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Beyond reconstruction: advocating for a paradigm shift in post-war Ukraine

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By Anders Pettersson

· 7 min read

The inevitable aftermath of war may herald the arrival of peace, yet the permanent scars it leaves on a nation necessitate a response that transcends conventional recovery and reconstruction. As Ukraine confronts the aftermath of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent full-scale invasion in 2022, the imperative for change beckons.

This critical moment demands more than the customary 'build back better' philosophy. Instead, Ukraine should harness the opportunity for a profound societal transformation. Here is where civil society plays a pivotal role. In the words of John Stuart Mill, “The worth of a state in the long run is the worth of the individuals composing it.”

The global community's commitment to rebuilding Ukraine and its infrastructure has garnered widespread attention. With most of the world condemning Russia's full-scale invasion, support for Ukraine has translated into a reshaping of foreign policy agendas, manifesting in pledges of trillions of dollars and euros over the coming decades.

However grand, such an unprecedented influx of political and financial intervention, reminiscent of the Marshall Plan, offers opportunities but is not without its pitfalls. Chief among such hazards is the potential for foul play and corruption. This magnitude of resources injected into the reconstruction effort necessitates a vigilant approach to address the looming spectre of corruption – a challenge that has plagued Ukraine for decades. The urgency to tackle this issue is amplified by its pervasive influence on governance, the economy, and the social fabric. The post-war landscape should not view corruption as a mere byproduct of conflict; rather, it should be acknowledged as a pre-existing problem. 

A transformative strategy in the aftermath of war demands the eradication of this deeply ingrained issue, with a simultaneous cultivation of transparency, accountability, and ethical governance, based on universal human rights and the general principles of a liberal democracy. It is in promoting such values that a vibrant, independent, and strong civil society plays a central role.

After spending a week in Kyiv to meet with representatives from the UN, EU, and members of civil society working as independent journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders, and considering Ukraine’s recent history, several thoughts are reinforced. These go beyond acknowledging the people’s robust resistance and resilience built over time since the illegal annexation of Crimea that took place in the relative power vacuum immediately following the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.

Political will for transformation

The first step in a transformative journey includes the highest echelons of government acknowledging a significant impediment to progress towards a future Ukraine that is free and democratic, and assigning it a definitive label – corruption. Political commitment, acting as the catalyst for transformation, must be the cornerstone of this endeavour. It is imperative for leaders to not only acknowledge the absolute need to address and hopefully eradicate corruption as a post-war imperative but also to recognize it as a foundational prerequisite for constructing a resilient and prosperous nation.

While not perfect, there are two good regional examples of fighting corruption effectively. In the early 2000s, Georgia (now also partly occupied and covertly influenced by Russia) faced widespread corruption and a lack of public trust in institutions. The government implemented a series of sweeping reforms, including the dismissal of the entire traffic police force, reducing bureaucracy, and leveraging technology to automate public services. These efforts contributed to a significant reduction in corruption levels, and Georgia has since been recognized for its progress in fighting corruption. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), Georgia went from being ranked 124 of 180 countries in 2004 to being ranked 45 in 2021.

Before that, in 1991, and following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia faced corruption issues in its transition to a market economy. However, the country implemented comprehensive reforms, including the digitization of public services, e-governance initiatives, and a commitment to transparency. These measures contributed to Estonia's success in combating corruption and fostering a business-friendly environment.

As part of the post-war transformation, Ukraine should institute concrete initiatives to streamline legislation, fortify regulatory frameworks, and bolster independent institutions entrusted with the crucial task of combating corruption.

Strengthening anti-corruption institutions and empowering civil society

For too long, anti-corruption agencies in Ukraine have been weak, lacking the power and resources to tackle the pervasive corruption effectively. A post-war transformation demands the reinvigoration of these institutions. This includes providing them with sufficient autonomy, resources, and investigative powers to hold both public officials and private entities accountable. Additionally, fostering international partnerships and collaboration can bring in expertise and support, reinforcing the fight against corruption on a global scale.

Civil society also plays a crucial role in holding the government accountable. A transformational approach must involve empowering civil society organisations, giving them the tools and resources to monitor government actions, report corruption, and advocate for systemic change. By fostering a culture of civic engagement, Ukraine can build a society that actively participates in the decision-making process, ensuring that corruption has no place to hide.

Implementing technological solutions

Embracing technology can be a game-changer in the fight against corruption. Digital platforms, as in the case of post-Soviet Estonia, can enhance transparency in government processes, making it more difficult for corrupt practices to go unnoticed. Blockchain technology, for instance, can be employed to secure public records, ensure their integrity, and reduce the likelihood of manipulation. Embracing e-governance not only increases efficiency but also creates a paperless environment that minimizes opportunities for corruption.

Overhauling the judicial system

A transformed post-war Ukraine requires a judicial system that is robust, independent, and free from corruption. Reforms in the judiciary should include merit-based appointments, regular training to keep judges updated on evolving legal standards, and mechanisms to ensure accountability within the judicial branch.

An effective and impartial judiciary is essential for prosecuting corrupt individuals, regardless of their positions of power. Understanding Ukraine’s desire for a path to becoming a member of the EU, an effective and impartial judiciary is also a cornerstone of a liberal democracy.

Fostering an ethical business environment and educational reforms

Given that the private sector plays a central role in any post-war effort in Ukraine and recognizing that it often is within the realm of public-private sphere that corruption takes place a post-war transformation should foster ethical practices and corporate social responsibility. Implementing and enforcing anti-corruption measures within businesses, coupled with incentives for ethical behaviour, can contribute to a culture of integrity that permeates every level of society.

Transformation begins with the individual, and education is the catalyst for change. Integrating ethics education into the curriculum can instill values of integrity, honesty, and responsibility in the younger generation. By cultivating a sense of ethical citizenship, Ukraine can lay the foundation for a society that rejects corruption and actively contributes to building a just and accountable nation.

International cooperation and assistance

Ukraine's transformation cannot happen in isolation. International cooperation is vital in providing the necessary support, both financial and technical, for the implementation of anti-corruption measures. Building alliances with countries that have successfully tackled corruption can provide valuable insights and mentorship. Furthermore, engaging with international organizations dedicated to anti-corruption efforts can offer Ukraine a platform to share experiences and learn from global best practices.

In summary, as Ukraine emerges from the shadows of war, the nation stands at a crossroads. The conventional path of reconstruction may address immediate physical needs, but it will fall short of addressing the systemic issues that have long hindered progress.

In the aftermath of emergencies, recovery and reconstruction offer a unique transformational opportunity to also address societal inequalities. By prioritizing inclusive policies, promoting equitable resource distribution, and mitigating pre-existing disparities, governments can lay the foundation for a more just and resilient society. Initiatives such as targeted employment programs, educational reforms, and healthcare accessibility enhancements uplift marginalized communities. Transparent and participatory decision-making processes empower vulnerable populations, ensuring their voices are heard in rebuilding efforts. Strategic investments in infrastructure and social services further bridge gaps, fostering long-term resilience. For example, rebuilding destroyed schools and public transportation systems can make these more inclusive and accessible, irrespective of gender or abilities.

Embracing this transformative opportunity not only accelerates recovery but also establishes a foundation for a more just and equitable society emerging from adversity.

A post-war transformation, focusing on the eradication of corruption, is not just a choice but a necessity for Ukraine's sustainable future. By prioritizing political will, strengthening institutions, empowering civil society, embracing technology, overhauling the judicial system, fostering ethical business practices, implementing educational reforms, and seeking international cooperation, Ukraine can pave the way for a new era of transparency, accountability, and prosperity. The scars of war may never fully fade, but a transformed society can rise from the ashes, resilient and unyielding in its pursuit of a better future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Anders L. Pettersson is Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders, an independent and international human rights organisation with headquarters in Stockholm, Sweden

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