- - Friday, September 25, 2015

KIEV, Ukraine — Svitlana meets me at the building entrance, sharply dressed and professional. I find out later that she is a volunteer, hoping to earn a position at the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). She takes me down the long corridor to the office of Artem Sytnyk, newly appointed head of the recently established organization. There is hustle in the air, as offices are being remodeled, an optimism that Ukraine maybe has not felt before. Mr. Sytnyk’s office is business-like and commanding, like a prosecutor’s office should be.

There is a line of well-dressed young men waiting in the outer area. I assume they are candidates for employment, all hoping to obtain a slot as a detective, analyst, or one of the 700 newly created positions at NABU. Mr. Sytnyk greets me and we sit down with a translator for 40 minutes, discussing the monumental challenges ahead of him.

He strikes me as very professional, motivated, serious, young, and vibrant, all qualities that he will need as he tries to save Ukraine from itself.

Ukraine has gone through several iterations of attempting to rid the systemic corruption instilled into the economy and culture after decades as part of the Soviet Union. Since independence in the ‘90s, multiple governments have attempted to tackle such a leviathan only to fail. The country is still an oligarchy, run by several wealthy, powerful interests who have no desire to see the situation change and their ox be gored. One gets wealthy in Ukraine by milking connections and influence in government. The government in turn enables the system and the cash keeps flowing under the table. Many international investors, that Ukraine desperately needs to jumpstart its moribund economy, are leaving. The corruption is just too enmeshed into the fabric of life here. Everyone gets a cut, a bribe. Its how the system has always worked as long as anyone can remember. That makes it very hard to start a business, to be creative, to innovate. It’s stifling.

For Ukraine to be saved, Mr. Sytnyk must tackles endemic corruption at the highest levels of power. Judges, politicians, prosecutors, police, they all must be cleansed. Otherwise, Ukraine will continue to slide economically and culturally, possibly turning into a failed state.

The Euromaidan Revolution of early 2014 was supposed to change all this. Former President Yanukovych, caught with golden toilets and loaves of bread of the precious metal, fled to Russia, his family stealing billions from the Ukrainian people. The new president, Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch himself, faces pressure from the people for reform. Hence at the prodding of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and global donors, NABU was officially born early this year. Mr. Sytnyk was appointed in April.

I ask if he is getting the resources he needs, does he feel pressure, can he operate independently? “The resources are provided by law. We have what we need. We have no need for support. We are independent of any other governmental agency, as it should be for our work,” he says.

Mr. Sytnyk points out that he has to report to the branches of government every six months on his progress. His first report was in early August, although they had just started and did not have much to discuss.

The personnel issues are dominant at this point in their creation. Hundreds of detectives must be vetted, hired and trained. They have hired 70 so far. There are a total of 110 employees on board at this point, and they hope to be at 550 by year’s end. The vetting process is grueling with psychological, IQ, lie-detector tests, background checks, and so on. However, they are moving as fast as possible and are on schedule. An internal undercover and SWAT team are also integrated into the bureau, as well as research and analytical staff.

The biggest challenge Mr. Sytnyk faces is to have the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office stood up and functioning. “We cannot start our work until that happens. They are behind schedule and will delay our progress at least for two months.” This is the one time in the interview where becomes animated, the emotion pouring out of him. I can’t help but wondering if this is an intentional outcome on someone’s part, someone with an ox that should be gored.

The main focus of the planned, initial start date in October of this year will be on high-level government employees. There are no plans to go after private-sector corruption at this point but that could change down the road. “If terror financing is uncovered, it will be dealt with,” Mr. Sytnyk says. Apparently there is not a focus on organized crime from Russia at this point either.

The bureau has spoken to former Georgian President Saakashvili, now governor of Odessa, historically the most corrupt region of Ukraine. “I have told Saakashvili that the bureau’s first local office will be opened in Odessa,” Mr. Sytnyk says. “Our first deputy director is from Georgia,” he adds. “They had much success fighting corruption there and we hope to emulate that success with proven tactics.”

I ask him about his dealings with the IMF and if they have been supportive and helpful. A genuine smile spreads across his face. “Yes, they have been extremely helpful and we consider them our friends.” It seems like he means that.

The future of Ukraine rides on the success of Mr. Sytnyk actually making progress reforming the system, in some ways, even more than the actions of the president. His salary is only $2,800 per month. “It is enough. You should not get rich working for the government. If you want to be rich, go to the private sector,” Mr. Sytnyk reportedly said upon taking office.

“We are optimistic. Come back in a few months and check our progress,” he tells me as we leave. I think I’ll take him up on that.

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