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10 July, 2015  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Systemic Shape-Shifting

What searches and arrests at the Prosecutor General's Office signal

For possibly the first time in Ukraine’s entire history, top officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office, one of the country’s most corrupt agencies, have been arrested: Main Investigative Bureau Director Volodymyr Shapakin and Kyiv Oblast Deputy Prosecutor Oleksandr Korniyets. What’s more, it was a scene worthy of an action movie, complete with Alfa special forces breaking down doors and lots of loot in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars cash, UAH 3 million, and even diamonds—caught red-handed taking bribes—, all of it seized from criminals in uniform.1

Of course, later, in the time-honored traditions of Ukrainian “justice,” the court set bail for these two officials at UAH 3 million, which is three times less than the money found in their offices alone during the very first search. In the last week, some more prosecutors were arrested. The thought that this could finally be the real battle with corruption cheered the heart of many a Ukrainian.

RELATED ARTICLE: Corruption in Ukraine: What Needs to Be Understood, and What Needs to Be Done?

Actually, this all looks very hopeful. Finally, the Georgian reformer David Sakvarelidze has gone into action and—without even asking permission from the highest boss, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin who, for health reasons, has not been in office lately—caught a fairly big fish in his own agency. For the first time, the clear position of President Poroshenko, giving credit where credit is due, made it impossible for Volodymyr Huzyr, the first deputy PG and an influential man within the agency, to sweep the case under the rug. Or to open a criminal investigation against this “hyperactive” expat, as is typical in the enforcement agencies, to “hang” him and keep him under constant control. So far, so good. For now.

If only it weren’t for the judge’s decision to set bail and persistent rumors that these two prosecutors will be released in the usual manner and will then flee to better times. And this one detail overrides all the positive, because it clearly raises the question to what degree the system is being controlled, who is actually in charge and how: is the president running it or it running the president? Or even the question of the real reason for this flashy arrest, which isn’t the first one: remember the arrest of the bosses of the State Emergencies Services, Bochkovskiy and Stoyetskiy, during a Cabinet meeting. And where are they? Free as birds. Has there been a court ruling? Nope, the court hasn’t even begun to hear this case.

Shape-shifting as pseudo-change

So what’s really going on? It looks like Mr. Poroshenko is turning out to be the smartest of all of Ukraine’s presidents. For starters, in the sense of being able to establish his chain-of-command under the most unfavorable conditions possible, conditions that are growing worse by the day. The economy is on the ropes, the public is out for blood and lustration, and the war is getting more and more expensive. So how can lustration be undertaken if the only individuals that you can count on are those who most need to be lustrated? For instance, you get into a fight with that Kolomoyskiy guy and ally yourself with the former mayor of Dnipropetrovsk, a Party of Regions and Kuchma stalwart, Ivan Kulychenko, who’s been able to cut a deal with every administration and now what? Lustrate him? Who will then help you against the rebellious oligarch?

This is how the various combination moves begin, like the one that the nation saw on Sunday at the PGO’s. President Poroshenko has a very good sense of the national mood and understands that a few pawns must be sacrificed to win the game. And his idea of winning the game is to concentrate power in his own hands while generally maintaining the current top-down system of governing. He doesn’t mind a little window-dressing, cosmetic changes. He’s even prepared to trust certain expats. But is this anything more than a cover-up and paying tribute to pressure from civil society and western creditors, all of whom are demanding at least some kind of clear and concrete result that can be touched and tasted?

The President urgently needs some high-profile, impressive success stories. This is what Mikheil Saakashvili is attempting to do in Odesa Oblast right now and now Sakvarelidze has been given the green light in the PGO. Moreover, rumor has it that, come fall, the Georgian might even replace the ailing Shokin as Prosecutor General.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Phantom of Deoligarchization

In reality, Petro Poroshenko is now being forced to agree to a certain amount of rebuilding of the Ukrainian system. But it’s important to understand what principles underlie this. If he and PM Arseniy Yatseniuk wanted to undertake lightning-fast radical reforms, all the necessary conditions for this were already in place, war or no war. Yet they did not do it, and they won’t do it, because they are simply unable to operate in a different dimension from the one they are currently in. So all they will do is tweak the system a little, based on the circumstances. It has to become a bit more effective, a bit less corrupt, but everything simply done for show, just as it was under Viktor Yanukovych. Because its underpinnings—the chain-of-command, the nepotism, the built-in corruption factor—will remain exactly the same. Because these leaders cannot imagine any other kind of power. And so this is why we are seeing this very public shape-shifting, in which it’s not the government machine that is being changed, but the faces and cogs in it.

The medium is the massage

In short, the flashy arrest of prosecutors is intended to convey a few very simple messages from the top of the heap to all the executors, placed within a suitably theatrical framework for greater clarity. Firstly, there is a lord in this manor and there is no freedom, whatever anyone might have imagined after this past year. Any sign of disloyalty will lead to dismissal—such as happened with Nalyvaichenko, in case anyone missed the point. Everybody’s going to continue working as before, but there will be a touch more visible freedom and democracy for public consumption.

Secondly, steal smart. Nobody’s about to prohibit clever ways of making money in the civil service: why else would anyone join it in Ukraine? But if you don’t know how to use your head and keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in your office—well, sorry, you will be arrested in a very public fashion and your money confiscated.

Thirdly, if you’re caught, nobody’s going to come to save you, as there are already enough problems to choke on. Of course, no one will get in your way if you try wiggling out of it, but that will depend on your personal connections and assets. If you float out, great. If not, too bad.

The sad thing in this situation is that the shape-shifting that the President and PM are working on, after seemingly burying their hatchets and deciding to be buddies once more in an ever-thickening atmosphere, has no chance of succeeding. Ukraine has reached the point of no return, when the old system is completely dysfunctional, but the question of launching a new one is not lacking political will—it’s lacking even the awareness that this is what’s needed.

1 In Ukraine, prosecutors wear police-style uniforms.

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