KYIV -- Ukraine's revolutionary electronic asset-declaration system has been praised by the country’s Western partners and local anticorruption activists as a crowning achievement of the post-Maidan government.
But those same partners and activists have more recently warned that the transparency project is being undermined and used as a tool to quash the work of government critics.
Alarm bells began ringing well before Ukrainian lawmakers on April 3 failed to pass laws that would abolish subsequent e-declaration requirements for activists and NGOs who fight against entrenched corruption that were signed into law by President Petro Poroshenko last summer.
Proponents of the NGO requirements argued they were needed to promote transparency.
But the U.S. State Department and European Union representatives said otherwise of the NGO requirements, and urged Ukrainian officials to repeal them as soon as possible. They said the requirements would put undue burdens on those NGOs and activists, and hamper their work.
The e-declaration system was designed to help prevent corruption by granting the public and anticorruption watchdogs access to income and asset information of Ukrainian public servants who are involved in handling money from the state budget.
The alarms are growing louder now.
“Colleagues, frankly this is one of those days when, unfortunately, I am ashamed of our decisions,” parliamentary speaker Andriy Parubiy told lawmakers inside the Verkhovna Rada after the failed votes.
Lawmaker and anticorruption campaigner Serhiy Leshchenko said afterward that Poroshenko, who had called for the NGO law to be scrapped but failed to get most members of his own political faction and those of its coalition partner to vote to repeal it, was playing a “cynical game” that would “destroy Ukraine’s relations with partners in the West.”
“If only Ukraine’s politicians showed as much zeal at fighting corruption within their own ranks as they do in going after civil society organizations,” tweeted Michael Carpenter, the senior director at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and former deputy assistant secretary of defense. “Sadly, it’s blindingly obvious why they don’t.”
Ukraine’s anticorruption activists and NGOs were given until April 1 to file their assets and income in e-declarations, or else face prosecution. Some did, including the head of Transparency International’s Ukraine office, Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, and Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) leaders Daria Kaleniuk and Vitaliy Shabunin.
“We have fulfilled the law, no matter how absurd it was,” Shabunin said in a video published on March 30.
According to accounting done by the Kyiv Post newspaper, Shabunin disclosed 889,543 hryvnya ($33,800) in income at the current exchange rate -- a fraction of what many Ukrainian officials make.
As expected, attacks meant to discredit the activists began almost immediately afterward, with populist lawmakers taking the lead.
Radical Party lawmaker Ihor Mosiychuk called them “foreign agents,” echoing the label assigned by the Russian government to describe NGOs there who receive outside funding.
“Those so-called antigraft activists have been working in Ukraine for foreign money, helping to turn Ukraine into a raw material base for the rest of the world,” Mosiychuk said, according to the Kyiv Post.
His party leader, Oleh Lyashko, is among those who the activists have accused of corruption in connection with dubious private lottery winnings amounting to 570,000 hryvnya (roughly $21,660) and personal income of 20 million hryvnya ($760,000), despite having no business interest for years.
On Facebook, Anastasia Krasnosilska, another AntAC activist, expressed disappointment that public attention was now on the declarations of those working to combat corruption instead of on the declarations of public officials and the creation of an anticorruption court needed to prosecute those charged with corruption-related crimes.
“The government has achieved its goal with e-declarations” for NGOs, she conceded.