More than Empty Assurances
Ukraine should undoubtedly be on the EU agenda however the upbeat praise of fine words in Adrian Severin’s recent comment published by Kyiv Post is baffling..
Ukraine’s new government may stress its commitment to accession to the EU as much as it likes. This accession is dependent on more than words, and here the new administration is woefully lacking.
On 27 April, President Yanukovych met with the Head of the Venice Commission and, according to the President’s website, stressed the need for the Commission’s “expert assessment of our draft judicial reform”.
Despite these assurances, the Law on the Judiciary and Status of Judges was hastily passed by the ruling coalition then, despite a major campaign by human rights organizations, signed into law by the President on 27 July. In October, the Venice Commission’s expert assessment reiterated the main concerns repeatedly voiced by Ukrainian civic society, especially regarding the jeopardy to judicial independence.
We are now hearing that the Commission’s recommendations will be “taken into account”. Mr Severin’s boundless optimism regarding such assurances is difficult to share.
The October 31 local elections have been widely denounced, both by Ukrainian and western commentators, as not meeting democratic standards. The results were stacked in favour of the ruling Party of the Regions via a disastrous law on the local elections which was once again hurriedly passed by the same coalition. International criticism of the law led to a few amendments, made on the day of Yanukovych’s meeting with Chancellor Merkel. These were dismissed by the authoritative Committee of Voters of Ukraine and many analysts as cosmetic. Not that most Ukrainians had any chance of discovering this since the State-owned First National Channel, the channel owned by Security Service Head, V. Khoroshkovsky and others presented a glowing fairytale about the government’s efforts to ensure free and fair elections.
The outrage in Ukraine and abroad over the dubious “elections” led to more effusive assurances and to an absolutely standard gesture. On 5 November the President created a “Commission for the Strengthening of Democracy and Affirmation of the Rule of Law”. All we are told about this Commission is the name of its head, Serhiy Holovaty, chosen presumably because he is well-known in Strasbourg and Brussels. It is worth noting that a commission with virtually the same name and a proven record at home and abroad in drawing up laws on judicial reform was abolished by Yanukovych before he set forth to conquer the same ground in his own specific manner.
European integration includes an independent judiciary at all levels and elections whose outcome is not programmed by the ruling party. It is vital that the Security Service protects the country’s security and does not harass and intimidate members of NGOs, university rectors, students, and foreign journalists, as has been increasingly the case in Ukraine since Valery Khoroshkovsky was appointed Head of the SBU. All of this has been stressed many times, most recently by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The latter’s Report on the Functioning of Democratic Institutions in Ukraine was almost totally ignored by national television channels. The channel Inter, owned by SBU Head Khoroshkovsky, reported the PACE debate but cut out the call for reform to the SBU which rather gives the lie to denials of any conflict of interest.
There have, in fact, been consistent indications of conflict of interest with the SBU used in a court wrangle between Khoroshkovsky’s media holding and business rivals. Of even greater concern, however, is the fact that Khoroshkovsky is a member of the High Council of Justice which is responsible for appointing and dismissing judges. It should be noted that there has never been any justification given for the High Administrative Court’s rejection on 12 August of TVi’s attempt to force Khoroshkovsky’s dismissal from the High Council of Justice on the grounds that he lacks the legally required 10 years legal experience.
The above are just some of the threats to Ukraine’s democratic development which will render European integration absolutely meaningless talk. This issue is not geopolitical - it is about Ukraine’s future as a law-based democracy.
With almost total control over television channels, it is understandable that the regime’s attempts to present any criticism as based on political opposition may convince some viewers. It is profoundly frustrating when European Parliamentarians echo this entirely misleading binary divide.
Mr Severin’s party may align themselves with whatever party they wish. It seems, however, regrettable, given “a few years of thorough discussions with the leadership of the Party of the Regions” that this was not public knowledge when Mr Severin headed an EP delegation to Ukraine at the end of March. At that crucial time for Ukraine, the President’s website reported Mr Severin’s hope that the Constitutional Court would find the highly specific formation of a coalition constitutional. The same Court had found it unconstitutional a mere 18 months before, however they shortly obliged.
Within Ukraine, confidence that the courts, electoral commissions, regulatory or enforcement bodies and others will not prove just as obliging is rapidly dwindling.
Ukraine’s road to European integration cannot be travelled by empty assurances.