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President Poroshenko’s zugzwang

President Petro Poroshenko has faced a dilemma. If he supports the reforms requested by pro-European part of Ukrainian society, he will act against the basic interests of his own circle. However, if he acts in line with the interests of his associates, he will eventually find himself among the enemies of pro-European reforms.

February 2, 2018 - Yaroslav Mendus - Stories and ideas

The year 2018 has started badly for Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko. Journalists of the Ukrainian bureau of Radio Liberty reported on the secret holidays of the president in the Maldives. According to their estimates, the airfare and accommodation for six nights at the Cheval Blanc Randheli hotel for six adults and two children cost around 500,000 US dollars.

Ukraine’s public opinion has been divided: on the one hand, it is no secret that the current president is among the five richest Ukrainians, and according to the investment company Dragon Capital, he even managed to increase his wealth by seven per cent over the past year. Therefore, it seems that he can afford a weekly holiday for himself and his loved ones in the paradise.

Others have rightly observed that in the situation of the ongoing Russian aggression, the occupation of Crimea and part of Donbas, when the country is crying for military and financial assistance, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the head of state could be more prudent and adherent to the standards of conduct.

Despite significant controversies, the discussion did not distract the public’s attention from another sensitive issue which shows the ongoing struggle between the old and the new in post-Maidan Ukraine, namely the content and fate of the Anticorruption Court. The court is a missing link in the fight against corruption at the top, in the absence of which, the activities of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office resemble the work of an engine on neutral gear: hundreds of cases “hang” in unreformed courts and none of the corrupt top officials has so far been charged.

Petro Poroshenko was a consistent opponent of the anti-corruption court. In his speech at the YES International Forum in Kyiv in September 2017, he directly stated that anti-corruption courts exist only in Kenya, Uganda, Malaysia and Croatia, and have not proved effective. Instead, he insisted on the creation of an anti-corruption chamber in the existing judicial system. Under the pressure of the pro-European part of society and Western partners, however, Poroshenko has changed his mind, at least in theory. The anti-corruption court bill presented on the last day of the parliament’s work in 2017, has aimed to quell the idea of an effective judicial body to combat top-level corruption, and instead form an institution subject to the dictates of the current government. 

Such a manipulation has been used twice already – in relation to the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption and the State Bureau of Investigations. At a briefing in November 2017, the Department Director of the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption informed about the summoning of the Agency employees to the presidential administration regarding the selective disclosure of the results of some high-ranking officials’ tax declarations.

Despite the New Year and Christmas holidays, a heated debate about the presidential bill began. Nine Ukrainian and international civil society organisations opined that the draft law is being contradictory to the conclusions of the Venice Commission and that it fails to “ensure the independence of an anti-corruption justice”.

Transparency International mentioned three main problems with the bill. First, the transparency of the process of judge selection is questionable. Contrary to the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the role of the public council of international experts has been deliberately diminished.

Second, the proposed law on the Anti-corruption court does not include all crimes under NABU’s investigation. Instead, cases of crimes that are under the jurisdiction of the police or the State Bureau of Investigations can be submitted there. Thus, it will be possible to fill the court with cases that are not related to top-level corruption.

Finally, the requirements set for candidates for the Anti-corruption court’s judges are excessive, which will become an artificial obstacle for the formation and effective functioning of the court.

Following public activists, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Union all strongly criticised the presidential bill.

President Poroshenko found himself with a dilemma, as on March 31st 2019, the next presidential election takes place and thus the country has just entered the election year.

The mistakes of the president’s team connected with the accumulation of funds, “purifying” the information space, persecution of anti-corruption activists and reorganisation of the local courts with selective re-certification of judges, make sense only as long as Petro Poroshenko retains support among his political and business circles. For most of them, the introduction of the electronic declaration of income, and the launch of new anti-corruption bodies have come as a shock. They view the formation of the anti-corruption triad as a direct threat to the oligarchic regime, which they, albeit with losses, managed to upkeep after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. They perceived Petro Poroshenko as a guarantor of the status quo. Now he may lose their trust.

A journalist from Ukrainska Pravda spoke with MPs from factions of Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the former prime minister’s Arseniy Yatseniuk’s People’s Front. One of them stated in the conversation: “Some asshole will come from abroad and will tell us how to live here and build our country? They will make their manual court and that will be all – the end. They will close the vertical: NABU – SAP – court.”

“They think that they can put pressure on Poroshenko, and he will make us accept everything. But that will not happen. Not in this case,” said another source.

Moreover, on January 23rd a group of deputies from the ruling coalition registered a bill that seeks to abolish criminal responsibility of officials for illegal enrichment.

President Petro Poroshenko found himself in a zugzwang. If he supports the pro-European part of Ukrainian society, he will act against the basic interests of his own circle. However, if he acts in line with the interests of his associates, he will eventually find himself among the enemies of pro-European reforms in Ukraine.

Three years ago, Poroshenko’s predecessor yielded to the pressure of Russia and neglected Ukrainians’ European aspirations, which ended with his shameful escape to Rostov on the Don. What will be the choice of Petro Poroshenko in a seemingly different, but, in fact, a very similar situation? Time will tell.

Yaroslav Mendus is a political advisor to the Vice President of the EU Parliament Ioan Mircea Pascu.

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