The issue of anti-corruption in Ukraine has pendulumed from gross inaction in recent years to what is now being criticised as over-zealous scrutiny of civil society workers, under legislation amendments passed by the country’s Verkhovna Rada parliament.
On March 23, 268 members of the 450-seat Rada backed requirements for individuals who receive funds or property for anti-corruption activities, including heads of non-government organisations, to file electronic declarations on property and income, just as senior state officials are now required to do.
Ukraine’s backers and donors are already worried about the development. “E-declarations for senior public servants is a strong step forward for reform in Ukraine. [However,] members of civil society play vital role for transparency; targeting them is a step backwards,” the US Embassy in Kyiv wrote on Twitter on March 23.
As a condition for foreign aid and credits to Ukraine, the government introduced a system of electronic assets and income declarations for senior officials in autumn 2016 to help combat corruption. Critics of the amended law on edeclarations say this will provide an extra leverage for unreformed government-controlled agencies to put pressures on NGOs.
“It is a historic moment, when [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko finally turned into [fugitive former president Viktor] Yanukovych,” tweeted the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (ANTAC), a Kyiv-based anti-graft watchdog.
“Changes to edeclarations law a serious step back. Could limit NGOs capacity, expose them to pressure & affect reform. Needs urgent review,” British Ambasador to Ukraine Judith Gough tweeted.
However, some people say the anti-corruption camp should also be held to account.
“Your personal contacts [with] activists must not serve them as a cover, they're often as corrupted as others,” read one objection to Gough’s comment.
“As Ukrainian citizen I want to be sure, that those, who want to control corruption and bribery are not the same. Is it bad?” added another Twitter user.
The result of the Rada vote was secured not only thanks to votes provided by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction and the People’s Front faction controlled by former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, but also by Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party faction and lawmakers from allied parliamentary groups.
Complex politics at work
However, it would be wrong to blame only the ruling coalition for imposing controversial anti-corruption regulations. Among one of the most active lobbyists of the amendments to the legislation was prominent anti-corruption activist and former investigative journalist Tetyana Chernovol, who currently represents the People’s Front faction in the Verkhovna Rada legislative.
This controversy highlights complicated relations in the ranks of Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, which occasionally turn into open infighting.
In 2016, Chernovol accused a group of reformist lawmakers, which includes Mustafa Nayeem and Sergii Leshenko, lawmakers with the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction, of blocking the unfreezing of funds belonging to Yanukovych-era officials and arrested by Ukrainian banks.
That situation allegedly prevented the government from channelling funds to the state budget for defence needs.
The scandal over e-declarations for anti-corruption activists followed a week of failed attempts in the Rada to appoint an auditor for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). (Two other auditors should be appointed by the president and the government).
On March 21, parliament failed to approve either British detective Nigel Brown nor US Justice Department deputy inspector general Robert Storch to the post of auditor of the newly-created anti-graft agency.
Earlier, Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, including some reformist lawmakers, have slammed Poroshenko’s team for allegedly trying restrict the activities of NABU by seeking the appointment of Brown as the body’s auditor. Some regard him as a possible plant by senior officials who want to thwart anti-graft probes against them.
“He [Brown] came from nowhere. He refused to disclose who invited him to the parliament. His appointment is pushed through violation of parliamentary procedures. According to his CV he never audited any law enforcement agency or hold any senior official position,” the ANTAC tweeted on March 16.
Brown, in turn, said that he had been “deluged by all kinds of accusations” concerning his “professional transgressions, lack of qualifications and so forth”. Speaking to Interfax, he said, "These charges have come from all sides, in parliament, society and media and I'm extremely shocked that this is exactly what is happening.”
According to Brown’s official biography, he is a well-known professional investigator/security consultant, who founded International Security Consultancy (ISC) in 1993, operating in 26 international jurisdictions. In 1997, he sold the business, but was retained as a partner. The business was renamed ISC Global and went on to become one of the leading businesses in the industry.
Later, Brown established GSS Global, which was sold along with Kroll Security Group, with him being appointed as senior managing director for EMEA and Asia on contract. In 2009, he was headhunted to establish the Risk and Investigation division at Begbies Traynor PLC, a listed corporation in the UK.
Brown is a specialist investigator in the field of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and UK Bribery Act and has advised several major Fortune 500 and Footsie 100 companies in this field.
Earlier, Ukrainian anti-corruption activists offered their own candidature for the post of the auditor, Robert Storch, a US Justice Department deputy inspector general. His candidature was officially approved by the parliament’s Committee on Corruption Prevention and Counteraction in late 2016.