The Guardian view on tackling corruption in Ukraine: welcome action

The “rally round the flag effect” is well established: faced with an external threat, support for a country’s government and leaders usually surges. It is no surprise that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted former critics of Volodymyr Zelenskiy to mute themselves. Not only has his performance as war leader inspired loyalty; no one wants to aid Moscow’s propagandists.

That does not equate, however, to giving the government a free pass. Mr Zelenskiy knows it. In the last few days, 15 senior officials have quit or been sacked, six of them after allegations of corruption, and the Ukrainian president has declared a zero-tolerance approach. The former deputy minister of infrastructure, Vasyl Lozinskyi, was detained by anti-corruption investigators and fired. Prosecutors accused him of inflating the price of winter equipment, including generators, and allegedly siphoning off $400,000. He has made no comment on the allegations. Vyacheslav Shapovalov, the deputy minister of defence, stepped down following allegations that his ministry was paying inflated prices for food for soldiers on his watch. He has not admitted to any wrongdoing.

“I want this to be clear: there will be no return to what used to be in the past,” the president said. Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the second most corrupt country in Europe in 2021, behind only Russia. With Republicans in Congress calling for an audit of US aid, and concern that support across the west could falter as the cost of living crisis continues, Mr Zelenskiy is anxious to maintain foreign backing. But his actions reflect Ukrainian priorities too. Several of the cases came to light due to the courageous work of journalists. Civil society too has worked hard to raise standards. And polls show that public tolerance of corruption has fallen sharply: people chafe at ministers living large when others are making such sacrifices. The leading anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin suggests that there is an unspoken contract: in exchange for not criticising the authorities openly, the public expect them to deal decisively with the issue.

Institutional change is needed, as well as the targeting of individuals. The head of Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency has spelled out what is needed. First, the government should adopt a three-year anti-corruption strategy that would put extra auditing requirements on recovery and rebuilding projects – as it was supposed to do by 10 January. Second, political parties should resume filing financial declarations. Third, he argues, the mandatory registration of officials’ identities and incomes – suspended last year due to concerns about Russian forces targeting them – should restart after the tightening of internet security to ensure the register remains confidential.

In the midst of war, it is perhaps understandable that these issues have not been at the top of the agenda. But for Ukraine to win, it must maintain both domestic and foreign support, and that requires getting it right on the home front as well as the battlefront. Action is needed not only to maintain unity, but because this is what Ukrainians are fighting for: a country that they can take pride in, and which values and respects them.