UkraineAlert

Ukraine got a serious black eye last week when its parliament dismissed the outspoken chairman of its Anticorruption Committee and nearly fired the head of its independent anticorruption bureau. But there’s a clear way it can recover. After anticorruption reform, fixing Ukraine’s dismal health care system is a second priority for the Ukrainian public. Pushing ahead with health care reform might help repair some of last week’s damage.

And luckily, there are distinct steps the government can take now to make real changes. On October 19, Ulana Suprun, the American-born doctor who is the acting Minister of Health in Ukraine, finally convinced parliament to pass far-reaching reform. There’s a big snag, however: President Petro Poroshenko hasn’t signed the bill yet, so implementation is delayed.

“There’s something going on within the presidential administration,” Suprun said in a December 11 interview; she was in Washington to meet with the World Bank and spoke with UkraineAlert for the first time since the bill passed.

Both Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman and Poroshenko publicly supported the bill, but she suspects there’s political infighting between the two factions who opposed the bill.

Health care committee chair Dr. Olga Bogomolets was and is the problem, said Suprun.

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This fall has been an ugly one for Ukraine. Throughout September, October, November, and December, Ukrainian authorities have illegally detained, persecuted, and expelled several foreign journalists and other foreign residents, causing observers to question whether Ukrainian leaders are actively violating human rights and willfully persecuting their political opponents in an effort to maintain their grip on power.

In fact, the Ukrainian authorities seem to be pursuing a policy of double standards, demanding that Russia liberate Ukrainian political hostages and journalists while simultaneously arresting dissenting activists, journalists, and political opponents.

The case of former Georgian President and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili captured the world’s attention on December 5, as special forces attempted to detain him. The law requires a court order for such an arrest to take place, which law enforcement bodies did not have. His supporters eventually freed him, but Saakashvili was later arrested on December 8 for allegedly "aiding and abetting a criminal organization." On December 11, a judge released him. Numerous observers and rights organizations view the ordeal as politically motivated.

Saakashvili soaks up international attention, but there are numerous other cases that have escaped notice and are also worrisome.

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Ukraine is a complicated, changing country. It’s far too easy to imagine that the proclamations and positions presented by Ukraine’s government and civil society represent those of the general public. In fact, a close examination of a range of recent national opinion polls—on topics like corruption, the health care system, migration, and Russia—show that the Ukrainian public is less optimistic and West-centric than the country’s leaders. Additionally, there is a wide gap in opinions between the residents of different regions, and between various generations.

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It’s hard to keep the faith in Ukraine, given the attempts to claw back reforms and repeated attacks against anticorruption activists.

But a successful Pakistani-born businessman, Mohammad Zahoor, isn’t giving up on Ukraine. He owns The Kyiv Post, a twenty-year-old English language newspaper that crusades for democracy, the rule of law, free markets, and western integration.

The Kyiv Post has a relatively small circulation, but punches above its weight as the source of news on Ukraine for embassies in Kyiv, chanceries around the world, and expats living and doing business there. Zahoor bought the newspaper in 2009 from its American founder and has lost money ever since. But that is okay.

“I believe that everyone has a responsibility to do community service. This is corporate social responsibility,” he said. “My wife and I love this country despite whatever is being done by the so-called establishment here. People need to have some independent views on the things happening from people who are truly non-partisan and have no fear to express their views.”

Zahoor is a self-made man.

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The masks have been torn off. Law enforcement officers and lawmakers have launched a frontal attack on the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) for the first time.

On December 6, pro-government faction leaders Artur Gerasimov and Maxim Burbak registered a bill to remove the head of NABU, Artem Sytnyk. Wow, consider this: the bill’s architects are the leaders of the two major political factions in parliament.

In the last three years, the power struggle against anticorruption crusaders has never been so open.

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On December 7, Ukraine’s parliament is likely to dismiss the head of Ukraine’s only independent anticorruption body, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). Established in 2015 to target high-level crimes committed by the country’s corrupt political class, NABU has demonstrated a high level of independence led by its director Artem Sytnyk. It has not hesitated to target senior officials, judges, and state enterprise managers who previously possessed de-facto immunity from prosecution.

Supporting NABU has certainly been a US priority, as the two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding for the FBI to assist NABU with training, capacity building, and information sharing. Ukraine's political elites have spent much of the last two years coming up with ingenious methods to weaken NABU and diminish its effectiveness. Ukraine's unreformed judiciary also stymies NABU's investigations by denying search warrants, setting purposely small bail for suspects—thereby allowing them to flee the country—and preserving official positions for people who are NABU suspects. This means that while NABU has investigated hundreds of cases, most can't make it through the courts. And despite the IMF's requirement that an independent anticorruption court be established, President Petro Poroshenko continues to slow-roll the submission of legislation to do so.

As bad as all this is for NABU, things got worse last week.

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Ukraine’s political parties are in trouble. Public support for national parties is at its lowest since the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity. According to a recent poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 22 percent of Ukrainians said they would not vote in the 2019 parliamentary elections and 30 percent could not answer the question.

Ukraine’s political parties are struggling to secure double-digit support. With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May and October 2019, it is anyone’s game at this point—and much work remains to build party structures and craft messages that resonate with voters prior to Election Day.

But there is a silver lining to the bleak picture: nearly 40 percent of likely voters want to participate but do not have a current party preference. This means that the political climate should be seen as a big opportunity for party growth, and IRI’s data suggests at least two strategies that can be utilized to increase a party’s support over the next year.

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The human toll of the Russia-instigated war in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed over 10,000 lives since 2014, remains underreported. Newspapers rarely document the daily grind of life in the conflict zone, which has lost any sense of normalcy for thousands of Ukrainians who wish to live in peace. For schoolchildren along the contact line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, this disruption is especially stark. The conflict has been occurring for nearly four years, but going to class can still abruptly shift into a dash for cover amid a deadly hail of shells and bullets.

Although the concept of sanctuary for schoolchildren can no longer be taken for granted in eastern Ukraine, people from around the world have stepped up to offer respite. This past summer, the nationwide summer camp initiative GoCamp welcomed six hundred students from twenty-four schools in the war-affected Donbas to GoCamp East, a summer program held in Kozyn, near Kyiv, for two weeks of English language learning. During those fourteen days, the students were able to leave their conflict-ridden towns behind and immerse themselves in new ideas and opportunities.

The innovative program is part of the national educational initiative GoCamp, which involves over seven hundred schools across Ukraine. The program is run by Global Office, a nongovernmental organization that was co-founded in 2016 by Mustafa Nayyem, a member of parliament in Ukraine and a prominent reformer in the post-Maidan era.

“If we do not invest in the future, our children and nephews will encounter the same problems that we have,” Nayyem told UkraineAlert in 2016. “Many children in Ukraine have never seen foreigners.”

In just two years, the project has connected over 69,000 Ukrainian schoolchildren between the ages of ten and fifteen with hundreds of trained foreign volunteers from dozens of countries.

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Former Georgian President and Odesa oblast governor Mikheil Saakashvili was taken into custody in Kyiv on December 5. His supporters eventually freed him and he addressed a large crowd outside of the parliament. Later in the day, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko told parliament that Saakashvili accepted money from a fugitive oligarch to fund antigovernment protests that have waxed and waned since mid-October. The situation remains tense and ongoing. What does the detention of Saakashvili mean for Ukraine, its democratic prospects, and its relationship with the West? We asked our experts and a number of commentators and politicians to explain the significance of today’s events.

Michael Carpenter, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Senior Director at the Biden Center:
The conflict between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian authorities only benefits Russia. Saakashvili entered Ukraine under dubious circumstances but his case needs to be adjudicated according to the rule of law, not through force.

Aivaras Abromavicius, former Ukrainian Minister of Economy and Trade: I think there has been a good amount of progress made by the last two governments. Yet many of those achievements are at risk of being eroded by the recent blunt attacks on the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine by unreformed law enforcement agencies. In light of the total absence of sentencing of extremely corrupt current or former top officials, accusations against Saakashvili will always seem politically motivated. The West is going to be puzzled yet again and disappointed about where the priorities of Ukraine's leadership lie.

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The timing couldn’t have been better. Ukraine’s war is dragging on, Russia is proposing a sham peacekeeping plan, the humanitarian crisis in the east is worsening, and the conflict is receiving increasingly fewer mentions in the international press. In this midst of this dismal news, Ukraine’s deputy speaker of parliament Oksana Syroid organized the Lviv Security Forum to figure a way out. Held November 29-December 1 on the campus of Ukrainian Catholic University in its new state-of-the-art library, the forum was meant to bolster the foreign policy credentials of the Lviv-based Samopomich Party and to convene international experts to discuss what should replace the shaky post-Cold War system.

Lviv Mayor and head of the Samopomich Party Andriy Sadovyi opened the forum by reminding the crowd of international experts, politicians, and students from the United States and Europe that the twentieth century, a century of atrocities, was not kind to Ukraine. In fact, the city of Lviv was part of six different countries in the last century, he said. Sadovyi said that he’d recently met with the Israeli defense minister and his advice to Sadovyi and Ukraine was simple. “You have to survive,” he said.

The organizers went with the theme of survival, making #survive the hashtag of the forum. However, an emphasis on survival seems behind the times.

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