Ukraine's Transparency Dilemma

Until February 24, Ukraine was a European leader in open data. Russia’s invasion has made maintaining transparent processes more difficult.

Ukraine's Transparency Dilemma

Until February 24, Ukraine was a European leader in open data. Russia’s invasion has made maintaining transparent processes more difficult.

Ukraine has one of the world’s most progressive laws on access to public information and in 2021 it ranked higher than most European countries. The full-scale Russian invasion has erased years of progress: experts note that sine February 24, Ukrainians have lost access to about 90 per cent of current data.
Ukraine has one of the world’s most progressive laws on access to public information and in 2021 it ranked higher than most European countries. The full-scale Russian invasion has erased years of progress: experts note that sine February 24, Ukrainians have lost access to about 90 per cent of current data. © Andrii Ianitskyi

As Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on, government officials have to balance security concerns with the need to keep operating and delivering services. Kseniia Semenova, a city council member in the capital Kyiv, knows this all too well.

“There are many deputies in the Kyiv city council who represent the interests of business groups rather than the community,” the 32-year-old Servant of the People lawmaker told IWPR. “For these deputies, it works in their favour that the public is minimally involved in the council's work.”

 Semenova noted that the city council – itself a potential target of Russian attack - had stopped announcing sessions, publishing agendas and protocols or broadcasting their meetings online. Journalists, activists and other citizens are no longer allowed to attend, although the council’s work continues.

Liudmyla Zlobina, 37, an environmental activist and lawyer, said that she had been particularly concerned about the status of a council decision on the future of the Sovsky Ponds Ecopark.

For a long time, a local millionaire had been trying to build skyscrapers on this site, 22 hectares of green space and water near the centre of Kyiv. The plans were opposed by activists and individual deputies in courts, at rallies and in the city council.

Activists developed the concept of creating a wetland wildlife park in this area, but with council business conducted behind closed doors, had no idea of the status of their petition.

“There were no meeting protocols, no broadcast, not even a video recording,” Zlobina told IWPR. “I had to write an information request to find out the result of the decision.”

Zlobina was lucky: the secretariat of the city council quickly responded to her request and confirmed that the deputies had greenlit the park. 

CLEAR TRANSPARENCY 

Ukraine has long prided itself on open government. It has one of the world’s most progressive laws on access to public information that allows citizens to receive official documents within five working days of a request, with the right to appeal in court if refused.  

Before the war, parliamentary and local council meetings were open to journalists; sessions were broadcast online and the agenda published in advance. Citizens could use their smartphones to easily find out how their members of parliament voted or the identity of the real owners of land, property, and companies.

Until recently, up to seven million Ukrainians used services based on open state data each month – a quarter of the adult population. In the European Open Data Maturity 2021 rating, Ukraine ranked sixth out of 34 countries, receiving a score of 94 per cent compared to an average European score of 81 per cent.

We have lost access to about 90 per cent of current data.

Public procurement took place online in the Prozorro system, which stores each bidding result and copies of all documents, including the final agreement. Ukrainian journalists have mastered how to analyse large amounts of procurement data to identify suspicious anomalies.

Open registries have also led to the rapid development of data-focused businesses and services supporting market analysis and economic intelligence.

 There are even media outlets like Dozorro, Nashi Groshi - Our Money in Ukrainian - which specialise in procurement investigations. 

Since the full-scale Russian invasion, many of these opportunities have disappeared, making the work of media, lawyers, entrepreneurs, economists and activists much more difficult. 

We have lost access to about 90 per cent of current data,” said Sergi Milman, CEO of YouControl, a verification company. YouControl provides an automated search service for all available information about individual entrepreneurs or companies in all possible databases.

The service also helps to establish links between different companies, the history of changes in ownership and directors, as well as automatically checking if the company has been included in the investigations of journalists.

After the war began, the registers of real estate, legal entities, and debtors as well as registration data of marriages, births and deaths were amongst those closed. Operational information on the implementation of budgets also disappeared. On February 28, the Ukrainian government allowed public procurement to bypass the Prozorro system, accelerating decision-making while making it opaque.

“The decision to hide registers from public access was due to increased Russian cyberattacks and possible misuse of open data,” Vitaliy Moroz, a consultant in digital technology, told IWPR. “Russian security services rely on access to open data to identify pro-Ukrainian activists and opinion leaders in the occupied territories and threaten high-ranking officials with targeted attacks.”

State authorities also began to respond more slowly to citizens' inquiries, with some refusing to respond until the end of martial law, which was declared on February 24 as Russia started its full-scale invasion.

Technically, officials may be right. 

"The conditions have changed since military actions are a kind of force majeure, and, under Part 6 of Article 22 of the law on access to public information, this gives a formal reason for postponing the response to the request,” said Roman Golovenko, a lawyer from the Institute of Mass Information NGO.

However, he said that while this was not always justified by the actual state of affairs - with the law mandating that the official had to prove that it was truly impossible to provide an answer to the request in time - “to check now how much a particular manager is limited in resources is not very realistic”.

Golovenko also noted that some local councils had closed their meetings to the public without clear justification.

BACK TO OPENNESS? 

The government began to relax restrictions in early summer. On June 20, the local state court administration announced the resumption of the register’s work, initially in a “test mode”. It is unclear if this register is being filled with up-to-date data. On June 28, the government also returned public procurement to the Prozorro system.

Experts argue that open data aids the search for potential collaborators and saboteurs, and that businesses need it to avoid cooperation with Russian companies and not be subject to sanctions. Foreign investors need open data to make decisions, while environmental information is vital for the preservation of life and health. 

On June 14, the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andrii Yermak, suggested creating a transparent control mechanism over Western weapons in Ukraine. 

“The best recipe against Russian fakes is transparency,” he said.

Milman of YouControl said that the conflict only made transparency more important.

“It is suicide for a warring country to find itself without open data,” he said. “We create problems for ourselves.”

Nonetheless, most registers remain closed, with local governments and central authorities alike still reluctant to open up to the public.  

Individuals have been taking action to speed the process. In Kyiv, deputy Semenova has been posting documents and video recordings of city council meetings on social media, proving that one deputy out of 120 can make local government open. Whether deputies in other local councils will follow suit is unclear.

This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).

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