“Corruption eats Ukraine like cancer,” said one of Ukraine’s best friends, US Vice President Joe Biden, when he spoke at the Ukrainian parliament a few months ago. Lithuanian businesspeople who have been working in the Ukrainian market must have personally experienced the reason why the country is ranked lower than even Russia in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Forget Russia, Ukraine has even surpassed bastions of corruption like Nigeria.
Even after the victory of the Maidan, no government institutions in this strategic state are free of associations with corruption.
Parliament seats are still being bought, perhaps for more money. The prime minister was linked by the deputy prosecutor-general to a corrupt scheme worth tens of millions of euros in the port of Odessa. The president, the only oligarch among the ten wealthiest in Ukraine who increased his wealth in the past year marked by war, refuses to sack the general prosecutor, who, in the harsh words of the US and EU ambassadors, has been “openly and aggressively undermining reform.”
An unfortunate illustration was when Russian swear words and splashes of water flowed freely during a heated dispute about corruption between Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili and Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov at a meeting of the National Reform Council.
Paradoxically, corruption is also one of Ukraine’s strengths. With the multitude of interests and oligarchs accustomed to eventually finding a modus vivendi, Russia has few hopes of buying off all key decision-makers. Civil society also remains active, as can be seen in the constant scandals and public conflicts.
However, it is obvious that corruption is bad both for the public mood and for the West’s opinion of Ukraine, especially when the referendum on the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement is fast approaching in the Netherlands. The vote could undo Ukraine and the EU's most important agreement, which sparked the Maidan, Crimean annexation and war in Donbas.
The unprecedented diplomatic step taken by ten Western ambassadors who got directly involved in Ukraine’s internal affairs by defending Abromavičius and demanding that parochial differences be set aside once again showed that the West still remains stoic in the face of never-ending scandals in Kiev and that it has finally understood that the country’s strategic importance outweighs these issues.
This is exactly what must be demonstrated to Kiev: strategic patience, not romantic sympathies for the country’s pro-European revolutionaries. The approach by Lithuania and other advocates of Ukraine must be based on geopolitics, not politics.
Ukraine must be clearly shown that it is only regarded as important in its role as a counterweight and geopolitical buffer against Russia’s expansion (which may one day become a part of the true West) and that even the country’s staunchest advocates will not support it if it will continue wading about in the post-Soviet political quagmire and spending what remains of the Maidan's dwindling political capital. The West will always press Ukraine to avoid paralysis in its internal affairs, but rather than an effort to support certain politicians, this will ensure that the Kremlin cannot play its own games in the country.
In any case, Lithuania, whose own prime minister and three ministers are being questioned by the anti-corruption service, cannot be a beacon of political honesty to Ukraine, but taking off its rose-tinted glasses might help even more. Some policymakers have actually already done so, but many still entertain romantic illusions.
This would not be the first time Lithuania has acted this way. The instinctive brotherhood formed with the Chechens in the 1990s gave way to a sober view of this mountainous nation and its traditions, even though the Kremlin’s brutal war crimes there were never forgotten. Sympathies for Georgia also waned long ago, and even more so for its politicians, who were constantly warned to keep their feet firmly on the ground by Lithuania’s leaders right up until the Russian invasion.
Lithuania has to admit that its interest in Ukraine is first and foremost related to Russia. True, Vilnius will always have more patience to watch Kiev’s internal bickering than other Western capitals, but a more realistic policy is called for that would allow it to reprimand Ukraine's leaders when they deserve it instead of cozying up to them no matter what they do.