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29 June, 2011  ▪  Alla Lazareva

Strasbourg Swing

Speaking at a session of the Council of Europe, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych promised to do many things: launch public television, pass the new election law only with the approval of the Venice Commission, reform the judicial and investigation systems and even achieve real rule of law.

Most of the points are to be realized when Ukraine presides in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. “I will print out this wonderful speech and will monitor it point by point to make sure it is implemented,” one of the committee’s leaders joked to The Ukrainian Week. Or perhaps he was not joking. This body’s express purpose is to make sure national laws are in line with European norms and standards.


Ukraine has nothing to be ashamed of as far as the principles declared are concerned. Quite the contrary, calls to modernize the operation of the European Court of Human Rights, improve local and regional democracy and protect children from violence are all in great harmony with the concepts of the Council of Europe. “The idea of European integration has united Ukrainian society,” Yanukovych said in the session hall. “In Ukraine, politicians have to answer the same questions live on television every week. This is the same situation as in the British parliament,” Foreign Minister Kostiantyn Hryshchenko said a day earlier.

Even though this comparison immediately prompted a search for British counterparts of Ukrainian MPs some of whom routinely cast multiple votes, while others show up in the parliament once a year, formally, Ukraine’s declarations raised no objections from the leadership of the Council of Europe.

“I believe that true stability has been established in Ukraine,” PACE President Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who has never concealed his sympathy for the Russian and current Ukrainian governments, told The Ukrainian Week . “The new administration has really tackled reforms which appear to be successful. We need to wait for the highly important initiatives regarding constitutional reform, modernizing the criminal justice and the judiciary, passing a new election law and stepping up the fight against corruption to bring their results. We encourage these actions, and our rapporteurs are satisfied with the situation at this stage. The priorities of Ukraine’s presidency in the Council of Europe are in agreement with the PACE draft and my personal vision.”

It was not so easy in practice. Both Hryshchenko and Yanukovych faced a number of alarming questions in the Council of Europe. Lithuanian representative Egidijus Vareikis wanted to learn more about the 12 ministers of Yulia Tymoshenko’s government who are now in custody. Latvian Boriss Cilevičs asked about the lack of everyday’s democracy and the absence of true rule of law. French members inquired about selective justice, the true consequences of the Chornobyl disaster and the real scale of corruption.

They heard traditional answers with references, in most cases, to the five "lost" years when the Orange team ruled. It is hard to say which parts can be attributed to victory over failure – something the current administration is struggling with – and which were dictated by a search for simpler solutions. One thing was evident: both Yanukovych and Hryshchenko regularly pinned the blame on the previous government. “This explanation loses conviction with each passing day,” said a French member ironically. “There is very little life left in it, while this government’s meter has been ticking for a long time now.”

“Don’t believe him!”; “Yanukovych, carry out the EU parliament resolution!”; “The Ukrainian president is killing democracy”; “No to political persecutions in Ukraine!” – these were some of the slogans French and German members of the Ukrainian Diaspora and several Ukrainian opposition MPs put out for Yanukovych to see next to the entrance to the Council of Europe. Foreign MPs and journalists, but no Ukrainian officials, came over to read them.

“No one has asked me for a meeting,” explained Ukraine’s Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to the Council of Europe Mykola Tochytsky. “As a one-time head of a consular institution, I have never avoided contact with people. Moreover, I believe that this is the task and function of any diplomat. Frankly, without communication we will not be able to solve any problems our country faces on the way to European integration.”
Tochytsky assured that if the opponents of the current government had a desire to discuss any burning issues with Ukrainian diplomats during the next session in September, he will not turn them down. Meanwhile, the organizers of the protest handed over a petition calling for an end to political persecution in Ukraine to Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg.

"We are against a clampdown on opposition politicians,” Natalka Pasternak, head of the Representative Committee of Ukrainian organizations in France, says. “We are also against curtailments of freedom of press, persecutions of historians who worked with the archives in the Lonsky Street Prison Museum, privileges granted to large business at the expense of small and medium businesses and the Party of Regions’ policy on language and history.”

Part of the Council of Europe members also expressed their critical attitude to the political situation in Ukraine, and 29 members released their declaration entitled “Lack of Freedom in Ukraine” which says: “We express our deep concern regarding the harassment of civil society and political activists …. We stress the need for reform of the security services, especially the abolition of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)’s right to conduct normal criminal investigations.” The declaration was initiated by members of the European People’s Party. 

This is a classic case of words and deeds. President Yanukovych promised from the rostrum that the new Criminal Procedure Code will put an end to the established and unfortunate practice of “courts exhibiting loyalty only to one party in the process – the prosecution.” This is a good intention, but will good laws alone be enough to rid the judiciary of bad habits?

“In Ukraine and in many other new democracies, law enforcement officers are not only used by the government, they often also see themselves as protectors of the government,” Belgian lawyer Thomas Dir said. “The biggest problem faced by countries with the recent totalitarian past is their habitual attachment to a strict vertical of power and its becoming legitimate in society's collective consciousness. Courts will become truly independent in Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria and Serbia when societal relations undergo a fundamental change. Of course, good democratic laws are an auxiliary factor, but not a decisive one. The decisive influence on developments is the style of the current government’s conduct.”


Speaking from the same rostrum in Strasbourg a year ago, Yanukovych solemnly promised to honor all of Ukraine’s commitments before the Council of Europe within 12 months. Today, two things remain outstanding on the formal level: a new Criminal Procedure Code has not been passed and the Prosecutor’s Office is yet to be reformed to split its investigation and supervision functions.

“Ukraine should submit the new draft code for expert evaluation to the Secretary General’s Office rather than the Venice Commission,” says Venice Commission Secretary Thomas Markert. “We do not directly oversee criminal law. However, we have insisted on the reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office for many years. We have spoken about separating investigation and supervision, which are now under one roof, since 1996, but things are not moving.”
“The Council of Europe is a supranational body, so it cannot do each member country’s job of improving legislation and political practice,” Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland stressed to The Ukrainian Week. However, this body establishes the format for a civilized state-citizen relationship. In Ukraine’s case specifically, it creates an additional platform for dialog between politicians, expert legal scholars and public activists. The struggle between the right words and dubious actions resembles a swing which, although not directly advancing democratic transformations, provides them with the necessary impetus.


Yanukovych’s speech struck many PACE members as empty talk. Nor were they happy with his evasive answers to their critical questions.

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