NGO Disclosure in Ukraine

Lloyd Green for New Pathway, New York City.

Ukraine is working to distance itself from Russia (and from its former Soviet days) in many ways. One of the most important is to inject Western-style transparency into every facet of public life. This includes mandating public disclosures about both governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

To that end, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law last year requiring civil servants to disclose their incomes, assets and large expenditures. Parliament expanded the law in March to require employees of some nongovernmental organizations to submit detailed financial declarations as well. Under this provision, NGO employees engaged in anti-corruption projects in Ukraine will be held to the same standards of transparency as employees of the government.

The idea was to promote openness and honesty in public life. When the original legislation passed in 2016, it received accolades at home and abroad for its transparency. Not so for the new amendment. Critics in the West say that requiring NGO employees to comply with the same disclosure requirements as their governmental counterparts undermines their ability to act independently.

But the critics are wrong. NGOs involved in influencing the Ukrainian government should be held to the same level of accountability as their counterparts in government. In a nation where foreign troops occupy part of its territory, transparency in all aspects of public life is imperative. In fact, many of the NGOs operating in Ukraine receive funding from foreign governments, including Russia, and engage in active lobbying there. It’s only fair that organizations and individuals who benefit from foreign funding – and take part in political life in Ukraine – should be subjected to the same scrutiny that is applied to governmental officials.

The vehemence with which Ukrainian NGOs have denounced the new amendment is perplexing. They have rejected the notion of declaring their incomes and have failed to provide an alternative. They have been unwilling to be regulated by the state and, even more puzzling, they have refused to regulate themselves. In other words, they want to apply anti-corruption procedures to everyone but themselves.

Ukrainian NGOs and their Western supporters have called the new amendment an attack on their freedom. This is strange given that both the United States and the United Kingdom have similar oversight rules. In the U.S., the top employees at tax-exempt nonprofits are required to report their earnings publicly. In addition, the U.S. requires lobbyists who receive foreign funding to register and to detail their activities under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Similarly, in the U.K., nonprofits have to submit meticulous reports about their activities and expenditures.

What then are the NGO’s working in Ukraine afraid of? In addition to asserting an impingement on their freedom of speech, the NGOs say they fear retaliation from lawmakers. The truth probably is simpler: most senior NGO activists in Ukraine receive far better compensation than government employees, a fact they’d like to keep to themselves. And they often have close financial ties to other governments. Nothing is inherently wrong with either of these things. But all of these facts deserve to be on full display for the people of Ukraine to evaluate.

Transparency in Ukraine is particularly crucial because the Russian government controls several NGOs that are determined to undermine Ukraine’s cooperation with the West. The best example involves Victor Medvedchuk, a former Ukraine lawmaker who is close to Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk established an NGO called Ukrainian Choice in 2012. It’s supposed to support democracy and citizens’ rights. Instead, it operates as yet another bullhorn for Kremlin propaganda. It promotes integration with Russia while spreading harsh information about non-Russian citizens. In March 2014, during Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, the organization disrupted and blocked Ukrainian military personnel. Needless to say, Ukrainian citizens deserve to know who is behind such actions.

NGOs understand the value of transparency. Indeed, they have been among the most effective and vocal supporters of the original legislation requiring government officials to report their financial dealings. It is only proper then that they be held to the same standards of transparency as their colleagues in government. The Ukrainian people deserve to know who is influencing their elected officials and where that influence is coming from.

Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988, and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.