His family fled to Israel, but this activist fights for rule of law in Ukraine

His family fled to Israel, but this activist fights for rule of law in Ukraine

Opposing corruption in Ukraine can be difficult and dangerous, but Oleksander Lemenov believes history is on the side of reformers

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Oleksander Lemenov outside the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, on February 3. 2020 (Facebook)
Oleksander Lemenov outside the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, on February 3. 2020 (Facebook)

Three months ago, on the morning of November 8, Oleksander Lemenov was attacked as he walked from his home in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to a nearby metro stop.

He was hit in the head from behind with brass knuckles or a similar weapon, then squirted with pepper spray. Lemenov, an attorney and anti-corruption reformer, described the incident in a Ukrainian-language Facebook post later that day.

“The [two assailants] ran away like chickens,” wrote Lemenov, 30, a former athlete with the Ukrainian national team in boxing and martial arts. “If someone thinks that an attack can stop me from fighting for a new Ukraine, they are wasting their time.”

Lemenov, who sat down for an interview with The Times of Israel last month at a Kyiv bistro, is part of a generation of civil society activists who are trying to transform Ukrainian society. He is Jewish, but said that contrary to depictions in pro-Russian media, anti-Semitism is not a factor in the Ukrainian revolutionary circles he travels in.

“People know I am Jewish and my family lives in Israel,” he said. “It is not an issue.”

Following the 2014 Maidan Revolution, protests that culminated in the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych, Lemenov became a law enforcement expert at Reanimation Package of Reforms, a coalition of organizations supported by the United States and European governments. He currently runs an organization called Statewatch,  where his focus is introducing Western norms of rule of law and unbiased professionalism to Ukraine’s law enforcement and judiciary. He does not work for the Ukrainian government, but serves as a watchdog and consultant for reforms the Ukrainian government has introduced as a result of pressure from Western governments and reform-minded Ukrainians.

Despite widespread public support, some wealthy Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians are unhappy with the threat such reforms pose to the old system, Lemenov said. “We are trying to do something and all the political heavyweights want to stop it.”

“When President Petro Poroshenko was in power, he personally opposed reforms,” Lemenov said.

As for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won a landslide victory in April 2019 in part by campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, Lemenov thinks he is probably well-intentioned, but callow.

“Zelensky says ‘OK, let’s fight against corruption.’ But he is a businessman from the mediasphere, a comedian. He cannot understand all these issues.”

The attack on Lemenov was not an isolated case in post-Maidan Ukraine. Each year sees dozens of attacks on journalists and civil society activists, some of them fatal. Lemenov receives threats on a regular basis.

The men who assaulted him had been paid a mere $2,000 to do so, Lemenov said. “It’s because of my work. It’s a problem for them that I’m good at what I do,” he chuckled. “We’re successful at changing the prosecution system.”

Lemenov was chairman of the selection committee for the State Investigation Bureau, a newly created body that is similar to the FBI in the United States. He is currently working to select prosecutors for the newly created Office of the Prosecutor General, an institution that has replaced the notoriously corrupt Prosecutor’s General Office.

Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Oleksander Lemenov after he was attacked by allegedly hired assailants on Noveber 8, 2020 (Facebook)

The reforms Lemenov and other civil society actors are trying to implement enjoy widespread public support. In a 2019 survey funded by USAID, Ukrainians were asked to name the three most important issues facing Ukraine today. The largest percentage of respondents (55 percent) said “fighting corruption.”

Lemenov named three groups: oligarchs who benefit from corruption, politicians who take bribes, and the Russian government as the main opponents of anti-corruption reforms.

Asked who was behind the assault, Lemenov said, “We know but it’s a secret of the investigation.”

Comparing Ukraine to Israel

Lemenov’s parents live in Israel. Throughout the interview, he spoke of Israel as a model of rule of law and clean government that Ukraine should strive to emulate.

“My family has lived in Israel for seven years. My father says it is interesting to compare Israel and Ukraine because in Israel there is almost zero corruption.”

Some Israelis would beg to differ. Israel fell to 35th place worldwide in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, a spot in the bottom third of OECD countries. According to an Israeli Democracy Institute survey, 58 percent of Israelis see their leadership as corrupt or very corrupt, up from 43 percent in 2014. Fifty-four percent of Israelis say they strongly believe that “Israeli democracy is in grave danger.” Meanwhile, Israel’s prime minister was indicted in January on charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery for allegedly doing political favors for various wealthy tycoons, precisely the sort of practice Lemenov and other anti-corruption activists are trying to uproot from Ukraine.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts to the Israel’s Police recommendation he be indicted for bribery in a pair of criminal investigations on February 13, 2018. (Screen capture: Facebook)

But when Lemenov described how corruption manifests itself in Ukraine, which is in 120th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index, as compared to Israel’s 35th place, it became clear that a wide chasm separates the two countries.

Lemenov explained that bribery and influence peddling are not the exception but the rule in Ukraine.

“Let’s say I’m a Ukrainian member of parliament. I introduce a bill that is in your interest, that allows you to extract something, like oil or gas. And you pay me for that. Or if you want an investigation against you stopped, you pay a bribe to the prosecutor or the judge. This is very common in Ukraine.”

Lemenov said that wealthy Ukrainians can pay up to $3 million to be included in a party’s list of candidates running for parliament, because they know that once in parliament, they will be able to recoup more than the amount they shelled out through bribes from constituents.

At the everyday level, he said, Ukrainians pay bribes to immigration officials when they want to get a passport or visa, to traffic police, to doctors, even to university deans and professors.

People skate at a free ice rink set up outside the Ukrainian President’s office in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“For instance, 14 years ago, it was a really happy situation for me that I started my university degree without a bribe. Maybe 80 or 90 percent of my fellow students paid some money, from $12,000 to $15,000, just to be a student.”

According to the World Bank, Ukraine’s adjusted net national income per capita is $2,333 while that of Israel is $34,950. In a survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, 7 percent of Ukrainian respondents said they did not have enough money for food, 29 percent said they had enough money for food but could not always buy clothes, and 45 percent said they could afford food and clothes but not household appliances cars, or apartments, leaving only a sliver of Ukrainians who enjoy a lifestyle that in the West would be considered middle class.

Lemenov said that Ukraine’s current corrupt system breeds low productivity.

Oleksander Lemenov speaking to The Times of Israel in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 13, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

“In Ukraine, my father was a businessman, but his initial education was in engineering from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. He told me engineers in Israel work with machines that cost $1.5 million apiece. In Ukraine, engineers work with some kind of old instruments. Even if you have the same education, you are not as productive.”

One of the areas where corruption is most striking is in the health care system. Several years ago, Lemenov’s mother had health problems, he said.

“We paid a lot of money to doctors here but got no results,” he said. “My parents moved to Israel. There, they pay a small health insurance premium, 300 shekels ($88) and my mother had three surgeries for no [extra] money. In Israel, my parents paid no money and saw results while in Ukraine they paid lots of money and got no results.”

In Ukrainian hospitals, he said, there is a waiting list for surgeries. But if someone doesn’t want to wait, they pay a bribe to the hospital director.

“This really happens. I have a wealthy friend who needed a heart operation and got himself to the top of the list.”

For his friend, Lemenov said, this was normal and acceptable behavior.

A photograph posted by Oleksander Lemenov on December 10, 2013 during the Maidan protests (Facebook)

“For him, it was alright, but for me it’s not. That’s why my parents moved to Israel. They moved during the Yanukovich regime. I said to them, ‘No, we’ll destroy this regime. I do not believe he will be president in two years from now.’”

Yanukovych was elected president in February 2010. He became known for filling key government posts with loyalists from his own region of Donetsk, for prosecuting and jailing political rivals, and for allegedly wildly enriching himself and his cronies during his four years as president.

In November 2013, Yanukovych abruptly announced that he would not sign a planned EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Instead, Ukraine would pursue closer ties with Russia. Thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets to protest the move, shouting “Ukraine is Europe.” After Yanukovych’s riot police beat student demonstrators on November 29, the demonstrations grew exponentially, attracting hundreds of thousands of people who were now angry about the perceived brutality and corruption of Yanukovych’s regime. The protests continued for three months, with riot police attempting to disperse them violently, and killing over 100 protesters.

On February 22, 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia; soon after, Russia invaded Crimea while Russian-backed separatists began fighting Ukrainian troops in the Donbass region, in a conflict that is ongoing and in which thousands of Ukrainians have been killed.

According to historian Mychailo Wynnyckyj, author of “Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War: A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity,” the Maidan revolution was driven by not by the proletariat but by Ukraine’s nascent “bourgeois creative class,” which he describes as entrepreneurs, journalists, academics, and white-collar managers who opposed the oligarch economy, whereby a few rich businessmen monopolized certain sectors of the economy and often transferred the proceeds offshore.

“For these new entrants into the political elite, Ukraine’s revolution represented a watershed between a post-Soviet period of development and a new Ukraine. Their ‘habitus’ differed dramatically from that of the evolved ‘Homo Sovieticus’ on which the pre-Maidan oligarchic system had been based: they were plugged-in to social networks and new media, and they cultivated trendy images rather than craving distinguished or sacrosanct authority; for them, social capital was more important than economic capital; meritocracy was the hegemonic ideology, but the ideal was a society structured heterarchically.”

The extent to which far-right and anti-Semitic groups played a role in Ukraine’s revolution is a contentious issue, with pro-Russian media painting much of the movement with a fascist and anti-Semitic brush, while many Ukrainians claim that anti-Semitism played a marginal to nonexistent role.

Why it’s hard for Westerners to understand Ukraine

During our interview, Lemenov reeled off the names of several new law enforcement bodies that reform-minded Ukrainians, with support from the United States and European Union, had helped create since the Maidan Revolution.

“There are several success stories, the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the creation of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) and the Higher Anti-Corruption Court of Ukraine.”

Another newly created body, the State Bureau of Investigation, has suffered some setbacks. Its director, Roman Truba, was fired in December by President Zelensky after civil society activists accused Truba of being close to an associate of ousted president Yanukovych and allegedly carrying out politically motivated prosecutions.

The reason for all these new anti-corruption bodies, explained Lemenov, was that corruption is so entrenched in Ukraine that it is hard to reform existing institutions from within.

“If you compare Ukraine and Israel,” he said, “in Ukraine it’s a really, really complicated system, It’s a corruption network. It’s corrupt from top to bottom.”

In a separate interview, Josef Zissels, a former Soviet dissident and Ukrainian Jewish communal leader, described his country along similar lines.

“Westerners cannot really understand what is happening in Eurasian countries because it is a totally different space. You have corruption in the United States and in Israel. But there it’s like a sickness. Here it’s not a sickness. It’s part of the culture.”

Ukrainian Jewish community leader and former dissident Josef Zissels on January 13, 2020 (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

“In the United States,” Zissels continued, “people are raised with the expectation that if you do something wrong you’ll be punished and your judicial system will be independent. Here, and in all Eurasian post-Soviet countries, the person who is your boss is much more important than anything in the constitution because the guy who is your boss can bribe or influence the constitution. You have no faith in the rule of law. And you don’t follow it because you are trying to survive.”

The ‘new Ukraine’

Scholars of Ukraine who are frustrated with its slow transition toward the rule of law frequently cite the theories of Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North, who along with his two colleagues John Wallis and Barry Weingast wrote a 2009 book, “Violence and Social Orders,” in which they posit that there are essentially two types of societies — “limited access orders” (most societies throughout human history), and “open access orders” (the handful of societies that evolved into rule-of-law democracies over the last two centuries).

Photo source: Amazon.com

One thing noticed by a visitor to Kyiv is that the streets seem relatively safe. According to North, Wallis and Weingast, societies without rule of law are not necessarily anarchic or violent. They can be peaceful and stable, but they achieve this by limiting access to power and wealth to a few elites who benefit from monopolies or economic rents — profits earned not through free market competition but through exclusive control over an asset or resource that is in demand — and keep the rest of the population in check through patronage systems. Most societies throughout history have been limited-access orders. Only a few have in recent centuries made the transition to open-access orders, where anybody, not just elites, can compete economically and politically, where institutions are impersonal and where rule of law prevails. The transition from a limited-access to an open-access order can take decades, if it happens at all, with much backsliding.

Natalie Gryvnyak, a Ukrainian journalist who knows Lemenov, told The Times of Israel that while the battle against corruption can be painful and slow, the biggest change she saw after the Maidan Revolution was a mentality shift.

“ I heard a joke, made by one of the activists, that before the Maidan people were afraid of the state and now the state is afraid of people. I think people started to feel like we are responsible. We would like to change things and develop our country and we are taking that responsibility upon ourselves.”

Gryvnyak expressed these views in the video below, which she recorded on the eve of the 2016 Dutch referendum on a Ukrainian Association Agreement with the European Union.

Zissels, the Jewish community leader, also believes that Ukraine is making slow but steady progress.

“I spent six years in Soviet prison because I was a human rights defender,” he said. “Back then, a tiny fraction of the population were dissidents. But right now in Ukraine, which is a big country with more than 40 million people, after our revolution on the Maidan, five million people are already different from others. There’s been a mentality shift. If there is ever a threat that we are getting too close to Russia, there will be another revolution.”

“We’re moving from post-Soviet mentality to a Western mentality,” Lemenov told The Times of Israel. “Ten or fifteen years ago we had a high level of homophobia. Now I don’t think we do. Fifteen to twenty years ago people said, corruption is not a problem. Right now we have really good investigative journalism. We love to watch investigative episodes that expose corruption and it puts pressure on the justice system to resolve cases.”

Asked why he stays in Ukraine fighting an uphill battle against corruption rather than joining his family in Israel, Lemenov replied, “because I really understand and really believe that we can have our own Israel in Ukraine.”

“I’m optimistic,” he added, “We need to give it ten, fifteen years and do our best. Then we’ll get a result.”

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