2017 was not exceptional nor a turning point in Ukrainian politics. However, it exposed the threats behind the bustle of its main players much more clearly
Visa-free travel, reforms, education, healthcare, pensions, courts. These words were probably some of the most commonly used in Petro Poroshenko's New Year speech. However, they will have a much weaker effect than before. And no one is to blame for this apart from the president and his team.
Less and less often can the ongoing political strife be interpreted through common sense, logic or even the interests of the parties. All the conflicts of 2017 were nothing new. The issues that fed them manifested themselves much earlier. However, 2017 could be the year that cast off illusions about the government, its opponents and their intentions.
2017 was not a complete failure for the authorities. However, it showcased their rare ability to turn even their own achievements against themselves. This was well illustrated by the example of the reforms that Petro Poroshenko spoke about in his New Year message. In 2017, the "decisive reforms" that have long been a meme in Ukrainian politics really did gain some momentum. This was thanks to two key impulses.
One was the end of the sixth session of the Verkhovna Rada in July. The MPs had an impressively productive last week of voting but put off decisions on the main issues, such as education, healthcare and pension reform.
Another one came in September, just after the summer holidays. After Poroshenko's annual address to Parliament, MPs approved everything mentioned above. This turned out to be the pinnacle of government success in 2017. The string of approved reforms complemented the previously obtained visa-free regime with EU countries and large-scale road construction programme that covered almost the entire country in the summer. From then on, there would only be political struggles with significant reputational damage.
The authorities are unable to fully take advantage of successful reforms. Ironically, a rotten apple was put into the very barrel for which the president had taken personal responsibility. Namely, the reform of the courts, and more specifically the adoption of new versions of the judiciary codes by Parliament.
In the documents, which were on the whole accepted by the professional community, there are several significant risks. While civil activists and journalists were trying to prevent a possible limitation to the openness of trials, Amendment 109, known as "Lozovyi's Amendment", was added to the text. Experts immediately pointed out that the norm could paralyse the entire system for fighting crime. Parliament nevertheless approved the codes. After everyone, including Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, sounded the alarm, a new version of the bill appeared. However, Lozovyi's amendment was not completely removed.
In addition, the competitive selection process for the new Supreme Court ended, during which most comments from the public were ignored. The consequences of these decisions can only be talked about when specific results become visible. But so far the president's favourite reform has brought him more negative than positive image.
The same can be said for the fight against corruption. The first signs of the conflict between the "old" and "new" law enforcement agencies emerged in 2016, the first full year of operation for the newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAP). Last year, the major battles were mainly fought over their powers. During his address to the Verkhovna Rada in September, the president called for unity: "In defining the criteria for evaluating the work of law enforcement bodies, I fundamentally renounce the division between 'old' and 'new'. Everyone has their pluses and minuses and there are teething troubles, but they are all working towards an important common cause. In fact, a rather dense network has been built so that today no high-ranking officials have a guarantee of impunity and nobody can ever guarantee political protection or cover... I can feel the question in the air – this applies to the full extent and I emphasise that it also goes for the so-called 'president's friends'. I do not intend to be an advocate for anyone in my team if there are justified allegations against them from law enforcement officers. There's no place for such people in my team at all." However, further events unfolded in such a way that by the end of the year Ukraine was almost on the brink of losing Petro Poroshenko's aforementioned main achievement – visa-free travel with the EU.
Yet again, those in power brought the conflict to the highest political level. At the end of February, Parliament looked at the scandalous issue regarding the appointment of an external auditor for NABU. According to international agreements, three people inspect the work of the agency each year. If they come to negative conclusions, they can recommend the dismissal of the director, who is appointed for a period of five years. Although Robert Storch, a spokesman for the US Department of Justice, was leading the contest, Nigel Brown, a Briton with an ambiguous reputation, was put forward as a candidate by the ruling coalition the day before the final vote. The first round of this battle ended in a draw: no candidate gained enough votes, but this was just the beginning.
Several months later during the second selection procedure, Brown acknowledged that Natalia Mezentseva, assistant to Petro Poroshenko Bloc (PPB) MP Dmytro Andriyivskyi, had invited him to Ukraine and he had a meeting with the head of the PPB faction Artur Herasymov. An interesting detail is that Brown did not know that the post he was applying for is unpaid. "I have to think about that," he said after hearing the news.
While he was thinking, the conflict was already in full swing. In early March, NABU detained the since dismissed head of the State Fiscal Service, Roman Nasirov. Although the public at large probably only remembers him shown sick under a chequered blanket in court, this was precisely the case that can be called NABU's debut in detaining top officials. From this moment on, the battle gained fresh impetus.
The Prosecutor's Office was trying to keep up appearances and not fall behind NABU and others, but the result was often an awkward one. The main "victory" of the year for Yuriy Lutsenko was the operation to confiscate "$1.5 billion of funds from Yanukovych's criminal organisation".
It was conducted by the military prosecutor's office (former public prosecutor of the Anti-Terrorist Operation forces Konstiantyn Kulyk received a Third Class Order of Merit from the President for the operation) and left mixed impressions. On the one hand, the budget received real money, but on the other, the case could have bad consequences according to a number of influential organisations, in particular Transparency International Ukraine. The judgement of Kramatorsk District Court was classified at that point and could be challenged in the European Court of Justice if declassified at some point. Recently, an Al Jazeera correspondent leaked the document in a widely shared report.
The July attempts to remove parliamentary immunity from number of MPs could have been a shared high point for Yuriy Lutsenko and his colleague Nazar Kholodnytskyi from the new Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAP). However, other MPs sabotaged the initiative. A decisive role was played by Lutsenko’s former colleagues from the PPB faction and their coalition partners from the People's Front.
By the end of the year, the war between the "old" and the "new" had basically turned into "every man for himself", which the National Agency for Corruption Prevention (NACP) and its head Natalia Korchak were drawn into alongside the Ministry of Internal Affairs after NABU filed a case against Interior Minister Arsen Avakov's son. The NACP, responsible for checking e-declarations of public servants – perhaps the main achievement of 2016 – has, overall, become almost the biggest disappointment. The public is indignant about the small number of officials punished for violations, and trust in the body was undermined once again following statements from the head of the NACP's Financial Monitoring Department saying that the agency is practically supervised by the Presidential Administration.
2017 was also the year when the idea of early elections to the Rada ultimately petered out. The autumn of 2017 was marked by protests, but once more it seemed that they would not be numerous and would not lead to a social explosion. The protest leaders demanded changes in electoral legislation, the establishment of anti-corruption courts and the removal of parliamentary immunity from MPs. None of these demands has been truly fulfilled yet. However, this time the destabilisation effect was much stronger and, again, in no small measure due to the behaviour of the authorities themselves.
Expats seem to have become a thing of the past in Ukrainian politics. Most of them lost their positions back in 2016. However, this did not prevent the main expert on reforms invited by Petro Poroshenko from transforming into the main boat-rocker in domestic politics. Mikheil Saakashvili's misunderstanding of the rules of the game in Ukraine and the mentality of voters, which has been pointed out by many, paradoxically works to his advantage. Tried and tested political methods do not work against him, as Saakashvili himself often acts contrary to the logic of the process. This hinders the growth of his popularity in polls and often creates problems even with his allies, however it allows him to constantly focus the attention of society and accordingly emphasise the ineffective actions of those in power.
The story of Saakashvili touched on another issue that sharply came to the fore in 2017, namely the effectiveness of the state security apparatus. Perhaps more than anything else, the previous year pointed out the fragility of the sense of peace in cities located far from the front line. The headline-making assassinations of Maksym Shapoval, Amina Okuyeva, Timur Makhauri and Russian politician Denis Voronenkov, which took place in or near Kyiv, were a constant reminder of the war. The conflict is continuing and it is far from over, so the number of threats will only increase. This is another trend that accompanies Ukraine as it enters the pre-election year of 2018.