Back to the Bad Old Days in Kyiv

Today as reform politician Sergiy Gusovsky finished speaking at a rally on the steps of the Kyiv City Council, a crowd hurled green antiseptic at his eyes and tried to assault him. He is suffering from chemical burns in both eyes.

As horrible as the attack on Gusovsky was, it represents just the tip of the iceberg. Since the beginning of 2017, more than fifty-five attacks have occurred against anticorruption activists and now reform-minded politicians. 

And to make matters worse, not only are the perpetrators rarely caught (they were in Gusovsky’s case), but Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko—perhaps giving new meaning to the word chutzpah—actually blamed activists for their suffering, implying that civil society’s noisy criticism of Ukraine’s corrupt old guard was a major contributing factor to the violence directed against them. 

Opinions as to what’s behind the upsurge in attacks varies. Euromaidan Press managing editor Alya Shandra, whose outlet has tracked the uptick, speculates that “the attacks are intensifying prior to the elections because the local elites want to stay in power and are trying to drown out any and all people who try to interfere with their power vertical.” Many human rights groups also see a connection to the elections, with some even arguing that President Poroshenko’s team has reached an agreement with local elites blessing their corruption schemes in exchange for supporting Poroshenko’s upcoming reelection campaign. 

Not everyone sees a direct tie to the elections, however. Some argue that post-Maidan Ukraine’s inability to fundamentally reform the police, prosecutors, and judicial system has allowed corrupt local mafia clans which thrived under former President Yanukovych to bounce back and act with impunity. And when it comes to Odesa, reformist MP Mustafa Nayyem even warned that national security concerns are at stake and that the Ukrainian state risks seeing the city slip under the control of Russian-supported local elites around Odesa’s notoriously corrupt mayor Gennady Trukhanov.

Ultimately, though, whatever the exact reasons behind the upsurge in attacks against anticorruption activists, the very fact that these attacks occur—and that local law enforcement authorities rarely seem to pay more than lip service to solving these crimes—represents a betrayal of the Euromaidan Revolution. After all, the number one factor behind the overthrow of Yanukovych was ordinary citizens’ demand for an end to impunity enjoyed by corrupt elites—yet now that very impunity seems to be in vogue.  

What can be done?

For one thing Kyiv should honor the demands voiced by activists to hold an extraordinary meeting of the National Security and Defense Council and create a temporary investigative commission in the Ukrainian parliament—with the full participation of civil society—to investigate these attacks.

Second, Ukraine must accelerate the pace of its anticorruption reforms. After a promising start, many of these reforms have stalled and in some cases even been rolled back. Two out of three of Ukraine’s new anticorruption institutions—the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor (SAP) and National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP)—have been taken over by the corrupt old guard and need to be completely rebooted. Authorities also need to ensure that judges for the new Anti-Corruption Court are chosen objectively and fairly, something already in doubt.

Expecting Ukrainian authorities to take this problem seriously six months before the presidential election is a fools’ errand. For this reason, Ukraine’s Western friends need to step in. After all, the US and Europe have invested massive financial and political resources in assisting Ukraine, and seeing the country potentially tip back into the lawless impunity of the Yanukovych era risks wasting this investment.

For starters, the West should use its financial leverage against Kyiv and make clear to Poroshenko and those around him that unless they start solving the assaults against anticorruption activists, the financial spigot will be turned off.

Second, senior Western officials need to get out of Kyiv and start visiting key regional cities like Kharkiv and Odesa. And when they’re there, they need to hold public events with anticorruption activists to express their support.

Third, it’s clear that Ukraine needs another American interlocutor like US Vice President Joe Biden. During the Obama administration, Biden was Washington’s point person on Ukraine, and was a clear and consistent force in pushing Ukrainian authorities to fight corruption. Washington now needs a new version of Biden, someone close to President Trump who speaks for his administration. Vice President Mike Pence could be one option; an elected official close to Trump such as Senator Lindsey Graham could be another. Whoever it is though needs to get on the phone regularly with Poroshenko and remind the Ukrainian head of state that we understand Ukraine’s domestic politics and will not tolerate backsliding.

Finally, the West should hit corrupt politicians and their cronies where it really hurts—their wallets. US and European officials should prioritize freezing the Western assets of corrupt Ukrainian officials and their mafia friends under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the US to impose visa bans and sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world guilty of human rights violations or gross corruption. Anyone suspected of organizing, perpetrating or condoning attacks against activists should be named, shamed, and subject to the full force of this law.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer who managed economic reform projects throughout the former Soviet Union. He is a contributor to Reuters, Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, and others. 

Image: Sergiy Gusovsky, leader of the Kyiv Team in the Kyiv City Council, was attacked on October 4 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Alyona Murakhovska