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6 April, 2011  ▪  Dmytro Hubenko

Shame and Blame

“Fighting corruption is one of the most important things to improve Ukraine’s image”, Hanne Severinsen

As Co-Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, from 1995 until 2008 Denmark’s Hanne Severinsen effectively participated in Ukrainian politics—13 years that represented more than a half of independent Ukraine’s history. Nor has Ms. Severinsen stopped following the situation in this country

The cancer of corruption

UW: You oppose the idea of a majority election system for the Verkhovna Rada. But Party of Region’s new election law reintroduces mixed voting system and leaves party lists closed. What impact will this have on democracy in Ukraine?

The history of political development in Ukraine has shown that it is very easy to manipulate a majority-based election. As we saw in the past, you can create artificial parties and split the opposition, to the advantage of the local oligarchs, who have the best possibility to gain the biggest share of the local vote. Combined with closed party lists, where the voters have no influence on whom they can elect, adopting the mixed system gives you the worst of both worlds. One of the problems is that many politicians in Ukraine start with the question, “What system will gives me the most power?” instead of thinking, “What system would be represent voters the best?”

UW: This year Ukraine presides over the CoE Committee of Ministers, but it did not follow the Council’s recommendation to support EU sanctions against Belarus after its recent election, and many human rights cases have been brought against the country this past year. How will this affect Ukraine’s CoE presidency?

The president of the Council of Europe is chosen in alphabetical order, so sometimes countries that are not ideal for all other members chair the Council. Normally, the country can use its position as chair to set the agenda. But if it is a country that has a poor image because it doesn’t uphold its commitments as a member of the CoE, its moral suasion will not be very high. I mean the country may hold the chair, but it won’t be able to raise its finger and set the agenda.

The problem is that Ukraine has unreformed institutions: the judiciary, the prosecutors and the secret service. The sad thing was that in the name of so-called reform, the High Court of Justice has been totally placed under presidential control. Meanwhile, the Prosecutor’s Office is also dependent on president, meaning that you have no separation of power. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If you see corruption, sometimes you will dare to speak about it, but there will be no punishment, no enforcement, because power is overly concentrated.

It is obvious that Ukraine suffers from selective justice. Under the guise of fighting corruption, those in power put the opposition in prison to scare others in the opposition to be loyal. Ukrainian officials tell the outside world that these people are guilty, forgetting the legal presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. I think it is also an attempt at character assassination, as we say in Denmark.

One of the underlying systemic problems is that nearly all parties have close links with business. I now work voluntarily in the Danish Helsinki Committee, and I have two well-known former Danish prosecutors general, Mikael Lyngbo and Erik Merlung, as colleagues. We have some funds at the Committee for legal monitoring, so at the moment they are following the cases of Korniychuk and Lutsenko, and will also follow others, like Ivashchenko, and will report to the OSCE, the CoE and the EU.

Constructive criticism

UW: Is the EU prepared to act against human rights violations on the continent these days?

I know that EU ambassadors in Kyiv often discuss what to do. They are very concerned about the situation in Ukraine and want to support civil society, because it should be strengthened. It is the most important. I think there should be more opportunities, like student exchange programs, for youngsters to go to Western Europe and see how things are there. So, removing visa requirements would be useful—and not for the sake of the government.

UW: A couple of years ago, over 50% of Danes agreed that Ukraine should join the EU. Is that still the case today?

The image of Ukraine has declined, partly because of the mistakes after the Orange Revolution, partly because Danish business owners come home and talk about the corruption. It’s not worse than in Bulgaria and Romania, but their membership demonstrated that, if you take in countries that haven’t done anything against corruption, it creates lots of problems. So, I think that fighting corruption is one of the most important things to improve the image of Ukraine. 

UW: What would you say to Ukraine’s opposition parties at this point?

I urge some of the opposition parties in Ukraine to start from scratch again, meaning form local organizations and rely on local sources, not based on business interests but value-based. I’d really like to take part in the debate about creating a better political system, where you really feel that that you can elect someone you can trust to be “my MP.” For voters, it is a bad situation when they vote for a particular party, but a lot of the elected people are there just for their own interest and then switch to another party. So, you really need to have an election system with open lists and regional choice.

UW: What offers the best conditions for state corruption in post-soviet countries? 

I’ve already mentioned the concentration of power and the dependence of judges. But it’s also a question of education—and of shame and blame. You can see corruption in the US, but when it’s detected, it’s a big shame. Ukrainian society is too familiar with petty corruption and big corruption alike. There should be shame attached to it. People who experience unfairness and even crime should use new media like Facebook and Twitter to spread the knowledge of what’s going on. Of course, there’s the heritage of the Soviet Union: you had a history of officials coming up with artificial claims and you had to find out how to live with all these strange orders. Ukrainians are very good at surviving, they are very innovative, but they unfortunately have to use their strength to figure out how to live with this arbitrariness.

UW: What do you think of the draft language law proposed by Party of the Regions? It focuses a lot on Russian and reinforces it while weakening the state language, Ukrainian.

I think since Ukrainian was really a minority language in soviet times and has been looked down on, it is very important that you give the Ukrainian language the possibility to progress. So, the risk is that the new legislation will reverse many of the improvements in Ukrainian identity that were seen in the last 20 years. When I travel in Eastern and Southern Ukraine I meet people who are Ukrainians. They speak Russian, but that has nothing to do with them not being proud to be Ukrainians. So, they may find a way to sometimes speak Ukrainian, sometimes Russian. Since Ukrainian has been really suppressed, it needs a helping hand, but that’s not discrimination against Russian.

UW: The European Parliament recently adopted a highly critical resolution, which Ukrainian officials dismissed as hostility to Ukraine’s EU integration. How do you see it?

Those who are now very worried about the situation in Ukraine are the forces that really want Ukraine to be a part of Europe. So, it is not criticizing Ukraine, but criticizing the concentration of power in Ukraine because that could damage the link between the EU and Ukraine. The people who criticize are the people who really want Ukraine to be together with Europe.  

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