President Petro Poroshenko on Sept. 7 urged the parliament to keep working on land, pension and judicial reforms, saying that Ukraine has to stick to the program outlined by the International Monetary Fund so that it will lend more money to the cash-strapped country.
But the words rang hollow for Poroshenko’s opponents, who argue that since his election in 2014 he has been stalling the very reforms he is now loudly advocating.
Delivering his annual address to parliament, Poroshenko said that Ukraine would be “vulnerable” without further installments of a $17.5 billion lending program through 2018. Ukraine has received about half of the scheduled loan amount.
Poroshenko also praised the country’s efforts to boost exports to the countries of the European Union and securing visa-free travel to Schengen zone states.
“Even when it came to adopting decisions that were frankly uncomfortable for lawmakers and other officials, for example, e-declarations, you (lawmakers), have shown the ability to sacrifice your own interests for the nation’s sake,” Poroshenko said.
Poroshenko said he would “veto all initiatives aimed at restraining anti-corruption institutions.”
However, he has himself been accused of trying to restrict the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine‘s independence by appointing loyal auditors of the agency. The Bloc of Poroshenko, the president’s 135-member faction in parliament, has also tried to push through legislation that restricts the NABU’s powers.
Poroshenko also called for the creation of an “anti-corruption judicial body.”
“This body should comprise judges with impeccable reputation recruited through a competition,” he said. “It must be dependent only on the law and should be free from any outside influence – mine, yours, dear lawmakers, that of political parties, law enforcement agencies or civil society… It should be formed quickly, taking into account the mistakes of other countries where special anti-corruption courts turned out to be inefficient.”
However, it was not clear if he was speaking about an independent anti-corruption court or an anti-corruption panel within the Supreme Court.
In July, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker triggered a controversy by saying that Poroshenko had persuaded him that Ukraine should create an anti-corruption panel within the existing Supreme Court, instead of establishing independent anti-corruption courts.
The crucial difference is that anti-corruption courts would be created via a transparent procedure with the help of foreigners to guarantee their independence and professionalism, while anti-corruption panels would be set up within Ukraine’s unreformed and politicized judiciary, Ukrainian non-governmental organizations have argued.
Earlier, Poroshenko was accused of sabotaging the introduction of an independent anti-corruption court. He and his party have failed to submit a bill on an anti-corruption court after plans to create such a court were announced last year. Poroshenko has also refused to support a bill submitted by opposition lawmakers to create such a court.
“Fighting corruption needs to get its second breath,” Poroshenko told lawmakers.
The president also said that he had submitted a draft law to parliament aiming at canceling e-declaration for NGOs.
The amendments, submitted to parliament on July 10, seek to cancel draconian asset declaration rules for anti-corruption activists adopted in March, and introduce new disclosure requirements for NGOs.
Under the current rules, anti-corruption activists are required to file electronic asset and income declarations identical to those of government officials, which is widely seen as the authorities’ revenge on civic activists for their efforts to expose graft and introduce electronic declarations for officials. The Presidential Administration has portrayed the new disclosure rules as a sign of good will towards civil society, and claimed they were in line with Western standards.
However, the new rules have been criticized by Freedom House, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, the Reanimation Package of Reforms, the Declarations under Control watchdog, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, the Kharkiv Human Rights Group and Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Valeria Lutkovska. They argue that the new amendments are yet another effort by the authorities to obstruct NGOs’ anti-corruption activities, and to put pressure on them.
Poroshenko touted the ongoing selection of new Supreme Court judges as a breakthrough in judicial reform.
However, the Public Integrity Council, a civil-society watchdog, has criticized the High Qualification Commission for making the commission’s recommendations on appointing Supreme Court judges secret, refusing to explain its methodology for giving scores and allowing 299 candidates with insufficient scores take part in the competition.
Poroshenko said that in 80 percent of cases, the High Qualification Commission of Judges, the body that ran the competition for the Supreme Court, agreed with the Public Integrity Council’s vetoes on judges that it deems to be corrupt or dishonest.
Halia Chyzhyk, a member of the Public Integrity Council, disputed Poroshenko’s claim. The High Qualification Commission has agreed with only 38 percent of the Public Integrity Council’s 133 vetoes on judges deemed to be corrupt or dishonest, she said.
Poroshenko also claimed that “candidates who were criticized by the (Public Integrity) Council did not get to the final list” of Supreme Court candidates.
Mykhailo Zhernakov, another member of the Public Integrity Council, said that the claim was false.
In July, the High Qualification Commission chose 120 judges of the new Supreme Court that have yet to be approved by the High Council of Justice. As many as 25 percent of the new Supreme Court’s nominated 120 judges have been vetoed by the Public Integrity Council, but the vetoes were overriden by the High Qualification Commission. The Public Integrity Council has urged the High Council of Justice not to appoint judges that it has deemed corrupt or dishonest.
Citing a report by the Center for Eastern Studies, a Polish think tank, Poroshenko said that changes made to the military since the start of Russia’s war in the Donbas showed that Ukraine now has “the best army it has ever had in its history.”
“Ukraine’s armed forces were reborn from ashes,” Poroshenko said. But even though Ukraine increased the defense sector budget, Russia still has an overwhelming military advantage. Poroshenko also said there are no signs that Moscow is ready to retreat from the Donbas or withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
On the contrary: evidence is building that Russia is preparing for an offensive on a continental scale,” he said, adding that he hopes to complete negotiations with Ukraine’s Western allies on the supply of defensive weapons, and warning that the upcoming Russia-Belarus military exercises could be cover for a full invasion of Ukraine. The current exercises, which will last for two months, will be much more extensive than Russia’s previous ones.
“The creation of new strike groups of Russian troops for an invasion of Ukrainian territory can’t be ruled out,” he added. “Obviously, the Kremlin is checking not only how the Russian armed forces, but how Russia itself is prepared for a major war with the West.”
The president also stressed Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO.
“We’ve been told that we’re safe and we shouldn’t make Russia angry (by joining the alliance),” Poroshenko said. “But Russia attacked Ukraine – which was outside all blocs – and has killed more than 10,000 of our citizens.”
Poroshenko also said that the country is set to bring its armed forces into line with NATO standards by 2020.
At least 40 percent of Ukrainians polled by the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research in June-July said they would vote to join NATO if a referendum on this were held.
The president also urged the lawmakers to replace the Central Election Commission’s members with new ones.
The legal authority for 12 out of the Central Election Commission’s 15 members expired in 2014 but parliament passed a law to extend their powers until new members are appointed. However, since then Poroshenko and the Verkhovna Rada have failed to replace these members, which some lawyers believe to be illegal. Moreover, members of the commission are being investigated on suspicion of taking bribes from ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which they deny.
Poroshenko has previously proposed replacing the current commission members mostly with his loyalists, but the opposition in the Verkhovna Rada has insisted on adding opposition members.
Poroshenko also said he does not agree that the head of state should be elected by the Verkhovna Rada, not the voters.
“Of course, the current model is not perfect,” Poroshenko said during his speech. “From time to time, people approach me with suggestions to change something: for instance, to give the president the authority of the 1996 Constitution or, conversely, to turn the president into a figurehead.”