Ukraine’s reform activists are under attack
September 8, 2017.
With fake news, threats and arrests, a corrupt system is fighting back
“AUTHORITIES confirm they’ve made progress in an investigation into the finances of anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin,” drones the anchor of an American television network, News24, in a clip recently shared across Ukrainian social media. There is only one problem: there is no News24, and the anchor is not a journalist but an actor hired through a freelance site, Fiverr.com. “I assumed the video was a prank his friends were playing on him,” says the actor, Michael-John Wolfe.
The “fake news” bulletin was an illustration of the increasingly hostile environment facing anti-corruption activists, journalists and reformist officials in Ukraine. “I cannot escape the feeling that we’re living through a counter-revolution,” writes Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian at Ukrainian Catholic University. This is partly a backlash against reforms, particularly the new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). By allowing such measures, the political elite “opened Pandora’s box,” says Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine.
Now they are trying to close it. This spring Ukraine’s parliament passed a law requiring NGOs and their employees to submit asset declarations, drawing stern rebukes from Western embassies. Ukrainian editors are concerned that security services are carrying out surveillance on journalists. (The president, Petro Poroshenko, denies it.) Anti-corruption activists increasingly find themselves derided as “agents of Putin” or grantoedy (“grant-eaters”). In April a mock funeral procession gathered outside the home of Olga Balytska, a reformist Kiev city-council member, carrying a coffin plastered with her photograph. “It’s one thing when people criticise you on Facebook, it’s another when they threaten death,” Ms Balytska says.
One key target is the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC), an NGO jointly led by Mr Shabunin (pictured). An MP has peddled false accusations that the group embezzled American government funds. Tax police opened an investigation into its finances. When protesters gathered outside Mr Shabunin’s home, investigative journalists revealed that an officer of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) oversaw them. (The SBU says he was there by chance.) In mid-August Mr Shabunin punched a video blogger, Vsevolod Filimonenko, whom he accuses of having harassed him and his colleagues for months (Mr Filimonenko says he is simply a journalist who “asks tough questions”). Mr Shabunin now faces a potential three-year sentence; the severity of the response led many to see the case as politicised.
AntAC argues that the “systemic campaign” is meant to discredit NABU and its supporters. This spring the bureau made its first high-level arrests, bringing charges against Roman Nasirov, the former head of Ukraine’s fiscal service, and Mykola Martynenko, a powerful former lawmaker. “The deeper we probe, the more resistance we face,” says Artem Sytnyk, NABU’s director. The next big battle concerns Ukraine’s courts, which Mr Sytnyk accuses of “sabotaging” his bureau by convicting only low-level figures. Even a man who tried to bribe his way into a job at the Anti-Corruption Bureau avoided serving prison time, he notes contemptuously.
The reformers want a new independent anti-corruption court for the anti-corruption prosecutor, named in 2015. In the past the West helped push through such measures by attaching strict conditions to IMF loans and European Union aid. But Ukraine’s economy has stabilised and is less reliant on IMF loans, and the EU has granted Ukraine visa-free travel. “There are now fewer instruments to influence the Ukrainian leadership,” says Volodymyr Fesenko of Penta, a think-tank. And as the presidential election in 2019 approaches, reform will take a back seat to winning.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Anti-anti-corruption measures"