Undaunted by War, Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Activists Track Public Spending
In 2017, we reported from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on a series of attacks on activists who exposed local corruption. We documented how several of those associated with the NGO Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center had been physically assaulted in the street after their organization helped to expose illegal land giveaways by the city council.
I detailed to the United States Congress a September 2017 physical attack on anti-corruption activist Evgeniy Lisichkin, in which two men told him that he would be killed if he continued his activities. Undeterred by the assault, Lisichkin continues his work as a board member of Kharkiv’s Anti-Corruption Center.
The NGO’s projects include analyzing Russian propaganda aimed at the Kharkiv region and monitoring the sentences of those convicted of collaborating with Russian forces. But much of the focus remains on the city council’s use of public funds.
Lisichkin told me the problem of corruption has become even more important to the public since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. “Surveys show that corruption is an increasingly important issue as people feel financial pain, and it’s now one of the public’s top three priorities,” he said.
Russia’s February 2022 invasion has dislocated and damaged large parts of the country’s economy, leaving many families’ finances in crisis. Last year, Ukraine’s poverty level rocketed from 5.5 to 24 percent. Unemployment is up to about 36 percent, and local press reports inflation hovering at around 18 percent.
In the months immediately following last year’s invasion, the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center paused its reporting on corruption as its staff, and the city’s population scrambled to survive the onslaught.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is only 30 miles from the Russian border. It was nearly surrounded by Russian forces in the spring of 2022, and nearby villages were occupied until late in the year. Kharkiv’s population has been continually targeted and hit by Russian missiles, as we have regularly reported over the last year from the battered city.
Although rockets continue to fall on the city, its fragile economy is slowly recovering, and the NGO has resumed monitoring local public spending. Its recent reporting includes coverage of expensive road repairs, how the demolition of buildings hit by missiles in the city center turned into a property development scandal, and how the restoration of a university building damaged by Russian rockets will ultimately benefit Oleksandr Kharchenko, a member of the executive committee of the Kharkiv City Council.
Tracking the city’s spending is especially vital in wartime, and the NGO has helped publicize issues including the council’s allocation of about 7.5 million hryvnas ($203,000) to maintain a local football club, and how local officials gave more than 6 million hryvnas ($162,0000) to an entrepreneur with a criminal background to repair a house damaged by Russian shelling.
It’s no surprise that investigating public spending has become more challenging since last year’s invasion. “Some databases that used to be public are now closed, including the declaration of local government officials’ personal wealth, and the breakdown of the spending of individual departments. The Prozorro system [an online public procurement platform showing national and local government tenders for contracts] is only partially working,” says Olena Hetmanenko of the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center.
Even with the hurdles of war and the government secrecy that accompanies it, the Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Center’s focus remains on the city council’s use of public funds.
“Economic pressures on local people mean they’re interested in where their public money is going, and international donors are also scrutinizing where their money is being spent,” said Lisichkin. “We will continue to ask questions of the authorities, and to provide information to the public where we can.”