Kessler: The audit of NABU might be conducted just as a reason to dismiss the bureau head

Giovanni Kessler, the current Director General of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has 12 years of struggles against the Sicilian mafia behind him. In addition, he has extensive experience conducting anti-corruption work with other international and national structures, including the Italian Parliament.

Kessler is also well-known in Ukraine, due in large part to his membership on the selection board for the Director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU).

Kessler has recently joined the International Anti-Corruption Advisory Board, which, thanks to the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative, has made huge strides in the fight against corruption. The Board will assist the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Corruption Prevention and Counteraction.

Our journalist had a conversation with Giovanni Kessler during his recent visit to Kyiv.

– Why is combating corruption in Ukraine so difficult?

– The problem of corruption in Ukraine is more serious, more powerful, and causes more concern than in many other countries, at least European ones.

The fact that the problem is recognised within Ukraine is a good thing. Realising the severity of the problem is the first step in overcoming it. The Maidan began due to the then-government’s unexpected renunciation of the path toward the European Union, but another central theme was the rejection of the powerful systemic corruption with which Ukraine has been riddled.

To defeat corruption, one day is not enough, nor is a change of government or leader. These are only first steps.

It must be acknowledged that Ukraine has made a lot of efforts to combat corruption in recent years.

New mechanisms to detect and investigate acts of corruption have been established. The system is no longer “sealed” as it was before; everyone knows that corrupt acts can be revealed in the public domain and an independent and effective investigation will eventually take place.

– Who are the biggest perpetrators of corruption in Ukraine: officials and politicians who steal and abuse their power for personal enrichment, or people who pay bribes?

– Of course, there are two sides to corruption: bribe-takers need someone to give them money. But the truth is that corruption is rooted where there is power. If the people in power abandon corruption, it disappears.

Today, the priority for Ukraine is to detect and investigate corruption. But that is not enough.

To eliminate corruption, it is necessary to change the social environment. Without a clear demonstration that corruption will be exposed and everyone involved brought to justice, no public campaign will have any effect.

– Several years ago, in one of your interviews, you stressed that Ukraine should start anti-corruption efforts with preventive measures. Has there been any progress?

– There has been progress in this area. First of all, as I already mentioned, there is awareness of the problem at all levels – from the higher political level to everyday Ukrainians.

Secondly, Ukraine has NABU, which is an independent institution that broadcasts the message that all corruption can be detected, even at the highest levels.

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– Many people are wondering whether corrupt officials will not only be detected but also imprisoned?

–  Confining someone in prison should not be the priority. The real priority is to pursue the truth about acts of corruption. That truth must be based on facts and transparent investigation.

The search for truth has not been a priority for Ukraine until recently, but now that this is in place, it is a big step forward.

Of course, finding out the truth is not enough to bring corrupt officials to justice. After that, the prosecutor’s office and the courts come on the stage, and must also act independently to judge and punish the perpetrator.

That is, independent institutions are essential for the creation of an anti-corruption system. This has been confirmed with the establishment of NABU.

– NABU is working in very difficult conditions. Is it challenging?

– Of course, the more you do the more enemies you make. Those who do not clearly show themselves as enemies are even more dangerous – they are false friends who act like they want to contribute to improvements. Yes, the situation is very complicated.

Some people see the audit of NABU as a priority, but I don’t feel that way.

A proper audit should be carried out only after a few years, when the institution’s activity has been well-established. That is when it will be possible to truly evaluate its work— not now, while NABU is still in the making.

I see a danger that the planned audit of NABU will be carried out solely for the purpose of using the results to fire its head. It could be used as an opportunity to dismiss him from his position. Consequently, the independence of the bureau’s leadership could be jeopardised, which would be very bad.

– There has been another alarming development:  confrontations between power and public activists working in the anti-corruption sphere.

– In general, this should not be a confrontation, but rather joint efforts toward a common goal. Applying the same provisions of anti-corruption legislation for non-governmental organisations as for those in power is about as effective as  giving the same dose of antibiotics to healthy person as to a seriously ill patient.

What is the reason for these brutal and obscure inequalities? This does not reflect the seriousness and good intentions of Ukraine’s legislative efforts in the fight against corruption.

– This issue is important to EU-Ukraine relations, spurring appeals to the European Union to increase pressure on Ukrainian authorities in the fight against corruption. Is it  time for the EU to speak up?

– I can express only my personal opinion on this matter.

Ideally, you do not need outside pressure to take pills when you are aware you have an illness. Under normal circumstances, you would voluntarily take medications, even if they are unpleasant. This is how it has to be with Ukraine.

Fighting corruption is in the interests of Ukraine and its citizens, and not of the European Union.

As a rule, the EU’s role should be limited to  providing financial support, training, consultations, etc. while Ukraine takes the action.

Of course, this is an ideal scenario. It seems that some people in Ukraine still have to be “strongly encouraged” to take their medication.

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– OLAF and NABU have had an administrative cooperation agreement for almost a year. Have you conducted any joint investigations?

– Yes, we have conducted some parallel investigations and we work well together, but I cannot disclose details. I only note that the OLAF’s mandate is specifically dealing with cases of possible misuse of EU funds. That is, OLAF does not investigate all forms of corruption.

– Recently, on your agency’s website, there was information that thanks to  cooperation between OLAF and the State Fiscal Service, a large batch of smuggled cigarettes was seized:  more than 12 million packs. Is Ukraine a significant source of such smuggling into the EU?

– Ukraine is a producer of illegal cigarettes, and transit country for smuggling them to the EU from other countries in Eastern Europe and Russia.

The EU’s eastern border is vulnerable to this kind of smuggling. It is an easy way to make big money, considering that a pack of cigarettes can cost €1 in Ukraine, but €8 in Britain. The temptation is great and the criminal activity is well-organised.

This is contrary to the financial interests of the EU and sometimes it does damage to Ukraine too, resulting in less budget revenues. That is why we work jointly on this problem.

We are grateful to the Evropeiska pravda for cooperation in publishing this material.   (The article was published on September 11, 2017)