Anticorruption activists say their 10-year battle against bribery, extortion, and other forms of corruption is beginning to pay off in Kharkiv. Here: Panorama of the central part of Kharkiv with the Dormition Cathedral in center of Kharkiv, Ukraine, October 3, 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via AP)

Pavlo Novyk monitors his native Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million near the Russian border, from an apartment 500 miles away in much safer western Ukraine. Part journalist, data geek, and civil society activist—he works for the nonprofit Kharkiv Anticorruption Centre—Novyk spends his days online, scrutinizing Kharkiv government purchases. Once one of the most corrupt cities in Ukraine, Kharkiv is now legally required to make purchases—everything from printer paper to hospital beds to food for animals in the city zoo—through an online portal available to the public.  

Westerners watching the fighting in Ukraine are waiting for a breakthrough on the battlefield. But Ukraine’s struggle to free itself from centuries of Russian rule and toxic Soviet-era influences is more than a military face-off. It is also a war on corruption. This second fight is being waged in the capital, Kyiv, where the president and parliament have created a network of anticorruption courts and law enforcement agencies, but also in cities like Kharkiv, where corrupt mayors aligned with Russia have historically stolen public funds with impunity.  

The good news from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, once a bustling industrial hub and gateway for trade with Russia: anticorruption activists like Novyk say their 10-year battle against bribery, extortion, and other forms of corruption is beginning to pay off. A combination of new online tools and pressure from international donors has given activists an edge, and city officials have started to respond when civil society groups file complaints. 

Once notorious across Ukraine as a metropolis where graft went unpunished, Kharkiv was dominated for decades by the political machine of Hennadiy Kernes, long-time city council secretary and then mayor. Local cases against him go back to the early 1990s when he was convicted of robbery and fraud. He burst onto the national scene in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution, when more than a million Ukrainians protested against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. One of Yanukovych’s staunchest allies, Kernes hired and trained the thugs who beat Maidan protesters in Kyiv. And even after the protests drove Yanukovych to flee the country, Kernes organized separatist rallies in Kharkiv, siding with Russia against the new national government. 

Kharkiv’s citizens pushed back, and the city remained Ukrainian. But a court case alleging that Kernes had kidnapped and tortured Maidan protesters was mysteriously dropped, and national notoriety did not loosen his grip on Kharkiv’s economy.  

Companies controlled by Kernes, the target of a 2014 assassination attempt and now confined to a wheelchair, owned the city’s principal street markets. He and his cronies held the licenses for the main minibus routes. National chains attempting to do business in Kharkiv faced all but insurmountable barriers to entry. Local businesses that didn’t pay regular kickbacks to city officials found themselves without electricity and water, or their business licenses were revoked. “It was a mini-Russia,” Kharkiv Anticorruption Center cofounder Dmytro Bulakh recalls. “No aliens allowed—no businesses that municipal officials didn’t control or benefit from.”  

Local entrepreneurs remember how administrators used even the simplest regulations as a weapon. “If you didn’t put the commas in the right place when you filled out the form, you didn’t get the license,” business owner Serhii Polituchy remembers, “until you paid the bribe.” The machine coopted public opinion with showy public projects and subsidized prices. There was little, if any, political opposition. The Kernes team never lost an election, and legal cases against it were dropped or dismissed by judges. 

Among the biggest, longest-running battles between activists and the local machine traces back to 2008, when Kernes used a Soviet-era law on privatizing state-owned property to give vast swaths of public land to a handful of friends and associates. The cronies claimed they were members of housing cooperatives—neighbors banding together to construct apartment buildings for their private use. The city gave them the land for free, and they sold it at market prices, netting an estimated $400 million as the deals accumulated over eight years.  

In 2015, activists inspired by the Maidan Revolution formed the Kharkiv Anticorruption Centre and began to fight back, documenting the giveaway scheme and eventually filing court cases. “We brought 21 administrative cases and won 17,” the center’s lawyer Volodymyr Rysenko recalls, “forcing the hand of criminal prosecutors who had been sitting on an investigation.” The nonprofit’s reports and press conferences caught the eye of local and then national media. “People thought Kernes was untouchable,” cofounder Bulakh remembers, “but we proved you could push back and even win.”  

The activists didn’t always win. In 2017, Bulakh was brutally beaten the day before he was scheduled to speak at a regional council meeting. And Kernes, ever switching political parties to keep up with the prevailing winds, eventually beat the rap again in 2019. His name was mysteriously dropped from the coop indictment weeks before he endorsed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election bid against Volodymyr Zelensky. Kernes died of COVID-19 in 2020 as the case worked through the courts. Activists say that without him, there is no chance of a guilty verdict since he signed the shady cooperative deals. But Bulakh and others are convinced their work broke the machine’s stranglehold on Kharkiv. “People began to see that change was possible,” he says. “It was the beginning of the end.” 

Interviews with activists, city officials, businesspeople, and others in Kharkiv suggest this transformation has accelerated in the past year. The war seemed to help. Kharkiv was a top Russian target in the first months of fighting, pummeled by relentless shelling and aerial bombardment. Half the apartment buildings in the city were damaged or destroyed, along with half the schools, kindergartens, and dozens of medical facilities. The current mayor, Ihor Terekhov, estimates that even with no additional damage, reconstruction could cost more than $10 billion. Residents say it isn’t hard to guess what Kernes would have done with such an opportunity for graft. But many are cautiously hopeful that things will be different this time around.  

Activists at the anticorruption center say they see encouraging signs. A few weeks ago, city officials invited them to participate in a commission planning for reconstruction. “We’ll be helping to evaluate destroyed property and making assessments about what should be rebuilt,” lawyer Rysenko explains. Most importantly, according to Bulakh, the nonprofit, primarily funded by international groups, including USAID and the European Endowment for Democracy, will have access to city data and planning documents.  

“Officials know our presence will be a thorn in their side,” Bulakh says. “So why would they invite us in if they weren’t ready to try a different approach?” Activists say the city is also considering their demands that all public procurement reflect market prices and officials who abuse the system face disciplinary measures. 

Technology helps. The open-access online portal, ProZorro, that journalist Novyk uses to monitor public procurement has changed the game for activists across Ukraine. Developed by civil society with international funding and donated to the government, then in 2016 mandated for all public purchasing, it provides a platform for local authorities to buy goods and services through competitive bidding. Martial law has created some loopholes—security-related purchases may be shielded from public view. But in theory, in peacetime, every government transaction is documented and open to scrutiny online. This includes everything from a bidding contractor’s license and business history to the make, model, and price of any equipment they intend to install.  

Dmytro Isayev, deputy mayor for strategic development, says he hopes to end the exemption for security-related purchases as soon as possible. He is also working to consolidate Kharkiv municipal purchasing. “Right now,” he explains, “240 municipal offices, agencies, companies, and public utilities all make their own purchases—everyone does their own research into printer paper and buys a different kind.” Centralization should create economies of scale and also, activists say, help ensure that the city pays market prices.  

“We’ve approached Isayev three times in recent months,” Bulakh says, “about irregularities we found on ProZorro—cases where the city was paying two or three times the going price. And in each case, they redid the deal—rebid the project or wrote a new contract.” 

Asked about what’s behind the new reformist mood in Kharkiv, civic society activists and government officials offer two principal reasons. 

Activists credit international donors and the role they will likely play as Ukraine rebuilds after the war. “It’s not that people are getting better or more honest,” lawyer Rysenko says. “It’s the conditions—the context.” Municipalities that used to be flush with local tax revenue now face empty coffers. Mayors who need reconstruction funding are looking West—to governments and international financial institutions in Europe and the United States. “They know the Western donors want transparency and accountability,” Rysenko explains, “and they’re competing with each other to show how squeaky clean they are.” Poltava, Sumy, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, he reels off a list of heavily damaged Ukrainian cities: “They’re all trying to outdo each other’s anticorruption compliance.” 

Kharkiv officials agree but say it isn’t only foreign donors pressing for reform. “We need transparency and openness because those are the standards of the European Union and NATO,” says Roman Semenukha, deputy head of the Kharkiv regional administration – a job akin to lieutenant governor in a U.S. state. “Ukrainians are fighting and dying to become part of the EU, and as an elected official, I need to listen to the will of the people – or else. Expectations of joining Europe are running sky-high. I won’t survive if I stand in the way.” 

New technological tools, international pressure, and voter expectations: it’s a promising recipe for change. But old habits die hard, and the hope I heard across Kharkiv was mixed with skepticism. “People say they want transparency and accountability,” Bulakh complained, “but that doesn’t stop them voting for corrupt officials.” He and other activists are excited about the new openness they’re hearing from administrators. But “these are just one-time cases,” he said. “We need to go beyond cases. We need a new, more transparent system – for both city procurement and the allocation of public land.”  

Even with ProZorro, activists report, public procurement is plagued by irregularities: agencies that claim urgent circumstances leave no time for competitive bidding, for example, or contracts granted to entrepreneurs with dubious business records. Businessmen say politicians who advertise they’re fighting corruption are often as corrupt as others. “Corruption is a dragon with 20 heads,” real estate developer Ihor Balaka observed, “and each one has its own dangers. There’s always a way to get around the rules.” 

What’s needed isn’t just change at the top. Many different kinds of people from different walks of life will need to learn to play by a new set of rules. “I make $350 a month,” one mid-level city administrator told me. “I can live on that because my wife owns a business. But how are the people who work for me supposed to get by?”  

“Everyone in this room has participated in corruption,” former construction contractor Dmytro Kutovyi admitted bluntly as he surveyed a group of business leaders gathered to discuss the rule of law in Kharkiv. “We’re all fighting it now. But we were all part of the problem in the past.”  

Activists like Bulakh know much work lies ahead. But he’s convinced the public wants change. “Society is much less tolerant of wrongdoing than it was when we began fighting 10 years ago,” he notes. And if anything, he and others believe, the war is driving a new sense of urgency. “I see it very clearly among my friends,” deputy mayor Isayev reflected. “We’ve been through an experience we will never forget – horrendous death and destruction. Why would we want to go back to the past? We want to build something better.” 

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Tamar Jacoby is the Kyiv-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project and the author most recently of Displaced: The Ukrainian Refugee Experience.