To gauge whether President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration can make a decisive break with the past and escape corruption’s gravitational pull in Ukraine, it will be worth watching the progress, or lack thereof, of a major infrastructure investment in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia.
The project involves the construction of a nine-kilometer bridge across the Dnipro River, which bisects Zaporizhia, a city of about 750,000.
In recent years, the project has been an object of ridicule. Ground-breaking occurred in 2004 amid much fanfare. The bridge was widely considered an urgent necessity, given that the city’s other major span across the Dnipro, dating to the 1950s, was decaying and constantly choked with traffic.
When construction started, a sign near the entrance to the construction site stated confidently that “1825 days [i.e. five years] remain until the end of the project.”
That deadline has been missed by 11 years and counting; the only tangible evidence that construction has occurred in the past 16 years are two 166-meter-high concrete support towers. Initially dubbed by local media as the construction project of the century, the bridge has come to be derided as a monument to Ukraine’s pervasive corruption.
Zelensky, a former comedian who was elected Ukraine’s president in April 2019, visited the city in August of this year, becoming the latest in a long line of top officials to promise the project’s speedy completion. Work on the bridge resumed this March. If finished, it would be the tallest and most expensive bridge in Ukraine.
While sounding an optimistic note, Zelensky appears clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. Ukraine continues to be battered by a variety of economic woes, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country also is grappling with a simmering, Russia-backed separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. As he presses ahead with his ambitious reform agenda, Zelensky must contend with shrinking popularity and criticism from Western countries over his failure to rein in corruption.
“Did I think one year ago it would be so difficult to change the country for the better? No, I didn’t,” Zelensky admitted in an address to parliament on October 20.
Zelensky is betting that a broad infrastructure initiative can revive his political fortunes. “Zelensky knows how to do PR, and has a good understanding of what is needed,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, said.
The Zaporizhia Bridge is often portrayed as a showpiece of the improvement plan, which has generated widespread public enthusiasm. Over the next two years, the plan envisions new schools, medical clinics and sports facilities, along with the construction or repair of over 6,000 kilometers of roads. The price tag for road repair alone in 2020 is almost $4 billion, and expenditures could be higher in 2021. Government officials say more than 2,000 kilometers of roads have already been built or repaved. “Ukraine has a lot of problems, but the roads are one of the most visible problems, and Zelensky wants to show he can achieve results,” Fesenko said.
Zelensky has framed the infrastructure initiative as his personal undertaking. It has a dedicated website, pages on social networks and billboards set up on roadsides promoting it as a “program of the president of Ukraine.” But civic activists have complained about the lack of documentation. “It’s mostly a website and a Facebook page: there aren’t really many details,” said Marina Ansiforova, a journalist working for Our Money, a watchdog that monitors public tenders.
Some civil society actors are criticizing the government’s decision to divert roughly $317 million from a special fund meant to address the coronavirus pandemic to road repair, an area that is widely perceived as an inviting target for corruption. Concerns have only increased since the late September adoption of new rules that can make it easier for municipalities to borrow money for road repairs.
More broadly, skeptics say the infrastructure initiative looks more like a haphazard gathering of hundreds of disparate projects rather than a cohesive plan. For example, the bridge in Zaporizhia isn’t listed on the program’s website.
Even so, Zelensky appears eager to show progress on the bridge. It took only three months from the initial announcement of a tender to revive the bridge project to the awarding of the $420-million contract to ONUR, a Turkish company that has operated in Ukraine since 2004. Several anti-corruption NGOs voiced concerns about the tender process, pointing to suspicious connections between ONUR and another company involved. Nevertheless, work started almost immediately.
When Zelensky arrived in Zaporizhia to inspect the site in August, he presented the project manager, Mehmet Emrah Bagyapan, a signed construction helmet with the hand-written note that read, “To be finished in two years!”
“Mr Onur [the company’s CEO] promised we’d finish it in two years,” Bagyapan told a Eurasianet reporter while sitting in his office in Zaporizhia, overlooking the construction site. “And his promise is our promise.”
More than 500 people are now working around the clock, including weekends, to meet the tight deadline.
Since 2004, shaky financing, political woes and corruption allegations have combined to stall bridge construction. “The absurdity started from the very beginning,” said Vladimir Moskalenko, a journalist and local deputy from the opposition Fatherland Party.
Just a few months after groundbreaking in 2004, Ukraine found itself embroiled in the so-called Orange Revolution, which overturned the results of a fraudulent presidential election. The defeated candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, who is known as perhaps the most corrupt politician in post-Soviet Ukraine, was a big supporter of the bridge. Construction stopped quickly after he conceded defeat in the Orange Revolution.
In 2005, a future president, Petro Poroshenko, visited Zaporizhia in his capacity as secretary of the country’s Defense and Security Council, and vowed to get the project back on track. The scene repeated itself over and over in the following years, as the state failed to come up with the necessary financing.
Despite the bridge’s sketchy legacy, locals now seem optimistic that it finally will be completed. “There seems to be more political will; they [officials] are more interested in PR than in stealing money,” said Moskalenko.
Fabrice Deprez is a journalist based in Kyiv.