As war wanes, Ukraine faced with new battle against corruption

KIEV, UKRAINE — Fingers crossed. That was the silent reaction of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to the question of what might happen after the U.S. presidential election, which could put in office a leader more likely to ship Ukraine the defensive weaponry it has been requesting for a year.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomes U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, during their meeting in Kiev on Friday.

Deep into a conflict with Russia, Ukraine is facing an unfamiliar moment: a cease-fire in the nation’s rebellious eastern territories that, for the first time since it was signed in February, is finally being obeyed. Poroshenko may be on the brink of a new era in his presidency — maintaining international focus on Ukraine’s military needs while beginning a new battle at home against corruption. Critics are worried that he may fail at both.
Poroshenko will visit New York this month for the U.N. General Assembly session. While there, he will keep pressing for increased military aid, but the biggest help Ukraine needs from the United States right now is maintaining “transatlantic unity” over ­sanctions on Russia, Poroshenko said in an interview in a gilt-and-
baby-blue room in his Soviet-era presidential administration building.
“Russia has made a decision, I don’t know for how long, but now, to give the strict order to stop the firing,” Poroshenko said. “We have zero shelling on the touch line. Zero.” It’s the first time that has happened since the conflict started a year and a half ago, he said. The Kremlin denies Western and Ukrainian allegations that it is fueling the war.
Poroshenko suggested that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin is trying to stir up trouble inside Ukraine. Two weeks ago, three security officers died outside the parliament building after an attack by far-right protesters. Putin has understood “that his direct attack on the front is not successful,” Poroshenko said, and sanctions have hit Russia harder than the Kremlin expected.
So Putin “tried to switch the tactic and tried to destabilize the situation from the inside,” he said.
Poroshenko spoke as colleagues and allies gathered to defend and criticize the year-old government’s progress at the annual Yalta European Strategy conference, Ukraine’s answer to the annual World Economic Forum meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. Displaced from Crimea after the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March last year, it is now held in Kiev.
The fighting has quieted down — for now — but leaders at the conference said they feared perpetual instability in the east, along with waning interest from the United States and Europe. Early last week, French President François Hollande raised the idea of lifting sanctions against Russia just a few days after shelling started to ease.
“The situation now is going in the direction of a frozen conflict, neither peace nor war, and this is of course in the interests of our neighbor,” said Leonid Kuchma, a former president of Ukraine who has been a lead Ukrainian cease-fire negotiator.
Poroshenko’s advisers said that since taking office in June last year, he has been forced to spend much of his time focused on military matters. That has limited his ability to undertake reforms, to the frustration of some of his allies. Critics say war has been used as an excuse for inaction.
Now the cease-fire in the east is putting pressure on Kiev to fight the corruption that reformers say lingers almost two years after Ukraine’s pro-Western protests ignited in late 2013.
Even amid war, some lower-level leaders have been working to fight the corruption that was a focal point of the protests. Progress has been halting, and the country has been divided by infighting. Some of the most prominent reformers say they have been stymied at every turn. With local elections planned for Oct. 25, the political stakes to deliver on reforms are high.
Entrenched bureaucrats at all levels of government cling to old bribe-taking ways. Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs still buy off members of parliament, critics say. Attempts to change laws, some of which date to the Soviet era, are thwarted by legislative maneuvers that bury some bills in committee and amend others until they lose their bite.
Reformers have been particularly critical of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom some see as blocking legislation that would overturn the old system. Yatsenyuk says he is working on reforms as hard as anyone, and Poroshenko says the prime minister’s job is secure.
But other changes are in motion. For two months now, a new police force has been patrolling the streets in Kiev and a handful of other cities, in an attempt to put an end to the corrosive practices under which police officers have been better known for demanding bribes than for enforcing laws.
The fresh new recruits were trained in just 10 weeks, and in July they hit Kiev’s streets in a new fleet of Toyota Priuses. They have been popular with the public, and taking selfies with the black-clad officers has become a new pastime. Videos of police officers staying calm in the face of danger have gone viral.
The challenges are everywhere. Opponents of police reform have battled it in parliament, and the person hired to spearhead the effort, First Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, said she doesn’t have information as basic as crime statistics to help her determine where resources need to be concentrated.
“Some statistics I trust,” Zguladze said, referring to those from the new patrol force. “How many cases are registered, nobody knows,” she said. One distressing habit of the old police force, she found, was to reclassify murder cases as suicides so that they could be declared solved. This fall, she plans to start work on overhauling criminal investigations, carried out by a behind-the-scenes apparatus that few people see.
Zguladze, who is Georgian, served a similar role in her native country in the reformist government of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, after protests ousted that nation’s post-Soviet leadership in 2003.
Saakashvili himself has been transplanted to Ukraine, working since May as a regional governor in the Black Sea port of Odessa. There, he has been trying to root out corruption, but he is quickly losing faith in national leaders’ interest in implementing changes.
“People don’t see great results for themselves,” Saakashvili said at the conference. “The whole thing is going toward disintegration.”
Some critics say that many of the old corrupt faces remain in government and in bureaucracies.
“They are putting in position the same people, just in different jobs,” said Mustafa Nayyem, a journalist-turned-member of parliament who is the deputy head of Poroshenko’s political party. He said that a “peaceful third Maidan” was in the air, a reference to the central Kiev square where he helped lead protests in 2013 and 2014 to oust leaders seen as corrupt and in thrall to Russia.
This time, Nayyem said, revolution will come not on the streets of Kiev but in the corridors of power, where young reformers have finally gained a toehold.
“You can feel it,” he said.

The Washington Post
13 September 2015