With Little Money And Lots Of Verve, Kiev Reporter Fights Corruption

In 20 years of independence, corruption in Ukraine has grown to a vast scale. In Kiev, a former journalist now heads a new anti-corruption unit — with no office, few resources and lots of conviction.

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Secretary of State John Kerry made a high profile visit to Kiev today, showing political support for Ukraine's new government. He promised a billion dollars in loan guarantees. With lesser due, a team from the International Monetary Fund arrived. They're there to assess the state of Ukraine's finances.

Well, chief among the country's many economic difficulties is the problem of rampant corruption. An investigative journalist is now set to lead Ukraine's new anti-corruption agency. NPR's Emily Harris has more now on the plans to break Ukraine's kickback culture.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: If you want to meet Tetiana Chornovol, go to Ukraine House, the big concrete downtown exhibition hall now used by protesters in Kiev. Free haircuts are available. There are sleeping mats, a library, clinic and a lecture series. It's not exactly an office but the proposed head of Ukraine's still-to-be-created anti-corruption agency does have space in a quiet room off to one side. Even with no official post yet, she is laying plans. It's not easy.

TETIANA CHORNOVOL: (Through translator) I'm starting not at zero, but way below.

HARRIS: Chornovol is 34 years old and famous for her investigative journalism. Two years ago, she scaled the garden walls of the fancy mansion belonging to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, offering a first glimpse of his opulence. She wrote stories about shell companies stealing sugar and a natural gas cheating scheme worth $2 billion. In December, she was badly beaten by unknown thugs and thrown in a ditch by the side of the road. In an interview two weeks later, she was asked who she believed was behind the attack.

CHORNOVOL: (Through translator) I have thought a lot about that. Over the past three years, I worked against one person in this country: Victor Yanukovych. Other people in my articles were there only because they worked in his interests or occupied a high rank in his hierarchy. So I think I was beaten because of him. I was on his blacklist.

HARRIS: The beating marked her as a people's hero. In the days after, protesters on Independence Square carried photos of her bruised and swollen face. But Chornovol says one big challenge is changing people's behavior.

CHORNOVOL: (Through translator) People from all walks of life participate in corruption on a small or large scale. I've talked to people who say, OK, the government is stealing, but if we were in power, we'd do the same thing.

HARRIS: Andrei Marusov chairs the board of Transparency International Ukraine. He says a study by Ukraine's Federation of Employees found that a billion dollars, 20 percent of the state budget, is siphoned off every year.

ANDREI MARUSOV: The U.S. now promises to provide Ukraine with $1 billion. On the other hand, last year, according to this federation, we lost one billion just for kickbacks, you know, for this assistance or whatever, gratitude during public bids.

HARRIS: President Obama announced a loan guarantee package for Ukraine today, worth $1 billion. Marusov says Western countries benefit from corruption in Ukraine.

MARUSOV: Corruption money received by Yanukovych or whoever else in this country, I mean, high political level officials, they're channeled to the West. And so they make Switzerland prosperous, you know, U.K.

HARRIS: Marusov isn't sure that an anti-corruption agency will ever be established in Ukraine. But there is a state prosecutor who now has tens of thousands of documents fished from the river near former President Yanukovych's mansion after he fled.

Dmytro Gnap is one of the journalists helping publish the documents online. He says revealing the web of corruption won't carry the weight of government action but he believes it will help.

DMYTRO GNAP: We are not expect that change the world in Ukraine in a day, sure. But we think that this work, step by step, will change Ukrainian politicians, Ukrainian policy, that this work will - systematically will cut Ukrainian field of corruption.

HARRIS: Like drops of water, he quotes a Ukrainian proverb, destroying stone. Emily Harris, NPR News, Kiev.

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