July 1, 2016, was a beautiful day for a barbecue at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Kiev. Hundreds of guests had gathered to celebrate America’s Independence Day, milling around the terraced grounds and helping themselves to burgers and ribs, glasses of Jack Daniel’s, and an elaborate cake in the form of an American flag. Ukrainian diplomats, military officers and government staffers mingled beneath red, white and blue balloons, but Olena Tregub, F13, stood off to the side. “I don’t usually enjoy socializing at such events,” she told me, glaring at some of her fellow Ukrainians, “perhaps because I know too much.” 

At 34, Tregub was a director in the country’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, charged with overseeing a multibillion-dollar portfolio of international development projects. She had returned to her native Ukraine in 2015, after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, as part of a wave of reformers driven to remake the corrupt Ukrainian government from within. 

Much of Tregub’s job involved efforts to make international assistance to Ukraine effective and transparent. That morning she had flown home from Denmark, where she’d committed the country to publicly tracking its international aid. She hoped to establish an online database—a tool common even in much poorer nations—to document the roughly $12 billion in grants and loans that other countries and international groups have pledged to Ukraine. But she knew she would face resistance. Similar public databases had been proposed for Ukraine five times over the past 20 years, only to be rejected. And little wonder why. “Right now,” Tregub said, “the people who are profiting the most from lack of transparency and public oversight are officials.” She said some of them were even at the barbecue, smiling for the photographers. 

Twenty-five years after Ukraine was reborn from the collapse of the Soviet Union, its political and economic independence remain under constant threat. Commentators often say the nation is now fighting a war on two fronts. The first is the east, where Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 and supports an ongoing insurgency that has killed some 10,000 people and displaced about 2 million others. The second front, a metaphoric one, is in the capital city of Kiev, where citizens wage an internal battle against the fraudulent conduct of their own leaders. Building a democratic system in which government officials serve the public—rather than line their own pockets—has proved more difficult than anyone could have expected. 

Corruption, as Tregub lamented, is woven through all levels of Ukrainian life, from the bribes given to teachers for good grades to the backroom deals at top levels of industry and government. Last fall, when politicians were required for the first time to declare their personal assets online—a milestone for reform—few Ukrainians were surprised to learn that some of their legislators were in possession of Fabergé eggs, large collections of weapons and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. All this in a country where the average monthly income is under $200 and more than half the population lives below the subsistence level.

Ukraine ranks 131st out of 167 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it on par with Iran. In December 2015, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told the Ukrainian parliament that the international community could withdraw its support if clear action was not taken to eliminate corruption. Two months later, the International Monetary Fund threatened to halt its participation in a four-year, $40 billion bailout program. In other words, addressing Ukraine’s pervasive corruption will be essential to maintaining the diplomatic, financial and military support from the West that the country depends on.

But even with so much at stake, the path to becoming a truly independent nation has proved to be rocky. Several years into the process, influential oligarchs and holdovers from the Yanukovych administration still wield outsized power in Ukrainian politics and are using it to maintain the status quo. The best hope for the transformation of the country rests with energetic new reformers like Olena Tregub—including several with ties to Tufts University and the Fletcher School—approaching their government and civil society posts without much experience sometimes but with a passionate dedication to their mission. As their hope is being tested in the battle to make Ukraine fair and ethical, the question remains: Will they give up on the country, or soldier on?

Tregub, for one, clearly relishes the fight. “People in the top leadership, they want us out, the sooner the better,” she told me. “This is a struggle. It’s not like a normal job—it’s like you go every day to some battlefield.”

Two days after the ambassador’s barbecue, I visited Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan (literally “the square”). It looked like any bustling metropolitan center on a summer Sunday. A street had been closed off to traffic so children could ride go-carts, vendors sold ice cream and beer, and souvenir stands displayed traditional embroidery and cheap trinkets. Coffee shops and restaurants were busy with customers. Others emerged from a subway—though unlike the stops in other cities, this one was built during Soviet rule to double as a bomb shelter in the event of nuclear war.

This square was the site of the Euromaidan, a series of protests starting in 2013 to demand greater integration with the European Union and an end to Yanukovych’s corrupt presidency. In early 2014, the revolt turned bloody when riot police and government snipers killed more than 100 demonstrators. When I arrived more than two years later, the dead were memorialized by photographs, candles and flower arrangements that lined the sidewalk. 

The Euromaidan protests led to the ouster of Yanukovych—he fled to Russia in February 2014 with the help of troops from Moscow—and vividly revealed the depth of the challenge ahead. When citizens visited Yanukovych’s 350-acre estate just north of Kiev, they found a mansion full of gilded chandeliers, gold-plated golf clubs and other markers of gaudy opulence: a petting zoo, a fleet of vintage cars and a floating restaurant built in the shape of a Spanish galleon. Many assume it was all paid for with taxpayer dollars—how else could a president officially earning $100,000 a year afford such luxury? 

Olena Tregub was living in Washington, D.C., pregnant with her second child, at the time of the Euromaidan, which she followed closely in the news. Watching government forces shoot down citizens in the city where she had once studied political science, she questioned the path that had led her far from home. She had co-founded a global study abroad/internship program and was a freelance journalist, but the kind of desk jobs she was likely to land in the Beltway paled in comparison with the chance to rebuild her native country—a chance that seemed within reach with Yanukovych gone. In 2015, she decided to put her skills to work helping Ukraine. While her husband stayed behind in Washington, where he works for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, she returned to Kiev, their two young daughters in tow. 

Resistance to weeding out corruption was strong—and sometimes violent. “In Ukrainian politics,” Andrei Pivovarsky said, “it’s not House of Cards, it’s Game of Thrones.”

The newly reshuffled Ukrainian government was welcoming people from outside of politics—and sometimes outside of the country—into top posts. Three chief ministers even had to be granted Ukrainian citizenship by presidential decree before assuming their roles. In this revolutionary atmosphere, Tregub eventually was hired as a director in Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. The agency, then headed by a Lithuanian, calls “fighting corruption” one of its core missions, but Tregub ran into resistance from the old guard outside the ministry almost immediately. Just two days after her formal appointment, her entire set of responsibilities was nearly assigned to another agency. Only when the plan was revealed to some top government officials and openly discussed was the decision reversed. 

Tregub’s office is in a Stalinist-era building originally constructed for the Soviet police. I visited her there the afternoon of the barbecue and she led me on an extensive tour. These days, the building feels both imposing and outdated. Next to a grand, sweeping staircase is an elevator that doesn’t stop on every floor. Outside there’s a park that Tregub has never set foot in; she said it’s reserved for the prime minister. She told me there were indications that her office was tapped, but that didn’t seem to make her speech more guarded.

Government employees have traditionally supplemented their meager state salaries with under-the-table payments. But when Tregub started, she demanded what she called a “normal transparent salary.” The response, she said, was “Yeah, you’ll get your normal salary. It’s 300 bucks [per month]. So enjoy.” Tregub paid for her computer router and business cards out of her own pocket, and buys her office paper herself. When she doesn’t have child care, she brings her daughters to work in the evening, even though security guards have told her children are not allowed in the building. “The state can’t afford paying me a good salary. I cannot have two nannies,” she once told them. “If I have the necessity to bring my child to finish my work, then I bring my child. You get it?’” The guards backed off. 

One of Tregub’s biggest challenges was finding staff willing to work for low wages. Early on, she fired some workers, freeing up about $3,000 a month for the department that she put toward improving salaries. She also hoped to get additional money from the European Commission, which has disbursed about $2 billion in development assistance to Ukraine since early 2014. But during meetings that Tregub said representatives of her ministry were physically blocked from attending, those expected funds were allocated to a different project. That led to the departure of a number of Tregub’s new hires. “They all left because I hired them with the promise that we’re going to have an adequate salary, market salary, and this promise was not fulfilled.” 

As the tour continued, Tregub introduced me to a deputy minister who gestured to the air conditioner that she’d had to pay for herself. The woman, who had held her post for a little more than a year, had recently decided to quit. Tregub has seen many of her colleagues follow the same path, including her former boss, the Lithuanian-born minister of economy, who had resigned a few months earlier, saying he wouldn’t be a “puppet” for officials blocking reforms.

Tregub said she would like to quit, too. A Ukrainian magazine had named her one of the 100 most influential women in the country, which felt great, but where were the lasting results to show for it? Efficient aid management, new programs and new development partners were not enough for her. She wanted to change the rules. She planned to stay long enough to get her online database of foreign aid up and running. Only then could she move on without feeling like she failed. Once she and other reformers made changes, she reasoned, it would be much harder for the kleptocrats to return things to the way they were. 

 

Ukraine group

Andrei Pivovarsky, center, describes a newly built road to Ukraine’s prime minister, right, in March 2016. Photo: Andrew Kravchenko

With enough support, reformers can, in fact, get things done in Ukraine. But as Andrei Pivovarsky, F03, can attest, it is never easy. Pivovarsky was appointed Ukraine’s minister of infrastructure in 2014 to oversee the nation’s ports, airports, railways, roads, postal service and a staff of half a million people. He came into the job with the intention of weeding out corruption and mismanagement, but resistance to those aims was strong—and sometimes violent. “In Ukrainian politics,” he said, “it’s not House of Cards, it’s Game of Thrones.” 

Having worked in investment banking, Pivovarsky spoke with the dispassionate tone of a management consultant hired to restructure a failing company. A native of Kiev and the former head of one of Ukraine’s largest holding companies, he had a strong business background, but little interest in politics—and none in becoming a politician. He’d been tapped for the ministry post at age 36 because the new government was looking for technocrats, he told me. He accepted the position out of a sense of service to his country—hoping he could help save Ukraine from economic collapse. He knew he’d be working pretty much for free, but to him it was the same as being drafted into the military. 

On Pivovarsky’s first day as minister, his entire support department walked off the job, unwilling to serve him. He didn’t even know how to work the elaborate phones. But over three weeks, he cobbled together a new team made up of some employees he was able to offer paltry state salaries, and many—like Troy Etulain, F04, his advisor for nine months—who volunteered their services. 

Still, Pivovarsky encountered opposition elsewhere in the government. Occasionally it was subtle. For example, when he needed the signatures of bureaucrats from other ministries to make rule changes, he said, “some of them would get sick indefinitely.” (His fellow “technocrat” ministers would intervene in such cases to get the job done.) Other times, the opposition was more blatant. One day, all cargo trains in southern Ukraine simply stopped running because the head of the southern division of the national railway company refused to allow them onto the tracks. “I had to intervene brutally,” Pivovarsky said. “I had to fire the head of the southern division. I knew it was sabotage.” Over the next few months, he also fired the company’s acting CEO and two more of the six regional heads. 

Pivovarsky and his wife, who have two daughters, required around-the-clock security “because the things I was doing made a lot of people upset,” he said. The stress left him unable to eat, and he lost 15 pounds in the first three months on the job. (“Well,” he said, “that’s the price you pay for transforming the country.”) Others suffered more seriously. When Pivovarsky introduced weight restrictions on the nation’s roads, incensed truck drivers severely beat some of his inspectors, sending them to the hospital. 

Despite the challenges, Pivovarsky could point to several accomplishments. After his team wiped out layers of corruption at Ukraine’s ports, ships that used to have to wait up to a week for clearance to unload could now be approved in as little as 15 minutes. His team corporatized the state railway system, putting it under the authority of a CEO who is independent from the ministry, and liberalized the market for airline carriers, thereby increasing air traffic. His team’s anticorruption efforts and improvements in efficiency resulted in about $400 million in annual savings for the private sector, he said. Pivovarsky and his group also allocated more money for road construction to the local level, where some districts saw immediate improvements. Not that Pivovarsky took anyone’s word for it. At one point, he said, he and Ukraine’s prime minister drove all 76 miles of a new highway, “just to make sure that it was really there.”  

Pivovarsky lasted about 15 months on the job—a longer-than-average tenure for that post—before returning to the private sector. He’d actually tried to step down earlier, but the parliament refused to accept his resignation. In the end, frustration with the lack of bureaucratic reform, and the inability to pay good wages for good people, drove him out.

He hoped that his hand-picked successor, who had served as his deputy, would be able to safeguard their accomplishments, as well as push through others. The new minister had already recruited more businesspeople willing to devote a year or so to the cause, replacing staff who had left for better pay. “I’m quite positive we’re going in the right direction,” Pivovarsky said. “If you don’t have emotions—if you operate with a cold mind—you can deliver a lot.”

 

The need for reform in Ukraine is not limited to the legislature and government agencies. The judicial system is also rife with corruption, with long-serving judges susceptible to bribery and intimidation. Still, William (Chip) Laitinen III, F98, told me he was seeing some progress. “I’m an American diplomat,” he told me with a chuckle. “We like to be optimistic.” 

When I met him at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Laitinen had been working for two years as an economic counselor there. His wife, Valeria Scott Laitinen, F98, teaches at an international elementary school in Kiev and heads the Fletcher Club of Ukraine. (This June, Laitinen left for a 12-month post in Islamabad, while his wife stayed behind with their two children.)

During his tenure in Ukraine, Laitinen told me, he witnessed a number of advances. On the economic front, he welcomed the phasing out of across-the-board gas subsidies—which had led to over-reliance on Russian gas—in favor of targeted subsidies for the poor; a cleanup of the banking sector that took “oligarchic piggy banks” out of the system; and reforms that brought transparency to the bidding of government projects. He also praised the development of new systems to supplant parts of the old. For example, the government had launched newly hired police patrols, highly visible in their white Priuses, trained to serve
the public fairly.

At the time we met, the United States was about to disburse its third $1 billion loan guarantee in two years, a sign of its support for the progress underway. And yet, the Ukrainian courts still weren’t convicting corrupt officials, Laitinen acknowledged. “It’s two steps forward, one step back.” 

In a big step forward, a newly installed special prosecutor got off to a promising start by bringing Ukraine’s first major graft trial to court this spring. The head of Ukraine’s equivalent of the IRS, Roman Nasirov, is accused of abusing his power in an embezzlement scheme involving more than $70 million in tax revenue. Nasirov was detained by officers of the fledgling National Anti-Corruption Bureau in March, has been suspended from his position and could face up to six years in prison.

That’s the kind of improvement that provides a glimmer of hope for Inna Dzhurynska, F15, a Ukrainian business lawyer who grew up under communist rule and is now trying to reinvent herself as a public policy maker. She’s skeptical that Ukraine’s courts will rein in corruption, since many judges themselves are on the take, but believes reformers will ultimately prevail. “We have a very smart younger generation that will demand changes,” she told me. “I will demand them too.”

 

Ukraine memorials

Memorials near the Maidan remember the more than 100 protesters killed there in 2014. Photo: Heather Stephenson

A short walk from the Maidan, tucked off a side street, is a bar popular among journalists and activists called Baraban. On the afternoon I visited, a notice outside the door informed patrons that 25 percent of proceeds would support the troops on the eastern front, many of whom buy their own boots and bulletproof vests. (At the start of the conflict with Russia, the troops were so poorly financed that children held bake sales to provide them with supplies.)

I’d come to meet with Dmytro Potekhin, a 40-year-old Ukrainian nonviolent resistance trainer with a salt-and-pepper beard and a bohemian air. Over a non-alcoholic mojito, he explained that he came to the same bar in 2004 to help organize the Orange Revolution, a nonviolent protest that succeeded in invalidating a rigged presidential election that would have put Yanukovych in power. A decade later, Potekhin suggested a nonviolent strategy to remove Yanukovych, but the Euromaidan demonstrations took a different turn. When he showed up during the violent conclusion of the protests, “I was handed a Molotov cocktail,” he told me. “I didn’t use it.”  

The day before we met at the bar, Potekhin and his co-author, Eugenia Kuznetsova, held a press conference to release their analysis of the media’s role in propping up Yanukovych after he was elected in February 2010 (in a vote whose fairness Potekhin questioned). In their paper, they argue that the newly installed president illegally influenced the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, which altered the country’s constitution in September 2010 to expand his powers. Potekhin said that most journalists and observers—and even organizers of the Euromaidan protests a few years later—missed the significance of this moment and kept recognizing Yanukovych as legitimate. When Potekhin and Kuznetsova analyzed media coverage of Yanukovych, searching for the Ukrainian term for usurping power, they found that it was rarely used in 2010 and 2011. And when it was used, it was more often presented as a threat (“Yanukovych is on the way to usurpation”) than as the reality. 

Three years after Ukrainians took to the streets and called for revolution, the revolution has yet to arrive.

Sitting in a booth at the bar, Potekhin, who teaches informal courses on nonviolent civil resistance, said that most of Ukrainian civil society and journalists had failed the Ukrainian people—and their choice of words had life-and-death consequences. If the media had stopped calling Yanukovych “president” and started calling him a “dictator” or a “clown,” Potekhin argued, security forces might have refused the orders leading to bloodshed on the Maidan. “You need to let them know their bosses are illegitimate.” But most Ukrainian reformers know little about strategies for nonviolent change, he said. “No surprise they failed to remove Yanukovych nonviolently; no surprise they have problems consolidating liberal democracy now.”

Potekhin’s commitment to nonviolent change led him to Tufts. In 2015, he participated in an intensive two-week institute on civil society being taught in Ukraine by a team including Peter Levine, associate dean for research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Tufts’ Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. Shortly after I met with him, Potekhin was scheduled to teach at another institute with Levine, this time in Germany. And they were already making plans for a similar discussion of nonviolent civic movements in the summer of 2017. 

When a dictator is removed from power, you might think you no longer need courses like these, Potekhin observed wryly. “Until you realize there is another dictator.”

 

Three years after ukrainians took to the streets and called for revolution, the revolution has yet to arrive. Yanukovych’s successor, President Petro Poroshenko, served in the previous government. He has not fulfilled his campaign promise to sell his massive confectionery business. That company and the national television news channel Poroshenko owns are just two parts of a pool of assets worth an estimated $720 million. In addition, the Panama Papers—millions of documents from a Panamanian law firm that were leaked anonymously in 2015—revealed that he set up a secret offshore company in 2014, an arrangement that may have saved him millions of dollars in Ukrainian taxes. 

“I want to believe that the president himself is honest but I don’t see him seriously fighting corruption,” a lawmaker from Poroshenko’s own party told Foreign Policy last summer. U.S. officials are naïve, the lawmaker continued, if they think “an oligarch will put his kind into jail. This government will stall on reforms unless the U.S. leans on it.” 

After Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, that has seemed increasingly unlikely. Trump often spoke favorably of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail, and possible ties between his campaign and Russia have become the subject of intense scrutiny. It is not clear that the United States and other nations will continue to shore up Ukraine. That means it’s up to the Ukrainians themselves. 

At the U.S. ambassador’s barbecue, with its triumphant references to America’s own revolutionary beginnings, the politicians and diplomats belted out Ukraine’s national anthem, which proclaims that the country’s glory “has not yet died.” Many in the crowd chanted, “Long live Ukraine!” 

In the late-afternoon heat, one guest causing a stir by her mere presence was Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot released from a Russian prison just six weeks earlier. While on trial from 2014 through early 2016 for murder related to fighting along Ukraine’s eastern border, Savchenko demonstrated her feisty spirit by embarking on a hunger strike and making obscene gestures at Russian judges. Ukrainians back home took notice, electing her to parliament while she was still in prison. 

But one inexperienced hero, no matter how plucky, cannot transform a system alone. (Especially if she’s an erratic maverick: Savchenko’s popularity soon plummeted amid criticism because she secretly met with leaders of the separatist movement in the east.) Ukraine needs many reformers, working at all levels, in government, business, the police and the courts. Would enough people keep fighting the status quo to make a lasting difference? Would they give up in frustration—or would the old guard force them out?

By late January of this year, Olena Tregub had reached her milestone: She launched a website, Open Aid Ukraine, that lists all the international assistance coming into the country. The site represents an unprecedented victory for transparency. But it was only a pilot project funded by an EU grant and its future was uncertain. By June, Tregub said, the current head of her ministry had eliminated her entire department—the one in charge of international aid coordination—and with it, her job. She planned to remain in the country and look for a different position. “For Ukraine, it would be better if I stayed” in the role overseeing international aid, she said, “but one cannot fight corruption inside the system if it is supported on the top of this system.” 

At the party last July, Tregub could not foresee this outcome, but already she seemed to have her doubts. As evening approached, she met Jeffrey Erlich, F07, an American who’s worked in Kiev for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe since 2014. “The first year on the job, I didn’t go to events like this, I was so busy,” Tregub told him. “Now, since the pace of reform has slowed down so much, I can attend.”

“You’re settling in for the long haul,” he responded.

Tregub looked skeptical. “That’s an optimistic way to put it,” she said, and took another bite of her hamburger.

Send comments to Heather Stephenson at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.