Corrupt systems are starting to crack: Head of EU anti-corruption initiative

Eka Tkeshelashvili was a member of the Georgian reforms team between 2004-2012. Her experience is impressive: she has worked in Georgia as the minister of foreign affairs, prosecutor general, deputy minister of the interior, chairman of the court of appeal, and minister of justice.

Most recently she has been appointed as the head of the “EU anti-corruption initiative in Ukraine” project. The European Union has allocated €15 million to the project, and Denmark has allocated €1.54 million.

The project started in February this year, but it is not the first anti-corruption project launched in Ukraine. Following the Revolution of Dignity, the EU has funded and is continuing to fund dozens of projects addressing what is a major problem in Ukraine. Tkeshelashvili talks about the future of anti-corruption initiatives in the country.

 

The fight against corruption is a top issue for Ukraine and its relations with the EU, but people aren’t witnessing any improvements. What is going wrong and how can we fix it?

Everyone expects to see fast and tangible results. Society has been demanding that since before 2014 and it’s hard to ask citizens to keep waiting.

On the other hand, it’s unreasonable to expect stunning successes and solutions to the problem of corruption in just two or three years, especially in a big and complicated country like Ukraine.

The most important thing now is to ensure the irreversibility of the anti-corruption processes that have already been implemented. Corrupt systems are starting to crack and we have to keep this momentum going.

If a corrupt system is too strong and can’t be quickly eradicated, then we need to crack it step by step.

That is why the fight against corruption is not as black-and-white as Ukraine’s critics sometimes suggest. And we can’t forget about the work of the new anti-corruption institutions, such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). I don’t want to call it “heroism”, but these people really fight corruption and are already demonstrating results. They are devoted professionals. Our project aims to strengthen these institutions.

What are your project’s goals?

The general objective set by the EU and Denmark is to widen the scope of the new Ukrainian anti-corruption institutions, including allowing them to take on technical activities. We want to ensure their quality and independent functioning.

In a broader sense, we want to create a new reality characterised by the inevitability of punishment for corruption. Those involved in corruption should be punished regardless of their status or connections. There must be effective investigation and punishment when proof of guilt is established.

In turn, the inevitability of punishment should discourage further corruption. So the new anti-corruption institutions have not only a punishment function, but also a preventive one. All of these institutions are beneficiaries of our project, including the newly-established National Agency of Ukraine for Detection, Investigation and Management of Illegal Assets. That also plays an important role; when we talk about efficiency of punishment for corruption, it is important to consider what is happening with the assets seized through anti-corruption investigations. In general, the money should go back to the budget.

We are helping the anti-corruption institutions by developing their potential and managerial skills, improving their facilities, and equipping them with the latest technology.

 

You mentioned the independence of anti-corruption institutions. Isn’t that more of a political question? How can the EU project support independence?

The independence of anti-corruption institutions is not only a matter of employee salaries. It is much easier to be independent if you do your job professionally with high quality and when there is nothing about your activities with which to find fault. We also see independence as connected with the professional growth of an institution. Independence makes it more stable and strong and able to resist outside control and the complaints and disappointments of society.

It makes a difference when there is faith in anti-corruption institutions. There are already examples where the support of the civil society has played a positive role in the work of some anti-corruption institutions.

Do you mean the Nasirov case?

The most significant part of that case is that citizens trusted NABU’s actions and supported it.

Meanwhile, the society is quite sceptical about the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. Will it manage to restore the public’s trust?

I think that publishing e-declarations of financial statements is very important both as an instrument for transparency and as a measure to reduce the risk of corruption.

It takes time to set up an e-declarations system and implement appropriate responses in cases where public servants or politicians are found to have illegal sources of income.

Let’s hope that the system will work now that the procedures have been adopted.

International organisations and the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption are working together to make it more effective. Our first meetings with Agency representatives were very open; we are preparing a strategic plan for the organisation’s development.

The plan includes e-declarations. We want to help and we have the resources to do so. Of course, as an EU project, we cannot replace the functions of public agencies. But we are totally ready to help if agencies ask for it. And they do ask.

How exactly can the project help the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption?

We can help with the implementation of norms and procedures for managing e-declarations, including technical aspects. Declarations will be automatically checked by electronic modules, and assessed against specific criteria. The scope of the data is huge, so it is impossible to process it properly manually.

The Agency’s technological needs are just now being assessed. The work is just beginning. I think the terms of our cooperation will be more defined by the end of April.

Returning to NABU, the Nasirov case is inspiring. But do you think it could result in a desire to limit the NABU’s functions and allow outside influence? For example, if future auditors are corrupt?

Ukraine’s international partners follow the auditor selection process closely.

They consider it to be an important part of the Bureau’s development and key to its independence. In the joint statement issued by the EU, US and Canadian representatives, there was a clear message of support for the NABU’s independence and for the whole process of fighting corruption in Ukraine. Transparent and open audit of the NABU is part of this process.

Do you think the addressees heard the message?

I would like to think so. The message was very clear.

When anti-corruption agencies were established, it seemed there were obvious attempts to bring them under the political control. Could something similar happen again as the anti-corruption court is established?

First of all, the Ukrainian people and the international community have demanded the establishment of this court, and Ukrainian legislation also mandates it. Several members of parliament have already submitted a draft law to this effect. So the process has been launched. The anti-corruption court will complete the chain of anti-corruption institutions. Of course, there will always be opposition, even when there are good intentions. There is always resistance to fundamental changes, from the top and also from society as a whole.

We must be able to withstand a confrontation, strengthen agents of change, and be ready to fight for reform. We should develop public authorities and, through real results, increase the public support for and trust in them. On the positive side, when society is not informed about achievements, it demands more. This is an engine of progress.

Is the draft law on the anti-corruption court of high quality? Does it meet international standards?

I don’t want to judge it before a joint statement is issued by Ukraine’s international partners.

There is an established process that leads to new ideas. The most important thing is to turn these ideas into reality and get results. NABU shouldn’t be afraid to send a case to the new court, thinking that its decision could be biased for whatever reason, including corruption.

The High Council of Justice and a number of judicial institutions criticised the draft law on the anti-corruption court and recommended that parliament not to adopt it. Many consider this to be a manifestation of the struggle for influence over the court.

This debate only proves the court’s importance.

It is fair to assume that the initial stages of establishing the court will be confrontational, but the conversation should then turn in a constructive direction. It is important to avoid delays.  The court should ultimately be independent and well-prepared technically.

What are the realistic deadlines for establishing the anti-corruption court?

It would be good if the law-making could be finalised by the end of 2017. Then we will have an understanding of how we can support the newly-established court.

Cooperation with civil society organisations is among the components of your project. Does that mean you recognise the importance of anti-corruption NGOs?

NGOs play a very important role and do a good job. Our project will focus on the regional level, where NGOs are also active but where they need support to make their work more efficient.

Recently, Yurii Lutsenko, the Ukrainian prosecutor general, called anti-corruption social activists “tinker activists”…

I have also felt the effects of these kinds of attitudes in the past. You work for the government and think that you are performing your functions properly, but you are criticised. You keep asking yourself why people can’t understand how much we are doing for society!

In Georgia, we really worked hard at changing the country for the better, but there were lots of critics as well. Everyone makes mistakes.

Did you ever call your critics names when you were prosecutor general?

I tend not to call people names even in my private life. Maybe it’s because I am a woman, or because I started my career in the public service after working with NGOs myself.

When I returned to the non-governmental sector, I could retrospectively analyse my past mistakes. I admit I sometimes underestimated the importance of working closely with civil society organisations. They have a very helpful role to play for public institutions.

In the Georgian government, we also used to think that everyone had to understand and accept what we did and that criticisms were personal attacks.

In reality, the active and critical elements of society help public institutions understand problem areas and get a good idea of what needs to be done.

This interview was published in cooperation with Evropeiska Pravda.