KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine's government took a first step on Tuesday to securing new laws on tackling top-level corruption, hoping to ease public discontent before elections in a nation beset by a separatist rebellion.
The proposed laws - presented by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk in the run up to the Oct. 26 parliamentary polls - will oblige high-level officials in government, the judiciary and law-enforcement to declare the financial and asset holdings and transactions of themselves and their families.
Bribery has been widespread at virtually all levels of Ukrainian government and public life since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Under the legislation, the declared income of civil servants will be measured against their life-style and property holdings, and an independent anti-corruption agency will conduct investigations where there are discrepancies.
The proposed laws, which passed a first reading in parliament on Tuesday and will have a second and final reading next week, are part of a drive by the pro-Western leadership to raise Ukraine to European standards. Through this, the country wants boost its eligibility to join mainstream Europe despite the conflict in the east.
They run in parallel to a separate program of "lustration" aimed at rooting out government officials closely identified with Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted from the presidency by street protests in February and fled to Russia.
"Passing this packet of anti-corruption laws ... will give Ukraine a chance to set out on the path of a real fight against corruption and it will be one of the crucial elements in the plan for Ukraine's economic recovery," Yatseniuk told parliament.
The economy is shrinking rapidly due to the slow pace of reform, huge damage to manufacturing and energy industries in the east inflicted by the conflict, and by endemic corruption.
Documents requiring signature for a proposed investment to progress can sometimes languish for weeks in a civil servant's "in-tray" until a hefty bribe is negotiated.
The European Union and Western business associations say the culture of corruption is one of the main reasons deterring Western investors who have fled the country in their droves in the past five years.
President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected to replace Yanukovich in May, is hoping this month's polls will produce a strong coalition that will support his push for a peace plan dealing with the separatists while keeping Ukraine on a course of European integration.
More than 3,500 people have been killed in the fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in the industrial east, according to United Nations figures.
But Poroshenko and his allies, such as Yatseniuk, face constant criticism from radical elements that nothing concrete has yet been done to cleanse the political and social system.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by David Stamp)