Ukraine Can’t Shake Off Its Old Regime

(Bloomberg) -

On Feb. 21, 2014, Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled his residence near Kiev on a helicopter. A new Ukrainian state emerged after his escape to Russia, but, five years later, the many remaining questions about the dramatic events that led to his downfall raise doubts about whether the country has fundamentally changed.

Yanukovych took flight even though he had reached a deal with pro-European politicians who took part in the Euromaidan protests of the previous four months. The agreement, witnessed by top German, Polish and French officials, allowed Yanukovych to stay on as president, with curtailed powers, until an early election to be held by the end of 2014. But the Ukrainian opposition politicians who signed the compromise hadn’t been authorized to conclude it by the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file protesters who wanted Yanukovych out immediately: They held him responsible for the shooting deaths of 75 people during demonstrations between Feb. 18 and Feb. 20. The 106 people who died throughout the 2014 revolution came to be known as the “Heavenly Hundred.” For anti-Yanukovych forces, their deaths are considered the founding act of the power transfer that Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity and that the Kremlin calls a violent coup d’etat.

Last month, a Ukrainian court sentenced Yanukovych, in absentia, to 13 years of imprisonment for high treason. But a more important, investigation into the deaths, has stalled. No one has been sentenced for the killings. Officials charged with conducting the investigation say the authorities, including Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, an appointee of President Petro Poroshenko, have done their utmost to hinder their work. They wanted to avoid putting the country’s largely intact security apparatus on trial, preferring to buy its loyalty and use it to enforce rather than disrupt corrupt schemes.

Poroshenko is running for re-election next month, and he can claim quite truthfully that Ukraine has changed during his presidency. It’s no longer a Russian satellite or even a Russian ally. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian parliament changed the constitution to make membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization national goals. The Russian annexation of Crimea and de facto Russian rule in eastern Ukraine have pushed Poroshenko to raise military spending to 5 percent of economic output from a little more than 1 percent before the 2014 revolution. He also slashed economic ties with Russia, which now accounts for 7.7 percent of Ukraine’s exports and 14.2 percent of imports, compared with 23.8 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively, in 2013.

Poroshenko is also proud of obtaining independence from Moscow for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and of the economic growth — a respectable 3.4 percent last year — the country is showing despite a difficult-to-measure population decline. The speed and effectiveness of the country’s economic reforms are debatable, but these measures still have the somewhat reluctant backing of the International Monetary Fund, even though most idealistic, reform-minded officials have gradually left the government.

Yet Poroshenko is not the favorite to win the election, and Ukraine’s poverty isn’t the only reason. Something rotten lies at the foundation of the country he’s been building.

On Feb. 20, Lutsenko wrote on social media that the investigation into the 2014 killings was “practically over”; of the 66 suspects, 46 had fled to Russia and the rest were in custody. He concluded that the ultimate blame lay with Yanukovych and his top law enforcers. But Sergei Gorbatyuk, Lutsenko’s subordinate as head of the Prosecutor General’s Special Investigations Directorate and the lead investigator in the Euromaidan cases, insists that the cases are far from closed, as does Yevgenia Zakrevskaya, lawyer for the victims’ families.

A report published recently by Gorbatyuk’s directorate presents the prosecutor general’s handling of the investigations as a huge cover-up operation, aided by the Ukrainian police and counterintelligence. The investigative group’s staff has been cut, its cases diverted, and suspects have been hidden by law enforcement agencies. According to the report, judges, too, have deliberately worked to slow down the investigations, kicking cases back or sitting on them and then refusing to try them. Now, according to the report, 35 suspects in cases involving crimes against Euromaidan protesters still work for the national police or the counterintelligence service, 10 of them in senior positions.

The open strife within the Ukrainian law enforcement system and between that system and the unreformed courts isn’t limited to the investigation of the 2014 killings. Another example is the festering dispute between two bodies that have been created since 2014, ostensibly to root out corruption — the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. They have been sniping at each other continuously, though they’re supposed to cooperate. Meanwhile, the courts have been dragging their feet on their cases; in 48 of the 180 investigations the two bodies have completed, not even the first hearing dates have been set.

No wonder that, according to a recent poll, about two thirds of Ukrainians don’t trust the new anti-corruption agencies or the prosecutor general’s office. Only about half trust police and the counterintelligence service.

A clean break with the past requires the political will to let investigators do their work, to clear up the past and hold people responsible for specific crimes that led to the previous government’s fall. The Ukrainian authorities, including Poroshenko, have often had to act courageously in the last five years because of the enormous threats and dangers they faced. But they haven’t had the courage to reform law enforcement and the judiciary, destroying the old system in which an investigation can be set in motion or stopped with a phone call from the right office. With that system stubbornly in place, Ukraine may be refounded but it isn’t reformed.


Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.