Police Facelift and Gem Raids Can’t Buff Ukraine’s Graft Record

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In Kiev, locals take snaps of the city’s revamped police force, complete with U.S.-style blue uniforms and smiles. Across town, camouflage-clad officers in masks lay out piles of $100 bills and diamonds seized from officials.

Events in Ukraine’s capital have some residents wondering whether the clampdown on corruption they’ve been itching for since the Soviet demise is finally under way. Failures by a string of governments to stem bribery and embezzlement contributed to two revolutions in a decade as the nation slid down graft rankings.

Improving transparency is key to maintaining aid from the U.S. and Europe to Ukraine’s economy, which is buckling under a rising debt burden and a war with pro-Russian insurgents. But look beyond the pomp and showcase raids in Kiev and the authorities still have their work cut out -- from overhauling the judiciary to cleaning up the customs service. A shootout this month over tobacco smuggling underscored the task.

“People aren’t punished for corruption because the law-enforcement agencies and courts tasked with detaining them are completely corrupt,” said Oleksii Khmara, Berlin-based Transparency International’s representative in Ukraine. “The European Union and the U.S. gave the government an ultimatum: do what’s needed or say goodbye to the money.”

‘Enormous Problems’

The raid in Kiev is a case in point. While it netted $400,000 in cash, 39 bags of diamonds and a Kalashnikov rifle from two prosecutors accused of bribe-taking, a court later freed the men on bail. David Sakvarelidze, the deputy chief prosecutor lured from Georgia after a successful anti-graft drive there, said the judge was inappropriately lenient.

Prosecutors and the judiciary face the brunt of criticism.

Two prosecutor generals have left amid graft allegations since protests ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and found a den of corruption at his residence. Ex-officials, who like the former president deny wrongdoing, have gone unpunished for crimes including killing demonstrators.

The courts fare similarly. Allies of Yanukovych have been bailed and allowed to slip into Russia, though prosecutors said Thursday that they’re seeking the arrest of a former justice minister. A search in June of offices belonging to a Kiev court official unearthed guns, $8,000 cash and vouchers for 14.5 tons of fuel.

Even Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who took office 1 1/2 years ago, says there have been delays in tackling “enormous problems” in the judiciary and prosecutors office.

Smuggling Tunnel

“We have to change the entire court system,” Yatsenyuk said this month in London. “We need someone not just to be arrested but behind bars, sitting in jail. That’s the best proof that things have changed.”

Yatsenyuk plans to hire a British company to manage the customs service in four of Ukraine’s 24 regions. He’s also ordered a review of the local service in Mukacheve, a town near EU member Hungary, after a gun battle over contraband cigarette flows.

The deadly clash between police and nationalist paramilitaries enraged Ukrainians, prompting President Petro Poroshenko to install a regional governor who’d fought graft in Ukraine’s war-torn east. He’ll have his work cut out: a 600-meter smuggling tunnel to Slovakia was discovered there in 2012, complete with railway tracks. Hungarian prosecutors are charging 18 local police officers with supporting tobacco smuggling across the border.

Old Habits

While Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perceptions gauge barely registered a difference in Ukraine, there’s been some progress.

Parliament approved legislation sought by the International Monetary Fund under a $17.5 billion bailout, including greater autonomy for an anti-corruption body. Recommendations by the Council of Europe also passed.

Some initiatives will take time, such as the police revamp that includes wholesale personnel replacement, like in Kiev. U.S. officers visit to train new recruits.

“It’s clear you can’t make those changes overnight,” William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, said July 17 during a conference call.

The changes in Kiev have ridden the city of its notoriously corrupt police force and pleased locals such as Nazar Khudoba, a 30-year-old taxi driver involved in a minor accident last week. Even so, some deem it inevitable that the officers will pick up their predecessors’ habits.

“They have cameras on them so they can’t take anything,” Khudoba said. “But I’m sure that if they are in a forest and someone would offer them $2,000, they’d take it. They’ll learn later how to take bribes because it’s in the mentality -- they’re just new.”

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