Ukraine's parliament backs resignation of chief prosecutor

Ukraine's parliament backs resignation of chief prosecutor
Six-week resignation of Viktor Shokin approaches an end with Rada vote.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Minsk March 29, 2016

Ukraine's parliament on March 29 accepted the resignation of the country's controversy-mired Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, clearing the way for him to finally leave office after 13 months in the job.

However, in a parting act hours before the vote, Shokin fired his Georgia-born deputy and Odesa chief prosecutor Davit Sakvarelidze, who is regarded as one of the most active anti-corruption campaigners among senior law-enforcement officials in Ukraine.

US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt welcomed the Rada's motion on March 29, but stressed that the key task now is "to identify a new prosecutor general, the person who will be an independent professional, enjoy support of civil society in Ukraine and be committed to Euromaidan principles".

A total of 289 lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada backed the motion to release Shokin from his duties, 63 more votes than the 226 needed. Shokin, a close associate of President Petro Poroshenko, was compelled by the president to write the letter of resignation in February amid mounting pressure by local reformists and Western backers to replace him.

Poroshenko now has to undersign the resignation for it to becoming effective and for the process of appointing a new prosecutor to go ahead.

Victoria Nuland, assistant US secretary of state for European аnd Eurasian affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 15 that the US administration will be able to further support Kyiv if "a new, clean" chief prosecutor will be appointed.

According to Nuland, the new prosecutor should be committed to rebuilding the integrity of his office, and investigate, indict and successfully prosecute corruption and asset recovery cases, including "locking up dirty personnel" in the Prosecutor General's Office itself.

Shokin was appointed in February 2015 after his predecessor, Vitaly Yarema, resigned amidst accusations that he had failed to investigate landmark crimes, including the murder of Euromaidan protesters in Kyiv and corruption schemes of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and his allies. Similar claims accompany Shokin as he leaves office.

Smoothing way to Washington

Meanwhile, Kyiv-based experts note that Shokin's dismissal occurs before Poroshenko's scheduled working trip to the US on March 30, which should help him secure further financial assistance to Ukraine from the Western backers and multinational institutions.

Another change in Kyiv that will sit well with Ukraine's Western backers is progress towards the formation of a new coalition government under a new prime minister, which is expected to happen in the next few days. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Groysman is tipped to replace Arseniy Yatsenyuk as PM, although the fate of key members of the exitsiting cabinet like US-born Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko is not clear.

However, some observers say it will not be disastrous for Poroshenko if a coalition isn't former before his US trip. "He’s already tested the patience of the West and he has the will to stretch it further," Zenon Zawada at the Concorde Capital brokerage in Kyiv wrote in a research note. "Western leaders have no choice but to deal with Poroshenko on his terms, whether they like it or not," Zawada added.

Earlier, Poroshenko's faction in parliament has formally backed Groysman to head a new government. The new prime minister will be likely elected on March 31, the Poroshenko Bloc's head Yuriy Lutsenko told journalists.

Corruption fight set-back

According to Shokin's order, his deputy Sakvarelidze was sacked for "gross violation of the rules of prosecutorial ethics, intervention in the activities of another prosecutor, misconduct that defames the employee of the Prosecutor General's Office, and the failure and improper performance of official duties".

He was fired after a group of Odesa region lawmakers, including from pro-European factions, have signed a petition accusing him in doing nothing "to reinforce law and order, nor for investigating and resolving crimes in the region".

"Currently, an overwhelming majority of district prosecutors in Odesa region disfavour Sakvarelidze as the Odesa regional prosecutor," the signatories wrote.

Sakvarelidze is a close associate of Odesa region governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who on March 29, demanded Poroshenko's "clear and sharp" reaction on the latest developments due to the fact that "the president is the guarantor of the constitution".

The Odesa governor wrote on his official Facebook page that Poroshenko should do it "for the sake of the state, the integrity and the great future of Ukraine".

Sakvarelidze was appointed to his post in Ukraine in 2015, having previous served under Saakashvili as Georgia's first deputy prosecutor general in 2009-2012. His sacking indicates a major step backward in Ukraine's struggle against corruption, say observers.

"While all the focus has been on whether or not Poroshenko will support Shokhin's exit (the Rada finally confirmed this today), the bigger story has been the cleansing of the Prosecutor General's Office of reformers who were actually going after graft - Sakvarelidze's dismissal is a prime example of this," Nomura International's head of CEEMEA strategy Tim Ash wrote in an email.

"The anti-graft agenda has hence been set back months...again, which likely is the objective of Ukraine's oligarchic elites which look to be taking control yet again of all power structures in the country. Two years after Euromaydan and no one seems to have gone to jail, or even been indicted for graft."