October 16, 2015

U.S. officials criticize Ukraine’s prosecutors for failure of reforms


KYIV – High-ranking U.S. officials have targeted the Procurator General’s Office of Ukraine for criticism in recent weeks for actively obstructing government reform efforts.

Most recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland called for an overhaul of the body, more than a year after Petro Poroshenko assumed the presidency and vowed to support reforms. He has since appointed two procurator generals who have strongly disappointed the public.

Most of the top officials of the Yanukovych administration remain at large, while few of their subordinates have been brought to trial, let alone convicted. Corrupt businessmen and politicians remain active in Ukraine, even those widely suspected of supporting the Russian-backed terrorists in Donbas.

“Like Ukraine’s police force, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) has to be reinvented as an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine, rather than ripping them off,” Ms. Nuland said in her October 8 testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “That means it must investigate and successfully prosecute corruption and asset recovery cases, including locking up dirty personnel in the PGO itself.”

The newly created Inspector General’s Office, within the Procurator General’s Office, will have to be able to work independently and effectively, without political or judicial interference, she said in the same testimony.

[Unlike the U.S., where prosecutors are employed by a particular court, Ukraine’s prosecutors are organized under a national government body, the Procurator General’s Office, whose head is appointed by the president and approved by Parliament. “Procurator” is a term for prosecutor.]

Ms. Nuland also recommended that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau’s specially designated anti-corruption prosecutor be appointed as soon as possible in order to start investigating crimes. The process of approving this special prosecutor has been marred by accusations of delays and accusations of corruption against Procurator General Viktor Shokin.

Ms. Nuland’s testimony came on the heels of far sharper criticism of Ukraine’s PGO offered by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt when he addressed the Odesa Financial Forum on September 24.

He singled out the Procurator General’s Office as the “one glaring problem that threatens all of the good work that regional leaders here in Odesa, in Kharkiv, in Lviv and elsewhere are doing to improve the business climate and build a new model of government that serves the people.”

“That problem threatens everything that the [Verkhovna] Rada, the Cabinet, the National Reform Council and others are doing to push political and economic reforms forward and make life better for Ukrainians, and it flies in the face of what the Revolution of Dignity is trying to achieve,” Mr. Pyatt said.

The Procurator General’s Office has failed to successfully fight internal corruption, he said. Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the office are openly and aggressively undermining reform.

“In defiance of Ukraine’s leaders, these bad actors regularly hinder efforts to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials within the Prosecutor General’s Office,” Mr. Pyatt said. “They intimidate and obstruct the efforts of those working honestly on reform initiatives within that same office. The United States stands behind those who challenge these bad actors.”

Mr. Pyatt named one of those backed by the U.S. government as Vitaliy Kasko, a deputy procurator general and Lviv native who previously worked as a prosecutor before going into private practice in 2005. During the Euro-Maidan, he defended arrested activists.

Mr. Kasko’s distinctions since being hired in May 2014 include preparing the lawsuit for the Hague tribunal on the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as helping to expose corruption alleged against two other deputy prosecutor generals, Volodymyr Huzyr and Yurii Stoliarchuk.

The two men allegedly attempted to pressure young prosecutorial investigators in the summer to drop their bribery charges against two key officials they arrested on July 6: a former first deputy head of the Procurator General’s Main Investigative Administration, Volodymyr Shapakin, and a former deputy prosecutor of the Kyiv Oblast, Oleksandr Korniyets.

These two officials – known as the “diamond prosecutors” because 65 diamonds were found in Mr. Korniyets’ possession during their arrest – were soon dismissed after public pressure. They were detained and released on bail. Mr. Kasko said the evidence for the bribery charges will be submitted in November.

Ambassador Pyatt cited David Sakvarelidze as another reformer. He is the former Georgian first deputy prosecutor general who clashed with Mr. Shokin – within months of being appointed his deputy in mid-February – over the same scandal involving the “diamond prosecutors.”

On September 16, Mr. Sakvarelidze announced he would work simultaneously as the head prosecutor of the Odesa Oblast, where he is working alongside his fellow countryman, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is the head of the Odesa Oblast State Administration.

Among his first promises was to dismiss all the deputies who served under his predecessor, in order to liquidate any corruption schemes.

“We applaud the work of the newly established Inspector General’s Office in the Procurator General’s Office, led by David Sakvarelidze and Vitaliy Kasko,” the U.S. ambassador said, stressing that their corruption investigations had delivered important arrests.

“I encourage all of you to speak up in support of these brave investigators and prosecutors. Give them the resources and support to successfully prosecute these and future cases,” said Mr. Pyatt, noting that the U.S. signed a joint action plan with Mr. Sakvarelidze in early August to provide $2 million to support anti-corruption reform.

Not only did the Prosecutor General’s Office not support investigations into corruption, but it undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases, said Mr. Pyatt. Though not directly referring to the “diamond prosecutors,” he cited the case of former Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Mykola Zlochevsky, who served in the Yanukovych administration.

U.K. law enforcement authorities seized $23 million in illicit assets that Mr. Zlochevsky allegedly stole from the Ukrainian government and they asked Ukrainian prosecutors to send documents supporting their seizure. These Ukrainian prosecutors instead sent letters to Mr. Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no criminal case against him, Mr. Pyatt said.

“As a result, the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus,” he said. “The misconduct by the officials who wrote those letters should be investigated and those responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should – at a minimum – be summarily terminated.”

Mr. Poroshenko, who is responsible for the functioning of the Prosecutor General’s Office, was irritated by Mr. Pyatt’s comments, Ihor Kononenko, the deputy head of the Poroshenko Bloc, told the RBK-Ukraine news agency in comments published on October 8.

Mr. Kononenko claimed that he called U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to complain, who in turn agreed to recall Mr. Pyatt as U.S. ambassador in February. Yet Jonathan Lalley, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said in an October 8 statement that the vice-president made no such comments.

Instead he said the U.S. position is “consistent with Ambassador Pyatt’s comments,” which was reiterated by Assistant Secretary of State Nuland in her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I agree with the approach taken by Pyatt and Nuland,” said Dr. Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington who has been involved in Ukrainian reforms for two decades. “The fight against corruption in the judicial system must start at the top of the Prosecutor General’s Office.”

Both Dr. Aslund and Vitaly Portnikov, a prominent Ukrainian political commentator, said Ms. Nuland’s emphasis on the newly created Inspector General’s Office and National Anti-Corruption Bureau won’t be an effective strategy in reforming the Procurator General’s Office.

Dr. Aslund said the emphasis needs to be on lustration, cutting the office’s personnel by as much as three-quarters and more than quadrupling the salaries of those remaining. Mr. Portnikov said the body’s complete independence from the Presidential Administration is critical.

“In essence, Nuland’s statement is not even a signal, but it’s a warning of what reforms Ukraine truly needs in order to conquer corruption and ensure the country’s economic rebirth,” he wrote in an October 9 column for the liga.net news site.

“It’s understood that there won’t be any real changes until the prosecutor’s office becomes an independent instrument. And it’s understood that Ukrainian politicians are hiding – and American diplomats don’t know or don’t want to know – the essence of what’s happening,” Dr. Aslund noted.

The U.S. ambassador’s comments were spot on and long overdue, said Dr. Taras Kuzio, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. Yet the Procurator General’s Office can’t be reformed, he said, because it’s “the biggest criminal organization in Ukraine.”

“It’s inefficient at capturing criminals but very efficient at letting senior level officials escape justice,” Dr. Kuzio commented. “Today the clock is ticking for Poroshenko because of his unwillingness to secure prosecutions of the leaders of the Yanukovych regime for murder and their mafia-capture of the state.”