Article: Judging the Judges: Ukraine’s Battle with Courtroom Corruption

The arrest of Supreme Court Chairman Vsevolod Kniaziev over an alleged $2.7m bribe rocked Ukraine’s legal establishment. But is it a cause for optimism about the future?

Amid the justified anger, the scandal over Judge Kniaziev showed that anti-corruption bodies in Ukraine’s system of governance are working, and able to with cases involving the most senior officials. Bodies including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecution Office, the High Anti-Corruption Court, and the Asset Recovery and Management Agency, have seized bribes worth around $46m since the all-out war began in February 2022.

The case is a sign that Kyiv is willing to work towards an effective anti-corruption environment for its post-war reconstruction, by developing a consistent and investor-friendly legal system. The Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) has removed Ukraine from its blacklist, acknowledging it has “successfully implemented or is implementing to a satisfactory degree” 15 of its 31 recommendations, with nine more in the process of meeting requirements. This contrasts with 2019 when GRECO confirmed the implementation of only five of the 31 recommendations. Its most recent report described Ukraine’s continuing efforts, undertaken during a war of national survival, as “remarkable.”

But although the Kniaziev scandal highlights some progress, it also begs questions. While the judge has not yet been tried, it is clearly troubling that the country’s top jurist is alleged to have had stacks of illicitly acquired currency in his home. It is clear that the country cannot enjoy a functioning rule of law if the courts remain the weakest link.

Yet the judiciary is only one part of the problem. Legal systems have the fundamental task of ensuring stability and predictability for individuals, companies, and institutions, and stable, clear, and well-designed legislation is vital for the system to work at all.

Good legislation reduces the opportunities for judges to make arbitrary decisions, which is one of the key factors enabling corruption. With the ongoing alignment of Ukrainian legislation to the EU’s acquis, the improvement and consistency of Ukraine’s laws are critical.

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Judging the Judges: Ukraine’s Battle with Courtroom Corruption