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How much progress has Ukraine's government made against corruption?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some congressional opponents of more U.S aid for Ukraine point to the country's reputation for corruption. The European Union is also raising concerns as Ukraine seeks EU membership. But Ukrainians say that image is outdated and does not reflect their efforts to improve. Here's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: On the outskirts of Ukraine's capital, there's a sprawling estate that used to belong to a former Ukrainian president. He had a zoo, a multiroom spa, an antique car collection, even his own gas station. Tour guide Anastasiia Lazo shows us a vintage ship docked on the river that served as his private restaurant.

ANASTASIIA LAZO: And inside, there are also, like, decorations, Swarovski chandeliers. There were expensive plates and cups, like Versace.

KAKISSIS: Rumor spread that even the toilets in his mansion were gold-plated.

LAZO: He was crazy about the gilded decorations and all these things because it's this old mentality that gold is something - it will make you the master.

KAKISSIS: The ex-president, Viktor Yanukovych, paid for it all with taxpayer money. When Ukrainians found out, they were enraged. He fled to Russia almost 10 years ago.

LAZO: So that's the door from where he escaped.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine's leaders say they've been fighting corruption and Western perceptions ever since.

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OLHA STEFANISHYNA: I hear this word corruption, corruption, corruption.

KAKISSIS: That's Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European integration, speaking in Warsaw recently.

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STEFANISHYNA: It's fight against corruption. This is what we do in Ukraine. We fight against corruption.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine's reputation as a corrupt, unreformed country dates to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Newly independent Ukraine saw its state-owned businesses snapped up by organized crime with links to the KGB.

DARIA KALENIUK: Like the gas pipeline, like titanium production, like chemical, agricultural production.

KAKISSIS: Daria Kaleniuk is executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv.

KALENIUK: The strategy of Kremlin was, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to use oligarchs to control the strategic assets to control Ukraine from inside.

KAKISSIS: And petty corruption at every level of society corroded daily life. Ukrainians had to pay bribes to secure building permits to open businesses to keep police from harassing them. After the ouster of Yanukovych a decade ago, anti-corruption activists pushed for transparency reforms in line with Europe.

SERHIY LESHCHENKO: Ukraine established all institutions which are necessary to fight against corruption.

KAKISSIS: Serhiy Leshchenko is an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office.

LESHCHENKO: There is an anti-corruption bureau, special anti-corruption prosecutor and special anti-corruption court, plus national agency on corruption prevention. All of these institutions were established with very strong support of international community, including American government.

KAKISSIS: And in 2020, Zelenskyy's administration introduced Diia, an app that provides citizens with a digital ID that helps them pay for public services online and avoid bribes.

SLAVA BANIK: It's very simple, convenient for them, and it's, like, easy to get access to public service.

KAKISSIS: Slava Banik helped develop the Diia app.

BANIK: But this is the top of the iceberg. The bigger part of our work is the part when we have to redevelop state systems to make them more transparent, more secure.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine's fight against corruption has actually ramped up since Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022. Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a member of Ukraine's parliament who is focused on anti-corruption reforms, explains why.

YAROSLAV YURCHYSHYN: Because perception of society that corruption in a time of war - it's murder.

KAKISSIS: Corruption is equal to murder.

YURCHYSHYN: Yes, yes. Why? Because when you steal some money from budget, in time with this money very necessary for our security and defense, so the consequences of that is killing of our soldiers and civilians by Russia.

KAKISSIS: The U.S. Defense Department's inspector general is establishing a new team in Ukraine to scrutinize military aid to the country. And the Biden administration says it will tie future direct budget aid to Ukraine to anti-corruption efforts.

HOWARD G BUFFETT: And so it has to be dealt with. It has to be dealt with. People have to have confidence that it's being dealt with.

KAKISSIS: That's philanthropist Howard Buffett speaking to NPR during a recent visit to Ukraine. His foundation has donated nearly half a billion dollars to humanitarian efforts here.

BUFFETT: It's going to take billions of dollars to rebuild this country. And the people who care about this country and have the authority to make the decisions about how things happen are going to have to make sure that the corruption is not affecting the money that comes in here. Otherwise, you can't be successful in rebuilding.

KAKISSIS: Zelenskyy is trying to show he has zero tolerance for corruption. He has fired members of his own government over scandals. The head of the Supreme Court has been put on trial for running a bribery scheme. And one of Ukraine's most powerful oligarchs who helped Zelenskyy's rise to fame as a comedian was arrested last month on charges of money laundering and fraud. Leshchenko, the presidential adviser, sees Ukraine fighting more than corruption.

LESHCHENKO: The most difficult part of the issue - how to fight with stereotypes. Ukraine has its own stereotypes in eyes of international audience. And to fight with the stereotypes is very difficult. And this will take maybe decades.

KAKISSIS: The former estate of Yanukovych, the disgraced ex-president, is now a park and museum that's open to the public. A pop-up cafe outside sells refrigerator magnets of his infamous golden toilet, which, it turns out, never existed. Anastasiia Lazo, the tour guide, says that toilet is actually a symbol. It's shorthand for everything that was once wrong with Ukraine.

LAZO: While you are counting your coins, trying to get some food to feed your children, to make up your life, some people live like that using your taxes.

KAKISSIS: She says she hopes Ukrainians never forget that.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF KALEIIDO ET AL.'S "OUTSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.