INTERVIEW: Poroshenko is failing to drive Ukraine’s transformation, says Georgia-born reformer

INTERVIEW: Poroshenko is failing to drive Ukraine’s transformation, says Georgia-born reformer
Davit Sakvarelidze, one of the most active anti-corruption campaigners in Ukraine today.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv June 22, 2016

“The current frustration, discontent and anger in Ukrainian society is dangerous,” warns Davit Sakvarelidze, who was one of the foreign-born technocrats brought into Ukraine’s government to help push the reform effort, but like several others fell foul of the vested interests that are holding the country back. “If we fail to offer society a proper, purified [from corruption] political movement with the aim of channeling people’s negative energy, everything could end up in a very sorry situation.”

The Georgia-born Sakvarelidze, 34, was granted Ukrainian citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko in February 2015, and almost immediately appointed to the post of deputy prosecutor general with a mandate to reform the crucial institution that is on the front line in the fight against the corruption that blights the country. Seven months later, he was additionally made chief prosecutor to the Odesa region, which was headed by his close ally Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who spearheaded the reforms in that country.

But very quickly Sakvarelidze and his team in the Prosecutor General’s Office in Kyiv found themselves locked in a bitter dispute with the organisation’s controversial head, Viktor Shokin, who was accused by Ukraine’s Western backers and local activists of blocking reforms and failing to investigate major crimes, including the murder of Euromaidan protesters in Kyiv during the revolution in 2014 that ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych, as well as the myriad of corrupt schemes that Yanukovych and his allies used to bilk the economy out of billions.

Under Western pressure, Poroshenko was forced to dismiss Shokin. However, literally hours before the vote in Ukraine’s parliament that confirmed his dismissal in late March, Shokin got his retaliation in first and fired Sakvarelidze.

After his departure from office, Sakvarelidze became one of the most active senior anti-corruption campaigners in the country and a key figure in the creation of a new Ukrainian political party, in which Saakashvili will be “a driver” of the movement. Sakvarelidze believes the party will be able to mobilise around the leadership, which is composed of “people with as much credibility as possible”. “Such people [as Saakashvili] have the energy to be leaders,” he states.

According to Sakvarelidze, there are a lot of armed people in Ukraine now that “are discontented and embarrassed” by the politics of the post-Euromaidan authorities, who have failed to carry out their promises to punish representatives of the Yanukovych regime, to reform the country and to fight the endemic corruption. This new political party, Sakvarelidze claims, should become a vehicle to channel this anger.

“I don’t want to see Ukraine in a similar situation to that of Georgia in the 1990s, when we lost up to 85% of our GDP due to civil wars and territorial conflicts,” Sakvarelidze says during the interview in a recently rented office in the heart of Kyiv, where the new political party will be headquartered. The premises are located just 200 metres from the country’s parliament, the Rada. The flags of Ukraine, Georgia and the EU are installed in the huge room, which is still waiting to be furnished.

Fresh start

Sakvarelidze says the new party will push for snap parliamentary elections. “There will be no systemic breakthrough under the current configuration of political forces. Early elections could provide additional legitimacy to a new Ukrainian government to start to do something at last,” he explains.

This stance over snap elections highlights the distinction between Saakashvili’s team and President Poroshenko, who has done everything possible to avoid new elections during the recent political crisis in Kyiv. “Whether or not snap elections will be held, we will create this party,” Sakvarelidze explains. “It is always good to have a well-built car, which you can place on the road at any time and drive to victory. The party is an infrastructure that needs to be created.”

Until recently, Saakashvili was actively recruiting supporters for his own public anti-corruption movement, including well-known public activists and politicians in Kyiv. Sakvarelidze explains this movement was “a test” and “a start” that “has [successfully] carried out its mission”, which was to put pressure on the cabinet of former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in order to secure its resignation.

Sakvarelidze believes that Poroshenko has failed in his bid to become a driver of the badly-needed reforms, not only in the law enforcement agencies but also in other spheres, despite having all the necessary “instruments and legitimacy” for that mission. “Two and a half years have passed [since Yanukovych’s ousting]. All major reforms should have been carried out in this time – while he had trust and legitimacy, while it was easier to work with the parliament, while the parliamentary coalition had not fallen apart,” Sakvarelidze says, adding that he doesn’t believe that Poroshenko will be able to change his stance towards reforms now.

“Poroshenko has two sides: he is a businessman and a president. More recently, the business-part has prevailed in him,” he adds.

“Take a look at Poroshenko’s close circle – there are people who have close business relations with him,” Sakvarelidze goes on, pointing to Ihor Kononenko, a businessman and first deputy head of Poroshenko’s Bloc in parliament, who was one of billionaire Poroshenko’s first business partners.

Currently, Kononenko is regarded as a ‘grey cardinal’ for his leading role in unofficial negotiations with other parliamentary factions. “He is now the most influential person [in Ukrainian politics] after Poroshenko. He is more influential than the speaker of the parliament. That is because he is linked with the president by more than just friendship and politics,” Sakvarelidze says.

Crossing “a red line”

On May 12, the Ukrainian parliament supported Yuriy Lutsenko, a close associate of Poroshenko, for the post of the country’s new prosecutor general. “The Ukrainian people have been disappointed by the three previous [post-Euromaidan] prosecutors, and Lutsenko has a very limited amount of time [to show real results],” Sakvarelidze says. “However, if the Prosecutor General’s Office will fight against corruption, will demonstrate results, there will be fewer accusations of Lutsenko being Poroshenko’s man.”

In July 2015, during the course of an anti-bribery raid, Sakvarelidze initiated the detention of the deputy head of the office’s central investigations department, Volodymyr Shapakin, and the deputy chief prosecutor for the Kyiv region, Oleksandr Korniets. The prosecutors had allegedly taken a UAH3.15mn ($126,500) bribe. During searches of Shapakin’s premises, $400,000 was seized, while searches relating to Korniets revealed 65 diamonds and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The case, which was dubbed by journalists as “the diamond prosecutors’ case”, triggered a bitter months-long dispute between Sakvarelidze and Shokin, who was an ally of the president, ending in the Georgia-born official being fired. “Poroshenko talked with Lutsenko about my dismissal – I know it,” Sakvarelidze says. “I can imagine that the president said that Sakvarelidze is a problem for him because he has crossed a red line by starting an attack against Shokin.”

Immediately after his dismissal, Sakvarelidze had a meeting with Poroshenko. “I feel sorry that the president was not honest even while firing me, and did not tell me that it was in fact his decision [not Shokin’s],” the politician says. “However, I have no personal grievances: there are people who can’t be forced to think in another way. My views on reforms, on changes to the state, are diametrically different to Poroshenko’s views.”