Chairman of the Lustration Committee speaks about the government’s tricks, the Kremlin’s agents and the need to rebuild government agencies from scratch
Yehor Sobolev, a well-known journalist and public activist, headed the Lustration Committee after the Maidan. This was something perfectly expected after the revolution. However, he was never actually granted official status or real authority. Sobolev talks to The Ukrainian Week about lustration and the prospects for purging the government.
U.W.: Your Lustration Committee has not been granted official status, just like the Anti-Corruption Bureau headed by Tetiana Chornovol, another activist. There are essentially only two people from the Maidan in the government – Oleh Musiy as Health Care Minister and Dmytro Bulatov as Minister of Youth and Sports. Is this really the quota of the Maidan in Government?
When the government was formed, politicians played a trick, quite in their spirit, on all of us public activists. In order to somehow appease the Maidan, they nominated several people whom they thought society liked to convey the message “Look, the Maidan will be represented in the government”. These people included Olha Bohomolets, who was to head the Healthcare Ministry but ultimately refused. Oleh Musiy was then proposed as a replacement. Bulatov was first offered the office of the Traffic Police chief, but he himself chose the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Tetiana Chornovol headed the Anticorruption Bureau, even though Vasyl Hatsko from the Democratic Alliance was considered as an alternative. I was given the Lustration Committee. Moreover, Dmytro Yarosh was offered to head one of the special units in the power structures. But both Hatsko and Yarosh immediately turned down the offers. The trick was that none of these offices is really influential. With all due respect, neither the Healthcare Ministry nor the Ministry of Youth and Sports determines government policy and can do something in their area without the support of the other agencies and organizations. The Anticorruption Committee and the Lustration Committee were never officially formed as such.
I now tend to think that they were not going to really create them. According to the plan, we had to run in circles from one office to another for several months, and then everyone would shrug their shoulders and say: “It didn't work out, and it's your own fault.” Early on, the leadership did not agree to form the government based on open lists and opted for party quotas instead.
However, it should be understood that in February, the Maidan was not ready to assume power as we had no political representation. Back in December 2013, I met with the veterans of European revolutions, and all of them said: “Immediately create a political movement because everything will be stolen from you after the victory.” But then the Maidan came under attack, and we had more important things to worry about. But they were right. This kind of party still does not exist. Neither the Democratic Alliance, nor the newly created Volia (Freedom) party in which I'm involved, nor Bohomolets’ party can represent the entire Maidan or is ready to come to power.
U.W.: One gets an impression that the new government has a fairly hostile attitude to your activities. Is it true?
Society across the country has greatly changed thanks to the Maidan. It is on the society and its desire for change that we rely in our plans for lustration and removing the rot from the country. But the state has remained virtually unchanged. The system of corruption and injustice and double agents at all levels are pervasive, from courts to the Security Service. Unfortunately, the current leaders of the ruling coalition show no desire to put an end to it. The only lustration initiative that was implemented, and even that with many nuances, concerned courts, while all the others have been blocked. Over four weeks ago, we submitted to President Petro Poroshenko a draft law on purging the government. It spells out all the lustration technology for all government agencies. We have yet to hear back from him. People from his office keep saying that we are fighting a war and this is not a priority now. It is clear that this is the same kind of ruse the previous government used. I believe to the contrary: the war is the chief motivator for lustration; it has to speed up progress rather than hamper it. The leadership of the country are playing a fairly shameful role in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine: they are delaying things, because it is beneficial for the above reasons and because there are many real agents of the Kremlin among them. This war has shown how much we underestimated Moscow's influence.
U.W.: What government agencies are cooperating with you? What about the Kremlin’s agents? Did the Security Service offer to carry out lustration? What about the other our ministries and ministers?
The Security Service should simply be dissolved and re-created following the Czech model. The Czech simply disbanded its KGB and recruited completely new people. I have had no contact or received any cooperation proposal from the leadership of the Security Service and the Prosecutor General's Office since the Maidan. I believe this has directly to do with the fact that the former is a government agency most densely infiltrated by enemy agents and the latter is the most corrupt body. To speak about purging with them is the same as speaking with Girkin (the leader of Russia-hired goons and spetsnaz in eastern Ukraine – Ed.) about peace in the Donbas. As far as the Prosecutor General's Office is concerned, Vitaliy Yarema, just like his predecessor Oleh Makhnitsky, came to his office to preserve and direct the existing schemes. This is the reason why Yarema blocked a new draft law on the Prosecutor's General's Office which was approved and supported by all experts and which entailed a complete replacement of its staff through open competition. In the Security Service – and I say this with confidence – its chief, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, is a challenge to Ukraine's security: he is not working for this state and is instead a living embodiment of the kind of people who should be lustrated. Our draft law on lustration envisages that all KGB staff and graduates of KGB-run schools must be banned from all government offices. Now, Nalyvaichenko graduated from the best KGB school in Moscow.
Think also about Vasyl Krutov – no-one will tell you that he did anything good for Ukraine while he headed the antiterrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine. There is no special service in Ukraine, because the one that we have is not the special service of our state. As far as other ministries are concerned, Bulatov is the only one who suggested that his Ministry of Youth and Sports be subjected to checks. We are now only waiting for the required law to be passed. There was also an agreement with Minister of Justice Pavlo Petrenko in March, but there has been no progress since. The other ministries, especially the Ministry of Defense, simply keep silent.
We had successful cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs soon after Arsen Avakov took the top office there. In March, open competitions to replace heads of regional police offices were held. The situation in the ministry is not all that dramatic, in fact. There are many people there who are indeed Ukrainian policeman and with adequate financing, monitoring and leadership they can turn into normal law enforcement officers.
However, this requires political will, which is something Avakov is not showing now. As I said, he attempted to reform the ministry, but the ministry ultimately reformed him. Here are some facts. The Donetsk police are still headed by Kostiantyn Pozhydaiev, who has held the post since March and has allowed the current pitiful situation to develop there. I'm scared to think what else he needs to do to be fired. I have warned about the police chiefs in Odesa on multiple occasions. The result [of no reaction] was the 2 May tragedy. The chief of the Chernihiv police is a living illustration of how persistent the Yanukovych regime is. He held a similar position in Kharkiv and was promoted to general precisely under Yanukovych.
In the past four months, I have become much angrier and more cynical towards people, but I sincerely fail to understand how the Minister of Internal Affairs can keep these kinds of people in office.
U.W.: In light of all this, what is the future of the lustration process and your agency? Do you personally see the Czech or Polish scenario developing? Or will it end, as always, with mere declarations? Do you have something to boast of?
My least concern is the future of my agency. The draft law on lustration does not mention it at all, because the task of purging the entire government mechanism is too big to be trusted to one agency. The police employ 300,000 people, the Security Service 30,000, prosecutor’s offices 30,000 and ministries and regional administrations hundreds of thousands more. The key point is that all appointments must be made exclusively through open competitions. We suggest thatthe National Agency for the State Service be purged first in order to allow it to be filled with professional recruiters and headhunters who will then run checks in all other agencies. Checks must be carried out only in the top-down fashion –good managers should be selected first, and then they will find good personnel for themselves. Moreover, the special website of this agency has to include an appeal to citizens and journalists to submit information on people undergoing checks. In other words, all government institutions, society and the mass media would be included in the lustration process.
This pattern was tested during open competitions in the police with very good results. As soon as people learned about who the candidates were, they started supplying first-grade information about all the schemes, transactions and abuses. By involving the public, we are able to much better check all public servants rather than if we use only the efforts of one committee. In the same way, this will safeguard the committee itself from abuse. I already hear that some evil-minded people in the regions are attempting to exact money using my name as a cover.
I believe that lustration has bright prospects, because Ukraine is now much more prepared for it than it was immediately after the Maidan. Back then, there was a popular notion, even among the Maidan activists, that it was enough to simply drive out Yanukovych and his henchmen and everything would be all right. But the war has exposed how rotten the state apparatus really is. People are now largely inclined to think that it is simpler to form the majority of government agencies from scratch than to fight hundreds of thousands of corrupt officials.
What I consider to be my biggest achievement is the dismissal of the leadership of the Higher Council of Justice and courts. Unfortunately, the majority of dismissed top judges were able to return to their offices in local courts, but we did not allow this to happen in higher courts. We did not succeed in replacing justices in the Constitutional Court where they themselves flatly refused to replace Yanukovych’s team. In Lviv and in Volyn Oblast, we were able to have people without any connections to political forces appointed to high offices. The evidence is found, for example, in the way the Svoboda (Freedom) party led by then Governor of Lviv Oblast Iryna Sekh fiercely fought against the candidate that that had passed lustration checks and won the competition. In Volyn Oblast, the police chief has been trying for over a month, with the support of the community, to fire his deputies, but Kyiv keeps silent.
This is quite understandable, because open competitions to replace officials are a knife put to the throat of the entire system as they can bring to offices people who truly want to be policemen, prosecutors and judges rather than money makers. The Interior Ministry is, in fact, a kind of centralized structure that urgently needs to be divided into several independent law enforcement agencies: the police proper to investigate grave crimes; special units to be used in situations like the one that we had in Sloviansk early into the conflict; the municipal police that would have no connection to Kyiv and would be elected locally.
As far as lustration scenarios are concerned, I prefer the Czech one, because the Polish one is very labour-intensive and not too effective. In fact, a mere 40,000 declarations have been checked in Poland in the course of 15 years; more than 250,000 remain unchecked, and a large number of those who were found to be communist agents were later able to prove they were not guilty of cooperation with the special services. That is why the Czech and Georgian experience is more appealing.
We will quickly check everyone using a simplified procedure, fire the top leadership automatically, rebuild the security service from scratch and purge the Interior Ministry, prosecutors’ offices and courts as deeply as we possibly can and will watch how people perform. But again, this requires political will and an understanding among voters of the need for new politicians who will finally suit their actions to their words. The election in Kyiv showed that not everyone understands this even in the capital. As of today, I can say that lustration is blocked.
Yehor Sobolev is a Ukrainian journalist, public activist and politician. He was born in 1977 in Krasnodar (Russia). In 1995, he quit studying history in the Yuzhnosakhalink Pedagogical University and moved to live with his grandmother in Ukraine where he started a career in journalism. He worked for City, Kievskie vedomosti (Kyiv News), Korrespondent, Dzerkalo tyzhnia (The Mirror Weekly), the Ukrainian News agency, the 5th TV channel, delo.ua, etc. In August 2008, he launched the Svidomo Journalist Investigation Bureau. In July 2013, Sobolev declared he was moving from journalism to politics. He was one of the activists in the Euromaidan and a member of its council. On 27 February 2014, he was appointed head of the Lustration Committee of Ukraine, which, however, has not been granted official status and continues to operate as an NGO. In June 2014, Sobolev co-founded the Volia (Freedom) party.
UPD: On August 14, the Verkhovna Rada passed the Lustration Bill (Draft Law No4359 On the Purging of the Government) in the first reading with 252 votes. Previously, on August 12, the VR refused to even put it on the voting agenda. On August 14, before the VR gathered for the session, protesters gathered in front of the building to demand that the legislature passes the bill.