February 3, 2023 - 4:00pm

Tuesday marked a favourite date in the calendars of think tankers and political scientists everywhere: the release of Transparency International’s annual “Corruption Perceptions” index. The index throws up interesting results every year, but the ranking for 2022 takes on particular significance amid heated debate over Ukraine’s EU aspirations.  

Some of the index’s results are decidedly odd, such as the Czech Republic ranking one place below Qatar, despite allegations that the Gulf state has been operating an international bribery network to buy the favour of EU politicians. 

But surveying Europe’s results as a whole, perhaps the most interesting finding is that Ukraine and Russia sit together at the top of the corruption league table. President Volodymyr Zelensky has been on an anti-corruption drive ahead this week’s EU summit, in which he hopes to impress Brussels leaders. Already, though, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has warned that EU membership is ‘a long way off’ for Ukraine. After 10 high-level resignations last week, Zelensky launched another round where the houses of billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and former interior minister Arsen Avakov were searched.

Zelensky is eager to prove to EU leaders that he is unafraid to root out corruption in the highest ranks, and Transparency International points out that, unlike Russia, perceptions of Ukraine are on an upward curve.

But corruption is a long-standing issue and remains arguably the biggest stumbling block to Ukraine’s aspirations to become a fully-fledged member of the Western international order. Zelensky is showing determination to change perceptions, but it doesn’t help that prior to Russia’s invasion, the President himself was accused of corrupt relations with Kolomoisky.

The issue has been put on the backburner amid a determination to support Ukraine’s war effort. But especially in some Eastern European countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, stereotypes of corruption in Ukraine are deeply ingrained among large swathes of the public.

Transparency International’s index suggests that the same is true for the “experts and businesspeople” who provide data for the rankings. This is concerning for Ukraine, because a persistently low score in “the most widely used global corruption ranking in the world” is likely to be cited by EU leaders who remain deeply concerned about cutting corners in the country’s accession negotiations.

Russia’s even lower score is no surprise, and the country has hovered at around the same level for years: Transparency International describes Russia as “the very embodiment of a kleptocracy”. Specific motivations for Russia’s downgrading this year are left vague, with most of the focus on the international impact of Putin’s aggression. But the Kremlin’s suppression of war critics and a string of mysterious deaths of business leaders in 2022 can’t have helped.

It should be remembered that Transparency International’s index is based on subjective opinions, so its results shouldn’t necessarily be taken as sacrosanct. But in the context of war in Ukraine, the fact that perceptions of corruption continue to dog Kyiv takes on a new significance. With EU leaders meeting Zelensky this week to discuss Ukraine’s future, this ranking may provide ammunition for those arguing that Ukraine is still years — potentially decades — away from meeting their conditions for membership.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz