame for ordinary people’s life hardships”. However, we should not be blind to ordinary people’s habitual practices, believing that they have impeccably clean relationships with the state. In fact, interaction with the state authorities is the most corruption-prone area. We really have a problem of corruption among the top elites of the country, and perhaps it is a fundamental problem, and we need to start addressing it from the top. As a matter of fact, that has been started. But at the same time, we must be more honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the problem of corruption is much deeper than the problem of corruption among the ruling class, and it must be solved not only by putting the most notorious figures to jail, but also by education, the introduction of a certain culture of intolerance to corruption practices, and then, perhaps, the problem of fighting corruption will become less manipulative, less politicized. We will be able to ensure greater results, when, indeed, the phenomenon of corruption becomes less frequent in our daily life.

– But is it possible to overcome every day corruption that is deeply rooted in our mentality with the help of reforms?

– Step by step. I’m not an idealist leaving in dreams. I understand that this a problem of generations, but if we go this way, we have a chance to significantly suppress corruption and bring it to the level, when this phenomenon no longer poses an existential threat to our society and its further development. In other words, for example, a few decades ago, Italy was considered a corruption-ridden country. You can still hear about all kinds of corruption incidents in this country nowadays, but this cannot be compared to what was happening 20, 30 or 40 years ago. So, I think, if we go along the same path, then in the 20-30 years, we would have a completely different situation.

– Since 2014, a number of reforms were launched in Ukraine. In your opinion, which reforms were successful?

– Answering this question, I admit that there are no criteria for the success or failure of the reforms. In the end of the day, the person, who starts the reform is better positioned to actually see its results, knowing the enormously difficult path, which they had to go through to achieve them, whereas those individuals who stay aside and do not see the process from within, accordingly, might not be able to see the results, and the reform does not significantly alter their life. One of the ways to measure the success of reform is to check its recognition by the society. In this case, the situation is bad, because opinion polls shows that, on the one hand, people really want reforms, but on the other hand, they do not support specific reforms. Why? Because reforms make them go out of their comfort zone. Typically, reforms that affect the entire society may be unpopular. For example, I fully understand why the healthcare reform is unpopular. But that doesn’t mean it’s unsuccessful. To a great extent, it changed the way patients interact with the primary care provider, and some find it uncomfortable. But at the same time, it is a very important reform, without which we would have been stuck without a progress for many years in the system that was completely flawed. This is an example of the reform, which is unpopular, but very useful at the same time.

Public procurement reform. You can also say that most of our society does not notice it, because people do not deal with this in their everyday life. Nothing seems to have changed, but in fact there have been tremendous changes. Clearly, corruption and theft have remained in the public procurement system, as corrupt officials seem to be able to adapt to any situation. However, the situation has changed dramatically, and it is acknowledged by the independent international experts, who we can trust as a reliable source in this situation, because they have no reason to exaggerate. Therefore, we can say that the public procurement reform is a classic example of the reform success.

An important step forward is the decentralization reform. The amount of money that went down there, to the regions, is very impressive. Do people on the ground notice these changes? This is often the case, but not always, because at the grassroots level there are not always enough skilled individuals, who are able to use opportunities offered by the decentralization reform. In many places there are already visible results of decentralization in the form of new roads, schools, local infrastructure that have never been there before. But you do not find it everywhere. You do not find skilled managers everywhere; as a result, citizens cannot fully benefit from this reform. We also know that this reform has not been finished yet. The process was put on hold at the stage of the voluntary amalgamation of communities. In places, where there was no will for such community amalgamation, everything remained unchanged, so citizens cannot feel the reform. Hence, now the state is on the verge of making a very important yet painful decision to force the amalgamation of the rest of communities, and then this reform will be completed. However, even then, the problems caused by the lack of skilled individuals at the community level will not be solved.

Civil service reform. We have done a lot to make the civil service more professional. It is another reform, which millions of citizens will not be able to see. This reform is about how our state apparatus is set up. In other words, on the one hand, a great deal of work has been done under the new Civil Service Law, thousands of job competitions were held to fill in job positions. However, any reform, once it starts, does not immediately bring its results. And very often competitions are won by people who are either not very honest, or not very professional. Hence, some politicians conclude that the reform failed because the wrong people were chosen to take it forward. Now a new government is set to completely re-launch this reform, in particular by dismissing some civil servants, whereas in fact those civil servants should not be dismissed, as long as it a professional civil service, not a political one. The big dilemma now is how to gauge the civil service reform.

Reform of the new Ukrainian school and developments under the new Law on Education have turned out to be quite successful. In other terms, there is a very good continuity between the former and current leadership of the Ministry of Education and Science. There is still much work to be done. A new teacher is yet to be formed, and this requires the teacher education reform, a daunting task, on which our Foundation is also working. Step by step, school education begins to approach the real needs of school-age children to prepare them for life, rather than simply packing them with information from different subjects.

– What areas of activity will the International Renaissance Foundation focus on in the future?

– Civil society being our main partner, we will clearly continue to be driven by this sector’s needs. As regards the civil society itself, it will have to become more self-reliant, more able to attract new active groups of the population, to motivate people to participate on a daily basis, taking responsibility for their life. Therefore, if we talk about philosophical base of our strategy, I would say that is to help develop a sustainable, self-reliant civil society that is capable of managing their concerns, addressing their problem issues at both national and grassroots levels, through education, assistance in NGOs capacity building, through the creation of platforms for experience exchange, through various exchange programs and other methods. We are going to support projects that, in our opinion, prove their value as a civic initiative, being very important for the communities involved. Clearly, human rights protection will remain our priority. This is our eternal topic. We base ourselves on the assumption that human rights are above all, and no one has the right to encroach on human dignity and freedom. We will certainly help the state in those areas, where the state will require our assistance and where our values and strategic priorities coincide. There are quite many areas, where we can work together, including the reforms already named, as well as assistance in the realm of European integration and promotion of Ukraine’s interests abroad. We work very hard to ensure that opinion leaders abroad help us advance Ukraine’s interests and that Ukrainian leaders have the opportunity to convey their views to foreign audiences.

Oksana DUDAR

Photo: IA


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