The year for Ukrainians began with the disturbing news that the naked body of a young activist lawyer was fished out of a river in Kyiv. Her name was Iryna Nozdrovsky, and her death came after she took on the country’s corrupt legal system, seeking justice after her sister was killed in 2015 by a drunk driver. The complicating factor was that the culprit was the nephew of a prominent judge, and thus able to manipulate the system, but she prevailed. This summer, he was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.
But on December 29, he requested amnesty and Nozdrovsky appeared in court to have the sentence upheld. She won again, but that day, the killer’s father said to her, “You will end badly.” Days later, she was murdered. Police charged the father, but few in Ukraine believe he will ever go to jail, even if he is guilty.
Like Iryna, Ukrainians are captive to a corrupt system and efforts to get out from under this oppression are starting to “end badly” as the current government regresses and refuses to undertake substantive judicial or political reforms. In 2014, the Euromaidan protest pushed out the pro-Russia President, Russia invaded the east, and elections brought in a wealthy cabinet minister and the self-described “reformer” Petro Poroshenko.
His initial preoccupation was to prevent economic collapse and halt Russia’s aggression, with massive financial help from the West and other donors. Some reforms occurred along the way, but now his preoccupation, and the parliament’s, is to win re-election, likely in 2019. As a result, reforms are being clawed back or sabotaged and reformers are under attack.
The next few months will make or break Ukraine’s latest struggle for the rule of law and democracy. Independent polls show that the eradication of corruption is a bigger concern among the populace than the threat of further aggression by Russia. And as the nation prepares to head to the polls next year, Iryna’s tragedy may represent Ukraine’s “Tunisia” moment, a simple narrative illustrating the lack of social justice for all but a select few. In 2010, a young Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire when police took his wares away because he could not afford bribes. His story fuelled the Arab Spring. The significance of his death was not about politics but about the venality of systemic abuse.
The IMF is withholding its next tranche of money to Ukraine in protest against the recent degrading of Ukraine’s institutions and its faltering reform agenda. For instance, the head of the newly minted National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine is being threatened, and his investigators harassed and sabotaged, since the Bureau began arresting high-profile officials last year.
Likewise, a laudably transparent process of selecting a new Supreme Court was negated when one-quarter of the judges selected, rejected by a credible Public Integrity Council, were appointed by Poroshenko anyway. The President also spurned demands for months from the IMF, European Union, United States and others to create an independent Anti-Corruption Court, then proposed a court structure that is unacceptable to donor nations.
The core of this kleptocracy is parliament. In Ukraine, the principle of immunity from libel and slander for elected officials has been perverted into blanket immunity for its 450 deputies from criminal or civil prosecutions unless a majority of parliamentarians vote to allow charges to be laid. This is not immunity—an effort to protect free speech, as in the Westminster system—but impunity and a license to flout laws and loot the nation.
As a result, crooks and oligarchs pay fortunes for seats to acquire parliamentary protection so that every election cycle, the country is “sold” to the highest bidders. These days, insiders estimate that a seat goes for roughly $2 million in bribes, which means that, theoretically, the country can be “bought” for about $900 million—a bargain given that parliamentarians and their oligarch backers have total access to the national purse, courts, and government contracts.
As such, Ukraine is not a government. It is a criminal organization. Voter bribery with oligarch money is widespread, and the result is that oligarchs directly and indirectly control more than a majority of the seats in the parliament. By contrast, there are only three dozen reformers in Ukraine’s parliament, or about eight percent.
The removal of blanket parliamentary immunity, along with judicial reform, is essential. As Mohammad Zahoor, the Pakistani-born investor and publisher of the Kyiv Post has put it: “If [parliamentary] immunity is gone, the motivation or gold rush would be finished and the only people who will run for parliament will be those trying to pass laws that will do something for the country, rather than those who have business meetings and sell their votes by sitting there.”
As progress stalls, protesters are already hitting the streets. Following an October protest, Poroshenko announced he would remove parliamentary immunity. He proposed a draft law to do so, which the parliament approved overwhelmingly in days. But he claims this measure cannot be enacted until 2020—after the next elections—which means Ukrainians will be asked once again to vote for reforms that will likely never arrive.
This bobbing and weaving will lead to more protests. In 2014, the government ended up hiring goons and snipers to maim and murder hundreds of peaceful student protesters, and the nation rose up. Today, Ukrainians are armed to the teeth. With the second largest army in Europe now, Russia will be kept at bay, and there are also 100,000 battle-hardened veterans back home who will help to keep the peace. Most importantly, public opinion is more united than ever against corruption—and the murders of Iryna and her sister Svitlana remain a gruesome reminder of the injustice they endure.