US warns Ukraine over failing reforms and election fears

Graft and cronyism claims are damaging to President Petro Poroshenko’s re-election bid

The United States has warned Ukraine against backsliding on reform, as anger over the apparent sabotage of anti-corruption efforts and fears of violence and voter fraud cloud the run-in to this month's presidential election.

Fresh warnings from the Ukrainian top brass about Russian troop movements add to the fraught picture ahead of the March 31st ballot, which is set to be a battle between incumbent Petro Poroshenko, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Mr Poroshenko took power after 2014 protests against corruption and impunity ended in bloodshed on Kiev’s Maidan Square, but the confectionary billionaire’s already-poor record on anti-graft reform has suffered a battering in recent days.

Ukraine’s constitutional court last week annulled a law on illicit enrichment, forcing prosecutors to close scores of cases against deputies, judges and officials whose conspicuous wealth does not tally with their official salaries.


Several deputies from Mr Poroshenko’s party backed efforts to quash the law, and anti-corruption activists said a replacement Bill swiftly submitted by the president would make convictions all but impossible.

Then Mr Poroshenko was forced to fire a close ally from Ukraine’s national security council, after investigative journalists accused his son of involvement in a scam to sell smuggled Russian military parts to Ukraine’s army at inflated prices.

Oleh Hladkovskiy and his son deny the allegations, but they did more damage to Mr Poroshenko’s reputation as Ukraine enters the sixth year of a war with Moscow-led militants that has killed some 13,000 people in its eastern Donbas region.

Rule of law

"It is increasingly clear that Ukraine's once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, for which such a high price was paid five years ago on the Maidan, has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve," Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Kiev, said on Tuesday.

In a hard-hitting speech, she said Ukraine’s failure to overhaul a court system that is riddled with compromised judges was wrecking efforts to end graft in key sectors including defence, energy and banking.

Ms Yovanovitch also called for the removal of special anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnitsky, who is accused of sharing sensitive information with suspects.

“Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” she said.

Several prosecutor generals appointed by Mr Poroshenko have failed to crack high-profile cases, one of which returned to the headlines this week, when jewellery factory owner Serhiy Kiselyov was shot dead in his Mercedes in Kiev.

War as scapegoat

Mr Kiselyov was reportedly a witness in the case of two senior prosecutors arrested in 2015 on suspicion of corruption, after some €350,000 in cash and dozens of jewels were found during raids on their offices and homes. The so-called diamond prosecutors were freed on bail and the case, like so many others, has stalled.

Officials often blame the war for their failure to implement reforms and, on Wednesday, the chief of Kiev's military general staff, Viktor Muzhenko, said Russia had deployed "strike units" at its borders with Ukraine and would seek to use "pre-election turbulence . . . to undermine Ukraine's defence potential".

Ms Yovanovitch said it was vital that Ukraine’s presidential election and parliamentary vote later this year were free, fair and safe from fraud and violence.

Ukraine's far-right National Militia group has said its members plan to act as observers at the election and will use force if necessary to prevent irregularities.

“Only the independent central election commission should administer the election and count the votes,” the US envoy said.

“Civil society observers and campaign staff should not be intimidated or harassed. Official, apolitical security should ensure that ‘titushki’ [paid hooligans] or other armed groups do not stop voters from expressing their will.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe