Fight corruption, support Ukraine
Reconstruction challenges in Kharkiv
By Yevhen Lisichkin, co-founder of Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center
and Brian Dooley
Corruption, say people in Ukraine, is the second most serious problem facing the country. Only the full-scale war launched by Russia is more serious.
A new survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) with the support of USAID found that 94% of people in Ukraine see corruption as widespread through the country, and more people think it has increased than decreased since the Russian invasion last year.
The most serious type of corruption identified is political corruption. The issue is gaining increased prominence, and last week President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addressed it in his nightly TV broadcast to the country. “No one will forgive members of parliament, judges, military officials or any other officials for placing themselves in opposition to the state,” he said in the broadcast.
There have been important successes in Ukraine’s fight against corruption. One is the creation of an online public procurement platform that makes publicly accessible government tenders for contracts.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, though, the platform is only partially working – one of many ways in which the war makes fighting corruption more difficult, if no less urgent.
This week our organizations issued a joint report on irregularities in reconstruction contracts in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and in the surrounding Kharkiv region.
Kharkiv City, only 30 miles from the Russian border, was nearly surrounded by Russian forces in the spring of 2022, and nearby districts were occupied until late in the year. Some of the region is still under Russian military occupation.
Kharkiv City’s population and those living in the surrounding region have been continually targeted by Russian missiles. According to local media reports in mid-July 2023, at least 2,000 civilians have been killed in Kharkiv region since the start of the full-scale war. According to a Ukrainian website tracking air raid alarms and attacks, Kharkiv region experienced 2,423 air raid alarms and 1175 artillery attacks by mid-July 2023. In June 2023 alone it recorded 135 alarms and 146 artillery attacks.
Kharkiv’s Mayor Ihor Terekhov says that even if there is no more damage to the city, reconstruction could cost more than $10 billion.
But some of the contracts awarded by authorities for the reconstruction of the city and region raise worrying questions about corruption’s impact on the wartime economy.
Drawing on documentation and analysis by the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center, our report focuses on repairs to health care facilities and educational facilities. Some contracts to repair damaged medical facilities have been given without proper bidding processes; some show substantial overcharging.
The Central District Hospital at Krasnokutskaya, about 60 miles west of Kharkiv City, is to undergo major renovation to its main building’s first floor and to the X-ray room. In February 2023 it was reported that agreements worth 1.6 million hryvnias (USD $43,000) had been made without a bidding process, and the prices for materials and equipment ranging from cement to small switches were twice as high as market prices and estimates for the repair of other hospitals.
In the southeast of Kharkiv City, Schools No. 75 and No. 113 are two of hundreds of schools across the region damaged or destroyed by Russian attacks. Its windows were repaired at an estimated cost of $230 per square meter. Window repairs at another local school cost $162 per square meter, and elsewhere in Kharkiv the city council paid even less — between $129 and $139 per square meter.
These charges add up. Worse, they undermine trust in local authorities as people see the community’s money wasted.
Tracking Kharkiv’s spending is especially vital in wartime, because repairs to critical infrastructure cannot wait for the war to end.
Local activists will continue to make public irregularities they see in public spending, and their work is valued by the public. The KIIS survey found that trust in non-governmental organizations increased from 25 per cent in 2021 to 42 per cent in 2023.
International donors, including the U.S., should also play a part by closely scrutinizing the behavior of Kharkiv’s city and regional councils, as well as other subnational governments in Ukraine that face similar pressures.
If there is sufficient credible information in a specific case, a person can be sanctioned under the U.S. government’s “Global Magnitsky” sanctions program for acts including corruption related to government contracts or bribery.
Fighting corruption in Ukraine remains a vital part of the war effort. For that effort to succeed, local activists need the continued support of international allies.