Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv
October 28, 2020
Ukraine’s constitutional court has ruled that basic powers of one of the top anti-corruption bodies are illegal, in a significant blow to Kyiv’s western-backed efforts to crack down on widespread corruption.
In its ruling made public on Wednesday, the court said the National Agency on Corruption Prevention had no constitutional right to punish public servants for filing false information in their asset declarations or to review their declarations. The court also ruled that the declarations are not to be available to the public, prompting the agency to remove them from its website.
The compulsory electronic asset register was set up in 2016 under pressure from western donors and was deemed an essential tool to combat bribery and corruption of Ukrainian officials by oligarchs. “[It’s] the elimination of the declaration system and destroys a significant part of the anti-corruption achievements of the Revolution of Dignity,” said Antac, an anti-corruption watchdog referring to reform efforts that started after the 2014 ousting of a pro-Russian president.
Antac and other critics said the ruling marked the latest step in a systematic effort by vested interests to exploit Ukraine’s corrupt court system and dismantle anti-corruption architecture.
This and other recent controversial rulings by the constitutional court were triggered by appeals from pro-Russian and oligarch-backed MPs who form a minority in Ukraine’s parliament. They oppose reform efforts and Kyiv’s engagement with the IMF.
The ruling is set to strain Ukraine’s relations with foreign backers whose multibillion-dollar financial support has propped up the country since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and orchestration of a separatist war in the eastern Donbas region.
In response to a case brought by pro-Russian MPs, the constitutional court issued a ruling in late August that undermined the authority and leadership of the NABU anti-corruption bureau, which was set up to investigate corruption among public servants.
The court said NABU’s director was unconstitutionally appointed by presidential decree in 2015. Parliament was given several months to amend legislation governing NABU by transferring authority to appoint its director from the president to the government.
The IMF and EU have delayed the disbursement of billions of dollars in funds to Kyiv in recent months amid legal challenges to anti-corruption bodies and concerns over the independence of the central bank.
Foot-dragging on critical reform of Ukraine’s unruly judiciary has sparked doubt over the reform credentials of Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian elected president in 2019 on promises to “break the system.”
Mr Zelensky’s representative to the constitutional court criticised its ruling and claimed that some judges had conflicts of interest as they were themselves being probed for not fully disclosing assets. The president’s office said he stood by anti-corruption reforms and would submit legislation to reboot the asset declaration agency. “The president will certainly use his right of legislative initiative to restore the sustainable and most effective operation of the electronic declaration system and the inevitability of liability for intentional violations of these rules,” Mr Zelensky’s office stated.
On the issue of speeding up reform of the judiciary, a person close to Mr Zelensky told the Financial Times: “There is currently an assessment of all officials in the administration, especially those who deal with legal and judicial reforms. Obviously, the president is unhappy with the status quo.”