The fight against corruption is one of the most important reforms required of Ukraine to move closer to EU membership. It is one of the key elements of the State-Building Contract (a package of reforms backed by €355 million in EU support). Other even more significant incentives, such as several-billion euros of macro-financial assistance and the creation of a visa-free regime, also depend on anti-corruption achievements in Ukraine and particularly on the efficiency and independence of the newly-created National Anti-Corruption Bureau and a soon-to-be established National Corruption Prevention Agency.
To discuss the state of play in this field we talked with Maria Stogova, anti-corruption sector manager of the Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine.
Ukraine is in the process of establishing a National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). How would you assess the country’s progress in this field?
The process of setting up the bureau is just beginning. The head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and three deputies have been appointed. There is also an ongoing recruitment process for 100 investigators and heads of departments and a Civil Society Council has also been selected.
But don’t you think that progress is too slow? The law was adopted last year, and now it is June 2015, and the Bureau is still not operational.
Indeed, the legislation on the National Anti-Corruption Bureau was adopted in autumn 2014 – more than half a year ago. There were delays in starting the selection process for the head of the NABU. I would not say that the process is slow, but rather that the process has been delayed.
The head of the Bureau has been appointed, but the anti-corruption prosecution office has not yet been set up. Any progress there?
Indeed, in order for the National Anti-Corruption Bureau to be operational and to start conducting investigations, there should be an anti-corruption prosecutor’s office. The Ukrainian parliament is currently considering draft amendments to the procedures for selecting the members of this body. I hope that the relevant legislation will be adopted as soon as possible and there will be no delays setting up the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office.
What are the EU’s recommendations for this procedure?
One of the EU’s primary concerns is that this anti-corruption prosecutor’s office is independent. However, the current draft amendments [to the procedures for the selection of the members of the office] establish the following procedure: that five members are selected by the Verkhovna Rada, and five members by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Taking into account that the General Prosecutor is appointed by the President, and that the Verkhovna Rada has a coalition that includes the President’s party, there may not be an effective balance of power, and there is a risk that this new office might be influenced. I am not saying that this will certainly be the case, but the risk of inappropriate influence is definitely there.
In this case, the EU would like the parliament to look for a solution to diminish this risk. Of course, it is up to Ukraine to decide how to deal with this concern, but it is important that the issue is addressed.
Now we are talking about the agency’s independence from the government. But what about its independence from business interests, from oligarchs?
There are safeguards in place to ensure the independence of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau: its employees have high salaries [up to 60,000 UAH per month], and there is also legislation forbidding intervention in the investigation process. Of course, these safeguards can never be a 100% guarantee that you will not have corruption and that employees will not take bribes, but these mechanisms will help these agencies be independent.
What is the role of civil society in this process?
NABU has selected a Civil Society Council composed of 15 people. Three of these council members will take part in the recruitment process for investigators and other staff. They will also monitor the NABU’s activities.
Do you think that Ukrainian authorities are becoming more cooperative with civil society through this process?
The second attempt to select the members of the Civil Society Council was well-organised and transparent. But the first attempt was a failure: the process was held through internet voting and the same person could vote several times. Fortunately, the head of NABU, Mr Sytnyk, made the wise decision to re-launch the selection process. He showed a good example of cooperating with civil society, and had a very constructive approach to dealing with the criticism coming from civil society. As a result, during the second attempt there were more safeguards in place to ensure the procedure was not abused.
But the situation with the National Corruption Prevention Agency is very worrying. The process of selecting representatives of NGOs has been the target of much public criticism and, if not improved, could ultimately have a negative impact the respect and authority of the Agency. Several NGOs raised concerns about this process and presented a briefing on June 10 explaining in detail what has happened. Transparency International also presented a claim against this process in court. The EU is looking carefully into the details of this situation, because it is very important for the EU that the independence of the newly-created agencies is guaranteed; this is a pre-condition for EU financial assistance and the creation of a visa-free regime.
Do you think that in some cases current Ukrainian authorities are trying to imitate the Yanukovych administration’s strategy of creating civil society councils dependent on the government, with fake organisations and controlled decisions?
According to civil society representatives, with which the EU Delegation stays in contact, this is exactly what has happened with the process of selecting NGO representatives for the selection panel for the National Corruption Prevention Agency. There were attempts to appoint biased members, which would of course threaten the independence of this body and significantly hamper the trust of Ukrainian society in this new agency.
Let me go back to the functions of this National Corruption Prevention Agency. How will it ensure the prevention of corruption?
The Agency will be dealing with civil servants’ declarations of assets, with conflict of interest issues, and with the implementation of anti-corruption strategies.
But public officials already provide declarations of assets. What will the difference be now?
The main difference (it still needs to be elaborated by the National Corruption Prevention Agency, which still doesn’t really exist) is that the declarations will be filed electronically rather than on paper and will be made publicly available. This creates an opportunity for civil society to monitor the assets of civil servants and it will be easier to find out if there are any problematic issues with these declarations.
What would happen if Ukraine fails to adhere to the EU recommendations on these issues?
For Ukraine and its citizens, it is very important that all these bodies – the NABU, the Anti-corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the Corruption Prevention Agency – are effective and independent. The disbursement of EU financial assistance depends on Ukraine’s progress in implementing these conditions. Moreover, it is not only the financial programmes but also the visa liberalisation process that depends on these reforms.
Is it fair to say that if Ukraine does not ensure the independence of these anti-corruption bodies, the creation of a visa-free regime with the EU will again be delayed?
There is an established technical process for evaluating the different conditions for introducing a visa-free regime between Ukraine and the EU. But, of course, if Ukraine fails to ensure the independence of the anti-corruption bodies, the EU’s assessment of the conditions related to the fight against corruption will be negative, and the EU report will say that the conditions have not been met.
What about the macro-financial assistance?
Of course, all our financial assistance also depends on the effective work and independence of these anti-corruption agencies.
What are the best examples of preventing corruption in the EU and its member states that you believe could work in Ukraine? Can you share any experience from Estonia, your country, or any other EU country?
Yes, coming from Estonia, I believe in the power of e-governance and Internet technology as a way to reduce corruption, at least in administrative services, to make them transparent, simple, and de-bureaucratised.
Passports, for example. Here, in Ukraine, if you need to apply for a passport, you need to take half a day to visit the office in person and fill out the necessary form. Then you have to return to the office to pick up the passport when it is ready. But for me, as an Estonian citizen, I just had to send an electronic request that I wanted to receive a passport. Two days later I received an email notification that my passport was ready and I could pick it up. Here in Ukraine you spend a lot of time filling out these paper forms and to going to specific places. I have also witnessed my Ukrainian colleagues taking half a day off to submit a tax declaration. In Estonia, you can also do that electronically.
The establishment of these anti-corruption bodies is only one part of the bigger picture of fighting corruption. Ukraine needs to reduce opportunities for corruption, for example by decreasing the control or supervising powers of the state. Do you think that Ukraine is making progress in this field?
The National Reforms Council monitors the reforms undertaken in this field using a specific table of indicators[i]. If you look at this table, you will see that, unfortunately, not much has been achieved. There is still a lot of work to do. Deregulation is part of this picture: some steps have been taken but more are needed.
This interview was published in Ukrainian on European Pravda website.