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Human Rights in Ukraine. Website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
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08.01.2020 | Yevgeniy Zakharov
Politics and human rights

Contra spem spero

   

In 2019 there were even more human rights violations than in previous years. This is the gloomy conclusion that emerges when you try to gather together all the various events concerned with human rights in the year just ended. Since 2014 when, it had seemed, the situation after the Revolution of Dignity should have improved, I have each year recorded an overall deterioration in the human rights situation. 2019 was no exception.

One cannot, of course, only use dark colours.  The situation was, and remains, a mosaic, and in some aspects you can see an improvement. However destructive trends are still gaining force and becoming dangerous for the existence of the state. And here the issue is not even Russian aggression which is indeed claiming people, forces and resources and prevents us from living and developing. In my opinion, the internal challenges are much more serious than the external.

They lie in the fact that we just can’t change our life for the better. The slogan ‘Real improvement in life today’ remains all the time unachieved since the poor continue to get even poorer, the rich richer.  Although they say that we have become a consumer society, and talk about the increase in average and minimum wages, none of this changes the fact that a significant percentage of Ukrainians are not living, but merely existing.  The poverty remains permanent of working people, in particular those called public sector employees – scientists; doctors; teachers; employees of municipal bodies and others.  A gap has appeared in the budget and there is a delay in people getting paid. Is this not because over recent months, VAT compensation has risen massively in comparison with the previous period?  This money is going to those who are called oligarchs. Why is this happening? Possibly as a result of the lack of professionalism in the new executive who are simply not capable of organizing these processes?

I consider in general that the fight against corruption has failed, with this true under the previous administration, and under the new administration. Success here is measured not by the number of people who are jailed, but by the amount of money pulled out of the shadow zone, and the number of corrupt dealings that were put an end to as a result of the activities of the law enforcement bodies.  Our corruption is a substitute for a market which we effectively do not have. It is for this reason that the authorities and business are interlinked. Closeness to those in power spells all kinds of advantages in business with this being the source of the flourishing corruption which is truly all-encompassing. Our authorities say that they want to get rid of this however for the moment it all happens in contrary manner. In such conditions, anti-corruption criminal prosecutions turn into selective persecution, and discredit the fight against corruption and destabilize the situation.  We need to think about how to overcome this as part of the change in general rules, liberalization, deregulation, etc.

The logic of battle is at play in the activities of the anti-corruption bodies. It is clear that there is opposition from corrupt individuals to the activities of the National Anti-corruption Bureau [NABU] since the latter is hitting them where it hurts – their peace, their property, their everyday life. However in the absence of tangible changes in the external environment, NABU has smelled blood in this battle and is also using illegal means. You cannot fight lawlessness with lawlessness! Trying to defend NABU’s independence, we effectively removed control over it. Yet in any country, even those which are wealthy and have well-established democratic traditions, an investigative body which is not controlled, very quickly begins to abuse its powers and to act in arbitrary manner.  We need to recognize this mistake and rectify it.

Whatever high-profile criminal investigation led by NABU that we take, it is invariably accompanied by an exposing propaganda campaign; the publicizing of details of secret investigative measures. This they explain as being because they supposedly can’t fight Ukrainian corruption any other way because of the huge resistance. And the public are generally inclined to believe all the reports about illegal enrichment and other corrupt activities. However some of our scandals are really without foundation. For example, there was recently some nonsense fed to the public about a well-known MP and how he had supposedly been entertaining himself with prostitutes during a holiday on a yacht that he had not declared. The ‘prostitutes’ were, in fact, his wife, daughter and mother-in-law, and they had rented the yacht. In my opinion, it would be good if several dozen people would defend their reputation in court, demanding retraction of the accusations expressed against them. We need such court cases. The public needs to understand that a person’s honour, dignity and reputation are no less important for a democratic society than access to information and exposure of abuses.

At present in Ukraine any person’s reputation can be destroyed if you set your mind to it. This is an extremely negative trend. It heightens the level of general distrust in society, in particular, lack of trust in the authorities. This makes any positive activities aimed at change impossible.

I am most worried about the authorities’ populism and the attempts to pitch things on what “the people’ want. ‘The people’ want as many former people in power as possible to be imprisoned, and this path in fighting corruption is not only ineffective, but also disastrous. In this struggle of all against all, the victor can only be the aggressor state. Political freedom contracts rapidly and MPs cease to exist as free individuals with their own convictions. They are forced to enter any faction or group if they have been elected to parliament by the proportional system, as independents and not from a political party.  If they were elected from a particular political party, they are already bound to it, since otherwise they’ll lose their mandate.  MPs can no longer independently put forward a draft bill, since this is now the prerogative of a certain group of MPs (most of the members of a parliamentary committee, or a group of MPs who together have more members than the smallest registered group of MPs).  Now MPs will carry out the role of mere button pushers who carry out the orders of the leaders of a faction, and the decisions will be passed by several leaders of the state. Parliament becomes purely technical. In addition, the minority will not even be able to submit for consideration a resolution to cancel a parliamentary decision when flagrant procedural mistakes have been made. Furthermore, state financing of political parties is restricted to only parties that got into parliament, meaning that other parties are left to merely hope. You will be able to forget about parliamentarianism as the basis of democracy – if only parliamentary itself does not begin to resist these evidently anti-democratic changes.

There is the same situation with freedom of expression, with this reduced to opposition between media which are under the control of political opponents. Can anybody name a free and intellectually unfettered information resource which is truly independent of political considerations?  I can’t. In the media realm, a battle is raging between those who are called ‘ze-bots’ (i.e. those on the side of President Volodymyr Zelensky) and ‘porokhobots’ (those on the side of former President Petro Poroshenko).  I can’t believe that they don’t get bored.

For some reason, whatever party is created, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union thrives, whatever law enforcement body gets created, it turns into the KGB!  They changed the management of the Justice Ministry, the State Penitentiary Service; the SBU [Security Service] and everything remained how it was. They tortured suspects in the SBU and still do, and with total impunity. SBU officers don’t even get punished for murder since “the enforcement bodies don’t make mistakes”.

Recently a Penitentiary Service spetsnaz unit savagely beat up prisoners in the Kropyvnytsky SIZO [remand prison].  Two men were killed, and 25 ended up in hospital. They beat up everybody, even life prisoners, because one prisoner complained to the psychologist. The principle of collective guilt remains in force.  All of that has already been before and again. Azerbaijani blogger Elvin Isayev was abducted on 12 December and secretly handed over to Azerbaijan.  The Prosecutor General’s Office claimed that no decision on deportation had been passed. So who did it? I assume that it was the valiant chekists [the SBU] since they have done this sort of thing already several times. They don’t give a damn who’s in power. Mr President, in giving such huge powers to the law enforcement bodies, are you not frightened that the tail will begin wagging the dog?

Where does the self-confidence of the new administration come from, the belief that they know what is needed? I think it comes from pragmatism, technocratic thinking, unwillingness to come to an agreement with those who have a different view. From a total lack of humanitarian principles, the lack of understanding that complex issues cannot be resolved by simple means.

Zelensky is, de facto, introducing an American model of power under which the President heads the executive branch of power. I believe that the future lies with specifically this model, however it should not be done like this. For this you need entirely different approaches. Yet in Ukraine there is still no understanding that ‘how’ is no less important than ‘what’. That you can’t change the Constitution piece by piece, you can’t neglect the views of the minority and can’t violate procedure.

The President is also encroaching upon the independence of the courts by reviewing the principles and work of the High Council of Justice and the High Qualification Commission of Judges. The public are removed from participation in the Commission on Integrity and Ethics. The number of judges of the Supreme Court is to be halved although they are inundated by court cases. The appointment of judges to vacant posts is blocked, although the situation is simply catastrophic. For example, in the Balmut City Court there should be 17 judges, but there are only three and the term of one of these is coming to an end.  In general, you get the idea that common sense has abandoned most of the Ukrainian political sphere this year.  It is hard to understand what motivated the judges of the Constitutional Court when they passed their judgements in 2019, but it does not seem (forgive me, Lord!) to have been common sense. The Constitutional Court has never passed so many inept judgements as it did in 2019!

There were, of course, some positive developments – lawyer monopoly has been abolished which will improve access to the justice system.  The possibilities for the defence in criminal cases have been strengthened, for example, through the return of independent expert assessments, removed 25 years ago.  An electoral code based on a proportional system with open regional lists has been introduced and other developments. Zelensky carried himself with dignity under pressure from US President Donald Trump, and during Normandy Format negotiations.  The releases first of 35, then of 76 Ukrainian political prisoners and prisoners of war are great successes.  In the State Bureau of Investigations and the Prosecutor General’s Office separate departments have been created for fighting torture in the law enforcement bodies, and we can hope that investigation into these crimes will at least begin. There were still plenty of other successes. However these positive elements are lost in the huge mass of negative changes and events, as well as mistakes made by the new administration.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, its potential has not yet been exhausted. I don’t believe, as many do, in their bad intentions. On the contrary, I consider that they – Zelensky personally and those in his team - have good intentions.  They really do honestly and sincerely want to do things better, only in my view they often cannot and do not know how to. They do, in principle, still have the chance to re-orient and restructure themselves, to change and correct their mistakes. Which I sincerely wish them in the coming year.

Happy New Year! Let it be kinder to us all than that which has just passed.

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