Ukraine on the Brink of Kleptocracy

Barricades at Independence Square in Kiev have become a most frequent sight in recent years. (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko, CC license)

On January 3rd former Georgian President Michael Saakashvili’s plea for asylum in Ukraine was turned down, removing a key obstacle to deport him to Georgia. If deported, he will likely be show-trialed without a fair chance of defense.


Since Saakashvili broke his alliance with President Poroshenko, the Ukrainian authorities have been working overtime to get rid of their new political opponent. The Soviet-style harassment campaign started with stripping him off his Ukrainian citizenship (a decision judged illegal by most independent experts), denying him entry into Ukraine, and arbitrary arrests of his aides. Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko tried to bring about his own political show trial of Saakashvili, which he had to abandon on November 13th, formally due to weak evidence, but in effect due to pressure from the EU and the US.


While Saakashvili is no saintly figure, the campaign against him shows the worrying extent to which the judiciary and security apparatus are once again being dragged into the dirty tricks of politics. Lutsenko himself was once a victim of a show trial under the Yanukovych regime. Now he enacts them on behalf of Poroshenko.


While the Saakashvili saga drags on, the ruling parties are busy dismantling the most effective anti-corruption agency Ukraine has ever seen. On November 6th Block Poroshenko and People’s Front introduced a bill calling for the dismissal of Artem Sytnyk as head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and tightening political control over the bureau.


Sytnyk’s ‘crime’ was to bring indictments for corruption and graft against high-ranking oligarchs, presidential advisers, and the son of a former prime minister. Despite international observers assessing NABU’s investigations as watertight, the Ukrainian judiciary turned down all the cases. International pressure has so far prevented the Rada from holding a final vote on the law, but it is still out there and may resurface once the West is distracted by other things.


Moreover, the bill is just the tip of the iceberg of the Ukrainian establishment’s war on anti-corruption efforts. NABU’s investigators have been arrested, its offices have been searched by the SBU, and administrative decrees have been used to block it from accessing information or, conversely, swamping it with truckloads of useless “information” to be processed – while the suspects got away.


The courts, too, are in the process of being compromised. Twenty-five of the 113 judges recently appointed to Ukraine’s new supreme court do not meet integrity criteria: they possess unjustified assets and/or have engaged in cases recognized as political persecution or violated human rights as confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights.


Vacancies for the new State Bureau of Investigations (SBI), set to take over investigating high-level corruption from the General Prosecutor’s Office (PGO) were filled without proper transparency, and the new leaders come from the ranks of the old state prosecutor’s office. Equally, Poroshenko’s proposal for an anti-corruption court dismissed the advice of the Venice Commission and would not provide the necessary independence from the political and judicial hierarchy for such an important court.


E-declarations of income and possessions of state employees have so far not resulted in any criminal investigations, primarily because the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP) that should monitor the E-declarations is under the control of the oligarchs.


Finally, the fall of 2017 witnessed increased attacks on anti-corruption activists, NGOs, and investigative journalists. From politically motivated arrests to fabricated evidence, organized protests, harassment, and open intimidation, the list of dubious activities used to undermine investigative work is long.


With these actions, Poroshenko is quickly reversing the progress in rule of law and separation of powers made in Ukraine since the revolution of dignity. If this continues, Ukraine will again be a quasi-authoritarian kleptocracy in which few holders of power use the state apparatus to advance their private interests.


For Europe, the concern is that the Ukrainian elites are carrying out this agenda while posing as “pro-European” and claiming to lead the country towards Europe. But the events of the previous months show that, with the current political class in power, there is no European future for Ukraine. Like in Moldova before, the private enrichment of ostensibly “pro-European” politicians will only discredit the Union, diminish its influence and derail the reform process within the country. The EU, therefore, needs to act now if it wants to maintain credibility in the Eastern Neighbourhood.


For now, diplomatic protests from the United States, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund have prevented the worst. The EU has withheld the third package of macro financial assistance, but this will not prevent Ukraine from backsliding further, given that it can now borrow from financial markets.


The EU has also threatened to suspend visa-liberalization, as Ukraine no longer meets the criteria for visa-free travel (introduced following reforms in 2016). European leaders are understandably reluctant to carry out this threat because it would harm average Ukrainians rather than the corrupt elite.


Targeted freezes on European assets owned by particularly corrupt and reform-blocking members of the Ukrainian power elite would be a much better instrument. This would send a clear signal in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, that Ukraine’s self-styled ‘pro-European’ elites are nothing of the sort. Moreover, a threat to his re-election and power may be the only language Poroshenko understands.


Many Europeans shy away from confronting the Ukrainian leadership this directly as they fear that this would damage Ukraine’s struggle for independence and sovereignty vis a vis Russia. But this hesitation is misplaced. Corruption and sovereignty are distinct issues which must be treated as such.


Ukraine as a country deserves support for its territorial integrity because Russia has illegally invaded and annexed parts of its country. This behavior by Moscow can by no means be justified or ex-post legalized because Ukraine’s officials are corrupt. Equally, if the current Ukrainian government fails to deliver on its promises to fight corruption (as obligated under the EU-Ukraine-DCFTA) this must have consequences, regardless of its struggle with Russia.


The central demands of the revolution of dignity were to transform Ukraine into a country that respects the rule of law, treats its citizens equally and respectfully, and puts checks and balances in place to prevent the unlawful enrichment of political elites. Poroshenko and his government have failed miserably regarding all of these demands. Increasingly, his administration is transforming new Ukraine into a mirror image of the old Ukraine. European leaders should not provide geopolitical fig-leaves for this regression.


This article first appeared at ECFR. Click here to go to the original.

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