Improved economic performance and ongoing stalemate in the civil war are the backdrop to a new political struggle between the West-backed government of President Poroshenko and the two-year-old National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, so called “clans” of oligarchs have run the country, controlling large media outlets, powerful parliament blocs, private armies and parts of the security forces, and even in some cases maintaining strong ties to organized crime, particularly in the country’s south and southeastern regions.
Now West-imposed anti-corruption reforms are making political and business elites nervous after a string of high-profile sting operations and arrests. Tensions are rising between the anti-corruption agency and its political masters, who are accused of using Ukraine’s courts and the security services to derail its work, all the while passing motions in parliament to weaken NABU. Over this period, the West’s ability to pressure the Ukrainian establishment has declined in part because Ukraine’s improved economic performance makes it less dependent on outside assistance.
Up until recently, the Trump administration has focused more on Ukraine’s outward security situation and less on the domestic fight against corruption. However, the U.S. has come out strongly behind NABU in this most recent fight dominating the headlines in Kiev.
Corruption remains a hot-button issue with mass appeal. When Ukrainians rose up against their autocratic president Viktor Yanukovych during the Euromaidan protests of almost four years ago, it was a revolution not just against the pro-Russia shift Yanukovych seemed to have made in his foreign policy choices (the first protests began after Yanukovych announced he was suspending Ukraine’s years-long pursuit of a Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement). The Euromaidan movement was also an uprising against the massive corruption which had long plagued Ukraine’s politics, and which intensified spectacularly under the rule of Yanukovych, who headed an infamously opportunistic clan known as “the Family.”