Russia’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine has now become a political and economic calamity for the Kremlin. Having developed over decades a climate of servitude to the will of controlled oligarchs and autocrats, Russia has now lost any grip it may have had on Ukraine’s political and economic future. The long and deep shadow of acquiescing to cronyism and bribes, a holdover from the days of the Soviet Union, is being wiped away. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s commitment to ethical change is being fortified by measures to reform the judiciary, to establish codes of conduct, and to show unbending intolerance at even a hint of profiteering at the highest levels of government, business, and society. The weaponization of corruption by Russia as a tool for domination is being razed, but more must be accomplished. (READ MORE: Ukraine, Sudan, and the Electric Army)
It is the lifting of the culture of corruption that will create a defining moment.
Effectively, corruption has been a way of life for many Ukrainians all their lives. Its systemic roots have been built on a belief that to get through life, bribes had to be paid to vendors for groceries, medical providers for health care, government officials for permits, admissions officers for access to education, and more. The problem has been so deeply entrenched that many Ukrainians never realized that their world of exploitation was not shared by other nations. In effect, they have been hapless victims of economic crime and corruption.
And what have been the results? According to the World Bank, Ukraine stands as the poorest country in Europe. Its per capita income before the war was about $4,000 compared to neighboring Poland, with which it shares a 330-mile border, at $17,000. This is a remarkable comparison when one realizes that in 1990 Ukraine and Poland had similar economies and rates of growth. What changed for both countries was the influence of the restrictive yolk, or lack thereof, by Russia. Poland, which had been a satellite country of the Soviet Union after World War II, broke away from Russia. In turn, it made some very hard, painful decisions that included everything from creating economic decentralization to establishing a convertible currency. The carrot of being named a member of the European Union provided strong incentive, an aspiration that Ukraine is working toward today.
Despite the pall of corruption, however, Ukraine possesses the stuff of a major European economy. Rich farmlands, enviable mineral resources, a well-developed industrial base, a highly trained labor force, and a strong education system hold great promise for the country’s future. When it becomes a member of the EU, it will geographically become the union’s largest country, and its influence will increase more than ever. (RELATED: Russia’s Perpetual Culture of Death)
But it is the lifting of the culture of corruption that will create a defining moment. If continued efforts can be instituted that allow the Ukrainian people and the world to realize the country is no longer open for political and economic cronyism, and if the war with Russia continues to pivot to either a stalemate or some final resolution, the world will beat a pathway to Ukraine’s door.
Efforts to reform government oversight and establish a moral compass in the conduct of the daily life of the country are critical. At the same time, “top to bottom” reform can only solve part of the problem. It will be vitally important that the systemic, cultural cancer of corruption be uprooted and taught in classrooms, workplaces, and government offices across the country.
Students, government officials, and business executives who have lived in a world of graft and exploitation must be shown the way toward, formalizing the nation’s new moral compass for both individual and national gain. Showing the Ukrainian people the importance of ethics, transparency, and accountability in their lives and the life of the country will produce indisputable results in both the short and long term. Establishing a nationwide ethics program of “Ukrainian Vision” will offer a critical front in fighting the remnants of Russia’s weaponization of corruption.
The stakes are high and the struggles difficult, but with these steps, Ukraine can have a future that will be promising and assured.
James P. Moore Jr. is the founder and CEO of the Washington Institute for Business, Government, and Society and was the chief negotiator for the United States in the last trade and economic agreement with the Soviet Union in 1998.