Tired of graft, foreign reformers flood out of Ukraine

Kiev (AFP) - It began as a trickle but turned into a flood: foreign technocrats are leaving Ukraine at the very moment the impoverished country needs them most to tackle endemic graft.

The raft of Europeans and Americans appointed to top government positions were once the hope of the former Soviet republic and the protesters who ousted a detested Russian-backed leader in February 2014.

Ukraine is not only waging a war against pro-Moscow insurgents in its separatist east but is also known as one of Europe's most mismanaged and corrupt states.

Its gross domestic product has not grown since the Soviet era while that of its western neighbour Poland has increased more than five-fold and made the country a shining example for the rest of eastern Europe.

Pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko was striving to turn things around when he handed out Ukrainian passports to three foreigners in December 2014 and gave them senior ministerial posts.

All of them are now gone -- including the US-born investment banker and one-time finance minister Natalie Jaresko.

- First wave of disenchantment -

Jaresko's time as finance minister was both a successful and sorrowful story that mirrors the tribulations of modern Kiev.

She managed to negotiate a massive commercial debt write-off that helped Ukraine stay financially afloat.

But Jaresko lost out in a power struggle for the premiership post, when it became clear that the government in place could no longer withstand the weight of corruption charges against it.

She resigned in April alongside Lithuanian-born economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius and brief-serving health minister Alexander Kvitashvili of Georgia.

Jaresko, a former US State Department official, bowed out without criticising the system she had worked in.

But Abromavicius declared upon quitting that he had no intention of "covering up open corruption".

The new government is led by Poroshenko protege Volodymyr Groysman and includes the unheralded Finance Minister Oleksandr Danylyuk.

But its appointment appears to have done little to curb the insider-dealings and bribe-takings the new team had sworn to stamp out on its confirmation.

- The Georgian revolt -

Things began to get really messy when Georgia's former president Mikheil Saakashvili quit as governor of Ukraine's Odessa region last week.

Saakashvili was a passionate supporter of Ukraine's 2014 pro-EU revolution that set Kiev on its westward course.

The 48-year-old arch-foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was stepping down because he was being held back from fighting corruption by the tycoons in Poroshenko's inner circle.

Saakashvili also vowed to form an opposition political movement that could oust Poroshenko and force early elections. Few analysts give the Georgian much of a chance at success.

Soon many of Saakashvili's Georgian allies in top Ukrainian government positions -- stacked there by Poroshenko after admiring the job they had done cleaning up their own tiny Caucasus country -- also began to quit.

One of the most prominent ones was Ukraine's national police chief Khatia Dekanoidze.

"I will be honest and say that we never were able to root out corruption from our agency," she told reporters on Monday.

- 'Handcuffed by bureaucracy' -

Dekanoidze has been widely praised for introducing a new traffic police force that is friendly with the locals and famous for refusing bribes.

She told reporters that "my will and powers were insufficient to implement change".

Some analysts said the bureaucracy-laden system that Ukraine never managed to cut down to size in the post-Soviet era had been too much for the foreign technocrats to bear.

"The international partners who were invited to work in Ukraine got ensnared in a bureaucratic state system -- they were handcuffed," Yaroslav Yurchyshyn of Ukraine's Transparency International anti-corruption coalition told AFP.

"The state service system of Ukraine has changed very little since Soviet times," Yurchyshyn said.

Maria Repko of the Kiev-based Centre for Economic Strategy said that part of the problem was Ukraine's "oligarch-driven economy" that fuels systemic political corruption.

Yet some foreigners have remained.

Economists are particularly encouraged that Leszek Balcerowicz -- the architect of Poland's post-Communist transformation -- still serves as Poroshenko's economic advisor.

Yet Balcerowicz has rarely appeared in public and his influence in Kiev remains unknow to those outside the president's administration.

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