Ukrainians eagerly anticipating a visa-free regime with the European Union were dealt two major setbacks on November 5 as the result of their government’s actions.
The Verkhovna Rada failed to muster enough votes to support legislation, required by the EU for a visa-free regime, which would forbid workplace discrimination based on race, political position, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation.
That same afternoon, the EU Delegation to Ukraine informed one of its Ukrainian partners that it is refraining from financing Ukraine’s attempt to create the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, another requirement for the visa-free regime.
“The trust in the final outcome of the procedure depends on the integrity and credibility of all steps leading to it,” stated a letter written on November 4 by an EU delegation official that was published on the pravda.com.ua news site. “In this context, we very much hope that concerns raised with regard to some people who participate in the selection will be soon duly addressed, thus allowing the completion of the technical part of the selection with assistance from the EU.”
At the center of those whose integrity and credibility have been called into question is Ukraine’s Procurator General Viktor Shokin – an increasing target of criticism by high-ranking Western officials – after he resisted EU recommendations that he replace the four prosecutors he had appointed to a commission to establish a Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.
These four prosecutors have been identified by Transparency International as Yanukovych administration holdovers who are loyal to the current president and will compromise the independence of the specialized prosecutor’s office.
Mr. Shokin was exposed for his resistance to EU recommendations when he threatened criminal charges against Foreign Affairs Ministry officials in what he deemed as an attempt to discredit government bodies when the ministry submitted documents that reiterated EU recommendations for replacing the appointees.
They were determined to be “providing an unduly high level of influence for the Procurator General of Ukraine, which is not in line with European standards,” as EU Representative to Ukraine Jan Tombinski wrote in a letter dated October 22 to Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin, a day after Mr. Shokin’s threat. These sentiments were echoed by other institutions.
“Shokin is not only not listening to the justified criticisms of state officials, but practically initiated the review of the lawfulness of the Foreign Ministry’s actions in publicizing the undermining of the visa-free regime,” reported Transparency International Ukraine on November 2. “Shokin’s attempt to create a puppet anti-corruption body is evidence of his stubborn resistance to conduct any reforms, both within the prosecutor’s office and in the anti-corruption sphere.”
A compromise in the conflict was reportedly reached whereby Mr. Shokin agreed to replace two of his four nominees to sit on the commission to launch the specialized prosecutor’s office, the eurointegration.com.ua news site reported on November 4, citing National Deputy Ivanna Klympush-Tsyntsadze of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.
Yet neither the Procurator General’s Office nor the EU representative’s office confirmed this report.
More anti-corruption requirements are down the road and, as the November 4 letter confirmed, EU officials aren’t confident that Mr. Shokin won’t put up resistance yet again.
The specialized prosecutor’s office is supposed to select the prosecutors for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which is supposed to begin its work by the end of the year, according to the EU timetable.
Mr. Shokin hurt his reputation with his threats against the Foreign Affairs Ministry, an anonymous European diplomat involved in the negotiations told the eurointegration.com.ua news site.
“Don’t they understand that trust is what’s most important for the European Union? And they are ruining this trust with their actions,” the diplomat said in the article published on October 27.
It’s now also widely recognized that Mr. Poroshenko is behind the resistance to reforms, with Transparency International reporting that Mr. Shokin is trying to restrict the specialized prosecutor’s independence as much as possible “with the obvious agreement of the country’s top leadership.”
“The president and procurator general are trying to hold onto the fragments of the system,” Serhiy Rudenko, a veteran political observer for the Espreso television network, wrote on his Facebook page. “Poroshenko often talks about the need for decisive reforms, all the while leaning on the openly repressive, deceitful and corrupt apparatus of the prosecutor general and Security Service of Ukraine.”
Mr. Shokin is the second procurator general appointed by President Poroshenko (and approved by Ukraine’s Parliament) who has been widely criticized for not only failing to prosecute high-profile crimes, but also providing cover for corrupt officials and resisting EU reforms.
Criticism that had been circulating among Western circles became public in late September, when U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a speech to the Odesa Financial Forum that corrupt prosecutors are “openly and aggressively undermining reform.”
At that time, he was referring to two deputy procurator generals who reportedly tried to pressure investigators into dropping bribery charges against two officials known as the “diamond prosecutors.”
Now EU officials like Mr. Tombinski are seeing the need to raise awareness about the procurator general’s resistance, warning that the consequences now extend beyond Ukraine’s dysfunctional law enforcement system.
In his letter to Mr. Klimkin, Mr. Tombinski pointed out that the failure to launch by year’s end the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and, in turn, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, will cost Ukrainians their visa-free regime planned for launch in 2016.
Failure to adopt the reforms could also cost Ukrainians 1.2 billion euros in additional macro-financial aid from the EU, the eurointegration.com.ua news site reported, citing correspondences from Brussels.