By Oleg Sukhov.
After he was elected president in April, Volodymyr Zelensky announced a radical overhaul of Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies to introduce the rule of law and eliminate corruption.
He said the reforms would be fast and radical. In its first weeks, the new Verkhovna Rada indeed seemed to be making great progress.
More than half a year later, many of the reforms outlined by Zelensky appear to have come to an abrupt halt.
One case at hand is the State Investigation Bureau, which is supposed to investigate high-profile crimes.
In December, Zelensky replaced the bureau’s discredited ex-chief, Roman Truba, with his loyalist Iryna Venedyktova.
Truba was selected in an allegedly rigged competition under ex-President Petro Poroshenko.
And yet on Jan. 2, Venedyktova gave a top job to Oleksandr Buryak, one of Truba’s deputies chosen in the same controversial competition as the ex-chief and implicated in alleged audio recordings that show that he could have unlawfully influenced top judges. Buryak will oversee investigations into the murder of about 100 protesters during the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, and other crimes against EuroMaidan demonstrators.
On Jan. 20, Venedyktova also appointed Oleksandr Babikov, Yanukovych’s former lawyer, as the first deputy head of the bureau.
The competition for Babikov’s job appears to have been rigged, although Venedyktova denies this.
It was announced on Dec. 29, during the slow holiday season, and candidates had only three days to file applications. This made it impossible for any independent candidates to apply, since it takes weeks to collect the necessary documents and state institutions that issue them didn’t work on those days anyway.
Babikov conveniently applied to terminate his lawyer status on Dec. 28, as if he knew that the competition would be announced the next day.
Worse still, the State Investigation Bureau is investigating cases against Babikov’s former client, Yanukovych. Venedytktova says she, not Babikov, will oversee those cases.
But under the law Babikov, as her first deputy, will have to supervise them whenever she is on vacation. Moreover, it is hard to believe that the bureau’s second-in-command will not be able to influence those cases informally, even when Venedyktova is not on vacation.
Venedyktova chose to attach the stigma of Yanukovych’s corrupt regime to the “reformed” bureau and thus ruin its credibility from the very start. She has done her best so far to discredit the controversial bureau even further and become the new “Truba.”
Avakov and Kholodnytsky
The police reform is also going nowhere as long as Zelensky keeps Arsen Avakov, considered by his critics to be one of the pillars of Ukrainian corruption, as interior minister.
Avakov’s allies have been charged with corruption, and the Security Service of Ukraine video footage implicates both him and his associates in graft, although they deny the corruption accusations.
Zelensky has also kept another discredited law enforcer, Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky. In 2018, Kholodnytsky closed the corruption case against Avakov’s son Oleksandr as part of a political bargain with the powerful minister.
In April, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine also released audio recordings in which Kholodnytsky is heard pressuring anti-corruption prosecutors and courts to stall cases, urging a witness to give false testimony and tipping off suspects about future searches. Kholodnytsky confirmed that the tapes were authentic but said they had been taken out of context.
As long as Kholodnytsky keeps his job, he will be able to block all of NABU’s cases, which are under the supervision of his office.
A similar deadlock has emerged in the situation with Zelensky’s judicial reform.
Meant to re-launch Ukraine’s judicial system, the reform law was passed by the Ukrainian parliament in October and signed by Zelensky in November. However, deadlines have been missed for creating two commissions tasked with cleansing the judiciary, and foreign experts who are supposed to help Ukraine with reforming the judiciary haven’t been appointed.
The main reason is that the High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s main governing body, published rules that effectively deprive foreign experts of a major role in the reform on Dec. 11.
Anti-corruption activists have called on Zelensky’s team to submit another bill to resolve the situation, but this has not happened yet.
In September, the Verkhovna Rada also formally abolished lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution to great fanfare. But in December, parliament de facto brought it back and even strengthened their immunity by giving the prosecutor general a monopoly in overseeing investigations against lawmakers and through other procedural amendments.
Parliament had also promised to cancel a procedural norm that dramatically hampered investigations by limiting them to 18 months before a notice of suspicion is filed. But in October, the Rada voted against canceling it.
Business as usual
All of this shows a lack of political will from Zelensky and his team to deliver on their reformist promises.
It’s always more convenient for any government to keep law enforcement under political control in order to protect itself from prosecution and to go after its enemies. It has also been tempting for all Ukrainian governments to preserve corrupt practices and use the state as a cash cow.
Fundamentally, little has changed since the rampant corruption and lawlessness under ex-President Petro Poroshenko or that of his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych.
So far, the rule of law reforms announced by Zelensky so solemnly half a year ago appear to be not a genuine effort, but a façade for business as usual.
If Zelensky continues on this trajectory, he is unlikely to go down in Ukrainian history as an outstanding president and will be just one person in an endless row of Ukrainian leaders who promised and failed to carry out reforms.