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Back in December, former USAID project officer Josh Cohen described the scale of corruption in Ukraine so breathtaking that “a Nigerian prince would be embarrassed.” Since then, the Nigerians actually were embarrassed, this time by British Prime Minister David Cameron’s who quipped that the country was “fantastically corrupt” prior to the May 12 Anti-Corruption Summit in London. Ukraine was represented at the summit by Roman Nasirov, the head of Ukraine’s Fiscal Services who has, unsurprisingly, been accused of owning illicit real estate in London, watering down his pledge to clamp down on the more than $12 billion that disappear each year from Ukraine’s public coffers.

But when Ukrainian diplomats involved in smuggling cigarettes into Europe were caught red-handed at the Slovakian border last week, the political cartoon that is Ukraine’s anti-corruption fight reached a new low. Ukrainian officials have announced a full inquiry into the May 21 incident. The foreign ministry says it has recalled Oksana Lischyshyn from her post as first secretary of Ukraine’s embassy to Slovakia, after Ukrainian officials identified her husband as the erstwhile smuggler. Authorities add that the $25,000 worth of cigarettes was in an embassy vehicle driven by a man holding a diplomatic passport who was also carrying a forged diplomatic document that claiming his cargo was “diplomatic mail.”

That Ukrainians might be smuggling cigarettes is as much cliché as it is common, since the country has a lengthy and notorious reputation for shipping its inexpensive smokes to Europe via the black market. The source of many of these cigarettes is neighbouring Belarus, the unofficial smuggling hub of Europe where a pack costs less than €0.5, which largely responsible for the roughly €10 billion the EU loses yearly in unclaimed taxes. Even a fatal shootout last July involving Right Sector members in Mukacheve, near the Hungarian and Slovakian borders, was blamed on lowly cigarette smugglers and organised crime by Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko and other officials – despite the arguments that it was politically motivated.

However, the latest sordid little episode with a diplomatic twist is indicative of a widespread smuggling problem across Ukraine and comes just as the nation’s parliament refuses to impose criminal penalties for tobacco and alcohol smuggling. A bill that would have imposed stiffer penalties, including seizures and imprisonment, failed on its first reading in the Verkhovna Rada this month. Smuggling activity that normally thrives within Ukraine’s culture of corruption has been exacerbated in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk by the economic blockade imposed by Kiev, a boon for traffickers that are now charging ridiculous prices for basic commodities.

What’s frustrating to the international community is that no matter how much help the United States sends to combat smuggling at airports, or Poland sends for equipment, or the EU sends for technical advice, the powerful class of oligarchs, officials and ordinary Ukrainians keep the habit going. Equally frustrating for Ukrainians who are passionate about creating an ethical and just system is the knowledge that even if smuggling and other forms of corruption were criminalized and codified with severe penalties, the legal framework means nothing without any reform in the prosecutorial process.

Ukraine’s future: Up in smoke?

Indeed, while some were hoping for a linear political evolution following the Euromaidan, with the establishment joining hands and working together to accelerate the country’s development, the reality is that Poroshenko’s regime has accomplished precious little.

Rather than seeing Ukraine develop a prosecutorial court system that honours transparency and the rule of law, members of the citizen advocacy group Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kiev say that it’s the Prosecutor General’s Office that’s harassing and intimidating them as they seek system reform.

While Yury Lutsenko is the fourth prosecutor general to occupy the post since Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office, no official of the ancién or current regimes has so far been prosecuted. Lutsenko’s history as a pro-democracy activist who was sent to jail himself by the deposed Yanukovych regime, a ruling that was later determined to be politically motivated, sets him apart from his unsuccessful predecessors. Yet the fact Lutsenko is a close ally of Poroshenko, himself an oligarch, and that his appointment was hurried through Parliament and also involved changing the law requiring the prosecutor general to have legal training – Lutsenko has a degree in engineering – raise questions over his independence. What’s more, Lutsenko’s own past has faced scrutiny over contracts awarded to his wife’s telecom firm.

The new Prosecutor General may still prove to be an exception and might even succeed in indicting the elected officials and oligarchs robbing Ukraine of its future, but he needs to prove that to the international community before it’s too late. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s stern warning last December that Ukraine has just “one more chance” to correct its course, and his rebuke over the “cancer of corruption” that is destroying its future, is but one voice of many.

For Europe, the stakes remain high. Ukraine – apart from sending cheap cigarettes to EU nations by way of its own diplomatic community – needs to show that its already troubled path toward EU integration is a priority, now, before it becomes just another opportunity that goes up in smoke.

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