Argument

All the President’s Men

Why President Poroshenko’s latest power grab shows that the reform process in Ukraine is stalling.

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For almost two years now, ever since the Euromaidan revolution toppled the corrupt government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, supporters of reform have been demanding the ouster of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was widely regarded as too soft on the fight against corruption. Last month they finally got their wish. He resigned.

Yet Shokin’s departure has brought little joy to reformers. Just a few hours before leaving office, he signed an order dismissing Vitaliy Kasko, a deputy who was known as a solid advocate of the anti-corruption agenda. Shokin also seized the opportunity to fire another important pro-reform figure in the prosecutor’s office in Odessa. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Prosecutor General’s Office also opened an investigation into the finances of Ukraine’s most prominent non-profit anti-corruption organization, the Anti-Corruption Action Center. The fact that President Poroshenko tolerated these actions sends an ominous message about the true intentions of those at the top of Ukrainian politics.

Now matters have taken an even more discouraging turn. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament voted to approve Shokin’s successor — and for reformers, the result is no less than a disaster. The new prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, is the wrong person for the job, and his appointment makes it amply clear that reforms in Ukraine are stalling.

To understand why Lutsenko is a problem, one must first understand the nature of the institution that he now heads. Most well-established liberal democracies around the world have offices that are the functional equivalents of Lutsenko’s, but in practice they are radically different. In the United States, for example, the attorney general acts as the government’s lawyer-in-chief, overseeing law enforcement bodies and ensuring that all federal agencies conform to the law. And while the attorney general may serve at the pleasure of the president, he or she takes an oath to the Constitution; the officeholder’s first responsibility is to the law itself, not to the chief executive.

Little of this applies to the chief prosecutor in Kiev. Under the old Soviet system, whose legacy remains strong even in today’s Ukraine, the office of the prosecutor general was a quasi-military agency that answered to the Communist Party, which gave it overarching powers of investigation and arrest. Since the collapse of the USSR, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office has retained similarly sweeping powers while effectively transferring its allegiance to the office of the president. President Yanukovych was particularly notorious for using the office to ruthlessly exercise his power and build his authoritarian regime. Under his rule, the prosecutor’s office remained an instrument of political persecution rather than becoming a guarantor of the rule of law.

Even though present-day Ukrainian law ostensibly guarantees the chief prosecutor’s independence from political interference, in practice the office remains a tool of the executive, which uses it to reward or punish its friends and enemies. In the views of many reformers, Shokin was a problem precisely because he deployed his ample powers in the service of the old oligarchic state, protecting those who operated in the interests of politically well-connected businessmen and systematically stymying anti-corruption efforts. Shokin signally failed, for example, to prosecute any of those responsible for the killing of dozens of Euromaidan protesters during the revolution. He did nothing to punish Yanukovych or his cronies, who led country into political and economic disaster. Nor did he make any apparent effort to restrain the oligarchs, who continue to wield their power over Ukraine’s economy and political system with little concern for the law.

Reformers had hoped that whoever took his place could ensure a clean start. But Lutsenko is not that person. On the face of things, he would seem to have at least some reformist credentials. Having played a prominent role in the 2004 Orange Revolution, he then became Minister of Internal Affairs (responsible for the police and internal security) under President Viktor Yushchenko. But though he held that post twice (2005-2006 and 2007-2010), he achieved little during his time in office. (Indeed, his most notable achievement was getting himself arrested by German police during a drunken incident at the Frankfurt Airport.)

In 2010, the Yanukovych administration ordered his arrest for alleged abuse of office, and he was imprisoned until finally receiving a presidential pardon in 2013. Lutsenko asserted that he was the victim of political persecution, and western governments harshly criticized the Ukrainian government for its handling of the case.

But by far the most worrisome thing about Lutsenko is his close personal connection to President Poroshenko. Currently, Lutsenko runs the Petro Poroshenko Bloc in parliament, which brings together all the lawmakers loyal to the president, so there is good reason to believe that his appointment will only increase the prosecutor general’s closeness to the president. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for efforts to bolster the political independence of the office.

The president’s handling of Lutsenko’s appointment has done little to allay such suspicions. Existing laws specified that any appointee to the office of the prosecutor general must have legal training or prior experience in the department. Neither applied to Lutsenko. To ensure his appointment, therefore, his supporters in parliament simply decided to change the law. When their first attempt failed, Poroshenko canceled a planned visit to the U.K. so that he could stay in Kiev and oversee preparations for the next vote. Whatever he did, it was remarkably effective. On May 12, the Ukrainian parliament moved with shocking speed to modify the existing law to enable Lutsenko’s appointment, then quickly voted to approve him for the post.

The president’s success is likely to come at a high cost. In order to pull off Lutsenko’s appointment, Poroshenko was compelled to rely on the help of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky as well as former members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. These are precisely the political forces that are most eager to block reform and the establishment of true rule of law.

Last month, when Poroshenko appointed Volodymyr Groysman as Ukraine’s new prime minister, he declared the country’s political crisis to be at an end. His optimism was premature. If the president, his inner circle, and their new oligarch allies continue on their present course, new conflicts are inevitable.

Poroshenko won the presidency in the wake of the revolution by vowing to fight the legacy of the previous authoritarian government. Today each decision he makes is bringing him a step farther away from the reform camp and closer to a new, Yanukovych-style regime.

In the photo, Ukrainian MPs and President Petro Poroshenko applaud before voting to name Yury Lutsenko, the country’s Prosecutor General on May 12 in Kiev.

Photo credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

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