Ukraine Takes One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

It’s only been six weeks since I was last in Kyiv, and yet the mood now feels completely different.

When I was last in Kyiv, posters advertising rock star Slava Vakarchuk’s Independence Day concert were everywhere and he was the talk of the town. No longer. Now former prime minister and campaigner extraordinaire Yulia Tymoshenko’s “New Course for Ukraine” billboards dot major roads as she tops the polls.

Ukraine’s elections are coming, and parliament is busy.

Last Thursday, June 7, was a big day in the Rada. Parliament finally passed an anti-corruption court bill that the president had savaged for two years.

Last September at the Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting, the big international powwow in Kyiv, President Petro Poroshenko threw down the gauntlet. He asked foreigners to raise their hands if they have anti-corruption courts in their countries, claiming that they only exist in backward African countries and a few others.

He then challenged the United States. “Does the United States have an anti-corruption court?” he asked smugly.

Former US Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a former prosecutor, swiftly responded: “The truth is that in our nation, every court is an anticorruption court.” Applause filled the hall.

Poroshenko’s silly debate trick fell flat, and to its great credit, the International Monetary Fund, which has offered Kyiv $17.5 billion in credit, has remained firm and demanded that the government enact an anti-corruption court—no ifs, ands, buts, or excuses.

Ten months later, parliament passed the anti-corruption bill by a majority. Even the president’s party blessed it. Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman was quick to claim credit. Poroshenko praised the move and signed the bill on June 11.

Reformers hailed its passage as a victory. Yegor Soboliev, the former chairman of the parliamentary anticorruption committee, was positively ebullient the night the bill passed; he couldn’t stop smiling. However, presidential critics and MPs Mustafa Nayyem and Sergiy Leshchenko told me that no one was happy—neither reformers nor the government—but its passage should unlock the next $2 billion IMF installment in the fall. Without it, Ukraine will likely default in a few months.

“It gives us new room to fight,” Leshchenko told me in Kyiv on June 9.

One big leap forward.

On the same day, parliament sacked reform-minded Finance Minister Oleksandr Danyliuk, who had shown an independent streak. He took on oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky’s bad banks, the notoriously corrupt custom and fiscal services, VAT reform, and the prime minister. He vocally supported Dr. Ulana Suprun’s health reforms at the Ministry of Health, one of the only remaining bright spots in the country. His relentless optimism, can-do spirit, and professionalism made him different from virtually everyone else, and he showed courage and conviction throughout his tenure. But he eventually lost after a public spat with the prime minister (and in fairness, publicly slamming your boss is a fireable offense in just about every system). Plugged-in people tell me that we haven’t seen the last of him, but he was one of the last remaining reformers who was willing to buck Old Ukraine in the Cabinet of Ministers, so his exit is worrying.

One step back.

Also on Thursday, parliament finally approved Volodymyr Vasylenko as an auditor for the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, the anti-corruption institution that actually seems to be working. The appointee, an eighty-one-year old law professor, doesn’t have anti-corruption experience, and some in civil society and the international community are suspicious. Rather than opting for Baker & McKenzie partner Thomas Firestone, who is wicked smart, fluent in Russian, and does his homework, parliament chose the safe option. Still, some insiders tell me that the negative comments about the professor are unwarranted and he knows his stuff.

Let’s wait and see.

It’s hard to tell exactly what all of this activity means for Ukraine. There is worry that the presidential administration allowed the passage of the anti-corruption court legislation in exchange for a dependent NABU auditor, so that the country’s establishment can undermine the anti-corruption institutions through the auditing process, while the construction of the court will take at least another six months. This would mean that the old guard can put its feet up and relax: these new bodies don’t threaten their interests. Plus, there’s the fact that parliament must pass and the president must sign another bill to set up the actual court. There are many ways to undermine the anti-corruption court, even if the actual bill is decent.

And then there are concerns about the actual text. Parliamentarians literally had one hour to evaluate the anti-corruption bill—surely not enough time to read the draft thoroughly. We are still waiting for the final text to be released.

Meanwhile, the economy is barely growing. Ukrainians are voting with their feet and moving abroad to Poland and the Czech Republic by the thousands; one in six Ukrainians of working age is now working in Europe.

Another week in Ukraine. One step forward, maybe, and two steps back.

Melinda Haring is the editor of the UkraineAlert blog at the Atlantic Council and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute. She tweets @melindaharing.

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Image: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko shakes hands with Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy after voting on a law to establish an anti-corruption court during a parliament session in Kyiv, Ukraine June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko