KRUK REPORT: Justice is on trial in Ukraine

KRUK REPORT: Justice is on trial in Ukraine
Ukraine is impatiently waiting for real proof of sincere intent to carry out anti-corruption reforms. / Photo: CC
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv March 13, 2017

Do Ukrainians believe in fair courts? They never did. Do Ukrainians believe in anti-corruption bodies? Their belief is growing stronger day by day.

And this where the problem starts, because without fair courts all the investigations launched by the new anti-corruption bodies will be just another show for the media. We have already seen it so many times: crooked politicians were detained, brought to court and after a long string of hearings, during which they ‘almost died’, the poor creatures, they were eventually set free. Ukraine has seen high-profile detentions and investigations, but we have never seen a really big fish actually get put in prison for corruption.

Now there is a chance this vicious circle will be broken. Ukrainians are hoping the case of suspended tax service chief Roman Nasirov will mark a new era of real justice.

Who is Nasirov? He is the man from a system. In fact, it is thanks to people like him that the “system” exists in the first place and is doing very nicely, thank you.

Nasirov never was a very well-known public figure or a politician. The first appointment that brought him media attention was as the deputy chairman of the board of the State Food and Grain Corporation of Ukraine. Not a very good start, taking into account the very bad reputation of the corporation. In Ukraine it was known for a big scandal with a credit deal with China, which was one of the biggest corruption deals of the Yanukovych era.

Yet it didn’t prevent Nasirov from successfully becoming an MP and even getting appointed as the head of Verkhovna Rada’s Committee on Tax and Customs Policy – a notoriously corrupt organ. One could assume Nasirov was put in this position for his “talents”: talent for being Poroshenko’s obedient man. Nasirov then fully explored his talent as head of the State Fiscal Service of Ukraine. Ever since that appointment, he became one of the most hated public figures in Ukraine, as well as an uneasy reminder that the new post-Maidan authorities are very keen to use old pre-Maidan practices.

For almost two years Nasirov was a presidential administration bulldog doing the very ignoble and dirty work of keeping the president’s opponents on a short leash. In Ukraine, politics are business, so having your man running the State Fiscal Service helps a lot in case some opponent starts to undermine your authority. This became very clear with Nasirov’s public conflict with Yulia Marushevska, the head of the  Odesa customs service and the surrogate of then Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili. When Saakashvili started having problems with Poroshenko, Marushevska started having problems with Nasirov. That was a media battle that was characterised as the new system vs the old one. The old system won. Shortly after Saakashvili’s resignation, Marushevska was fired from Odesa customs. Nasirov had cemented his position as the “bad guy of Ukrainian politics”.

Everyone knew Nasirov wasn’t an independent player, but an obedient presidential puppet. The deal was clear: he was expected to do the dirty work in return for security guarantees. This is confirmed at the very first stage of his detention: he knew that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) would come after him and so he hid himself in a hospital (one that is under control of the presidential administration, by the way). There is an old Soviet-era dodge that still to this day prevents police from arresting suspects in hospital. It’s a very old scenario that Ukraine has seen each time a high-profile politician is detained.

Many still fear that the president will save his “golden boy” who served him so well all these years. Nevertheless there is a hope this time things can play out differently and that Nasirov will be sent to jail. There are several reasons for that: NABU, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), activists and the Donbas blockage.

NABU: A week before Nasirov was chased down by NABU – which is one of the very few independent law enforcing bodies in Ukraine, although it has no powers to arrest anyone – there was an attempt to appoint an external auditor to the bureau. As always at the Rada, voting was conducted using all possible procedural infringements. Yet it didn’t help Poroshenko’s Bloc and the People’s Front to appoint their candidate: former British detective Nigel Brown, who didn’t have the mandatory approval of the anti-corruption committee of the Verkhovna Rada and whose candidacy was only announced minutes before the voting. Many perceived this as a transparent ruse to limit NABU’s independence and to take it under control of the president. But it didn’t take long for NABU to show its teeth and attack the president’s candidate. Of course, NABU has been investigating Nasirov’s case for a long time, but it is very likely that the timing of Nasirov’s detention might also be a way of showing that NABU is ready to fight for its independence.

IMF: Ukraine is in the process of finalising the last details before the IMF’s next $1bn tranche of the stand-by agreement can be released. In times like these, Ukrainian authorities are very vulnerable to any criticism or suggestions from the outside. Analysts point out that at the beginning of Nasirov’s detention he looked as if he could get away with it, just as has happened many times before. And then something went wrong. It is quite possible that because of the strong reaction of activists and the palpable interest of embassies, including some high-profile American politicians, this meant the decision to save Nasirov at any cost was taken out of the powerbrokers’ hands.

Activists: The fervent reaction of civil society was probably the biggest surprise for the key stakeholders in the story. Of course there is always a public reaction and anger in social media when there is some blatant abuse of power, but this time all those angry people showed their dissatisfaction not on Facebook, but by physically showing up at the court yard and blocking the building so Nasirov wouldn’t escape. NABU had 48 hours from the moment it issued the indictment to get a judge to put Nasirov on remand, otherwise he could walk free. Time was running out as a judge to issue the order could not be found over the weekend. So activists came out of their homes and kindly reminded the authorities that the people are waiting for justice. A spontaneous protest surrounded the court, forcing Nasirov to remain inside until Monday when the judges turned up for work. The presence of Ukraine’s most active and vocal activists was proof there was a serious intention to make sure that this time a villain would not be allowed to escape. Public attention was very high. It would have been political suicide to ignore it.

Donbas blockage: For several weeks activists have blocked the railroads of the eastern Donbas region. These people are expressing their outrage at trade relations the rest of Ukraine has with the occupied territories: specifically, against Ukraine buying coal from coalmines on territory controlled by separatists. Tensions are high. The Ukrainian cabinet of ministers even declared a temporary state of emergency in the energy sector. But most importantly, there is a high level of public discontent with the authorities. For now, those running the blockade are staying in the east, but they could easily move towards Kyiv and continue their demonstrations in the governmental quarter of the capital. These days the authorities have to think twice before making any decision that could possibly make the civil sector even angrier. Public discontent has become so great that saving the tax chief might not be worth it.

So Nasirov’s case is an extremely important litmus test. Ukraine is impatiently waiting for real proof of sincere intent to carry out anti-corruption reforms. Saying that anti-corruption agencies have been created is not enough. We need real cases of people put in jail for corruption. Nasirov has every chance of becoming the first example. Let’s hope all those who can potentially block it understand that the cost of fluffing this decision could be very high.