What is Ukraine’s progress in the fight against corruption? – interview with Giovanni Kessler, OLAF Director General

Giovanni Kessler, the Director-General of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has extensive experience in combatting corruption in Italy as well as at the EU level. In his native country, Italy, Kessler was holding the post of the prosecutor, an MP, as well as of the High Commissioner to Combat Counterfeiting. He has been chairing OLAF since 2011.

Kessler has been taking an active part in forming the system of anti-corruption state agencies in Ukraine since Maidan, taking up various roles. Thus, he was a member of the selection commission set to choose the director of the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). Kessler has recently become part of the International Anti-Corruption Advisory Board that is advising the parliamentary committee on corruption prevention and counteraction.   

Ukrainian media Europeiska Pravda interviewed Giovanni Kessler during one of his recent visits to Kyiv. UCMC publishes an abbreviated version of the interview translated from Ukrainian. 

Europeiska Pravda: Why is the fight against corruption in Ukraine going that difficult?

Giovanni Kessler: The problem of corruption in Ukraine is more serious, significant and raises more concern that in many other countries, at least, in European ones. It is good, that the problem is acknowledged – first of all in Ukraine itself. (…) To combat it, it is not enough to change the government or the president, and it is not achieved overnight, it may become just the first step.

One has to admit that Ukraine has done a lot in the recent years. Possibilities to detect and investigate corruption acts were created. The system is not closed anymore, it is not “sealed” as before. No one has the guarantees that corruption facts will not become public and will not be investigated in an independent and efficient way.

(…) Ukraine’s priority today is detecting and investigating the facts of corruption. However, it is not enough. To eradicate corruption the culture of the society needs to be changed. If there are no clear signals that the facts of corruption can be disclosed and each one involved in them held liable, no public campaigns will be efficient.

EP: Several years ago, in one of the interviews you emphasized that Ukraine needed to start the fight against corruption with the measures set to prevent it. Is there a progress in that?

GK: There is progress. It is, first of all, in the fact that the problem is acknowledged at all levels – from the high political level to common people. Secondly, Ukraine has NABU – an independent institution that is sending the message: any type of corruption has to be disclosed, even at the highest level.

EP: Can corrupt officials be not only detected but also jailed?

GK: Jailing someone should not necessarily be a priority. The main priority is achieving the truth as to the corruption acts. The truth that is based on facts and on a transparent investigation. Until recently the search for such truth has not been Ukraine’s priority. You now have it and it is a giant step forward. (…) Then comes the time of prosecutor’s offices and courts, they also have to be independent in order to hold the corrupt officials liable. You need independent institutions to start building an anti-corruption system. This line has been started by the setup of NABU.

EP: The agency currently operates under very complicated circumstances, do you agree?

GK: Of course, the more you do, the more enemies you get. (…) Some currently see the audit of NABU as the priority, it doesn’t look so to me. The due audit needs to be held only after several years when the institution’s activity is already established. Then it is possible to assess how it works, but not now when NABU is just being established. I see the threat that the planned audit of NABU will be held with the mere purpose to dismiss the agency’s head based on the audit’s results. Someone may use it as an opportunity to remove him from the office. Thus, independence of the head of the agency may get under the threat that would be very bad.

EP: There is another alarming process – the standoff between the authorities and the anticorruption civic activists.

GK: Instead of the standoff they need to do joint work over the common goal. Applying to non-governmental organizations the same provisions of the anticorruption legislation as to the officials is like giving to a healthy person the same dose of antibiotics as to a seriously ill one. It does not testify for decisiveness and good intentions of Ukrainian legislative efforts in the fight against corruption.

EP: We hear the calls on the European Union to reinforce the pressure upon Ukrainian authorities including in terms of the anti-corruption agenda. Has the time come for that?

GK: I can express only my personal opinion on that. (…) The fight against corruption is first of all in the interest of Ukraine and its citizens, not in that of the European Union. And the normal way of interaction here would have been like this: you do what you need to do, and we support you. With financial resources, training, consultancy, etc. However, it is the ideal scenario. Seems like in Ukraine someone needs to be “persistently encouraged” to take the medicine.

EP: It’s been almost a year since OLAF and NABU signed an administrative cooperation agreement. Have you already conducted joint investigations?

GK: Yes, we have had some parallel investigations and are cooperating well. But I cannot disclose the details. I will only note that OLAF’s mandate covers the cases of possible embezzlement of the EU money. We do not investigate into all types of corruption.

EP: On the website of your agency the information has recently appeared saying that the cooperation between OLAF and Ukraine’s State Fiscal Service resulted in stopping a big consignment of smuggled cigarettes – over 12 million packs. Does it mean that Ukraine is a huge source of this type of smuggling into the EU?

GK: Ukraine is both the country producer of illegal cigarettes and a country of transit for smuggling them into the EU from other countries of Eastern Europe and from Russia. EU’s eastern border is under the threat of this type of smuggling. It is an easy way of earning big money while damaging financial interests of the European Union – as, say, a pack of cigarettes may cost one euro in Ukraine and eight euro in the UK. The temptation is big, that’s why this criminal activity is well-organized. Moreover, it sometimes hurts Ukraine itself, as the state under-receives the budget revenues. That’s why we are working on it together.

The interview by Anatoliy Martsynovsky for “Europeiska Pravda” was prepared in cooperation with the bulletin of the EU Delegation to Ukraine https://euukrainecoop.net/