By Taras Shevchenko, Co-Chair of the Emergency Reform Package
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
We need to work hard so that the government does not roll the reforms back
It’s been three years since the Revolution of Dignity. Unfortunately, over this period of time the public’s “reformist” expectations have plummeted: from optimism all the way to almost total disappointment. This curve continues its downward movement, since the changes that do happen– with great difficulty, under the constant pressure of civil society – still fail to meet peoples’ expectations. The standard of living of the average Ukrainian has deteriorated, and their faith in real change has diminished.
But we can’t lose heart. Even against a background of betrayals and disappointments, and despite the fierce resistance of the system, civil society has achieved important changes in 2016. Under pressure from activists and the international community, the electronic system for income declarations managed to get underway. This is definitely an unprecedented case for Ukrainian politicians, who were virtually “laid bare” in front of the citizens, for the first time ever. But the most interesting part of this story were not the declarations filed by MPs, whose fortunes surprised no-one, but the legalization and exposure of the property owned by civil servants and judges. Without doubt, there were positive outcomes from the decommunization processes, the formation of integrated communities and the shift towards decentralization, the launch of first tenders for civil service jobs, and the successes of the ProZorro [e-procurement system]. Finally, an unequivocal positive came in the form of the start of judicial reform in late 2016, which, hopefully, will return to Ukrainians not just fair trials, but, importantly, confidence in the judicial system.
The laws adopted in 2016 allow for some predictions about the areas most susceptible to reforms this year. However, as seen from our national reformist practice, civil society will have to work hard to make sure that the government does not roll the reforms back during the implementation stage.
“2017 will be a turning point for Ukraine on its reform path.”
In this regard, the most attention should be paid to the judicial reform. The system, formed and solidified over the years, is neither ready nor willing to change. But the first steps taken in this direction inspire some hope for a positive result. As early as April 1st , the President is to approve the completely new membership of the Supreme Court, the most important judicial body of the country, where judges are selected through open contests. Rebooting the highest level of the judicial system is a real chance for renewal and change. However, low public attention to this process threatens to squander this chance.
Ukrainians should not allow a pseudo-renewal of the Supreme Court, in which judges are simply reshuffled based on their loyalty to the President. Elections to the Supreme Court should be the top reform in the first quarter of 2017, and be held under close scrutiny of the entire country. Here we must understand one simple thing: if the Supreme Court becomes categorically fair, there would be no sense for corruption to spread on lower levels. The next step would be a competition to appoint judges of the first jurisdiction. This competition has not been held even once in the past three years, resulting in a massive shortage of personnel and a paralysis of courts throughout the country. Today, Ukraine lacks almost a third of the judges it needs, and this figure will continue growing, if new competitions are not announced.
In continuing the judiciary topic, in 2017 the public should unite around the issue of creating anti-corruption courts – the final link in the chain of the fight against corruption. This is an important challenge on the anti-corruption front, but unfortunately, not the only one. The second stage of electronic declarations will begin soon, under which nearly a million officials will have to report on their income and wealth. Also, work must finally begin at the National Agency for the detection, investigation and management of assets derived from corruption and other crimes.
In 2016, reformers unfortunately failed to put enough pressure on the parliament in their efforts to increase the efficiency of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). Despite the demands of Western partners and the public, MPs did not even put on the agenda the bill that would grant NABU the right to wiretap autonomously, based on a court ruling, without involving the SBU in the process. The attempts to discredit independent anti-corruption institutions also continue, including through the blocking of NABU cases in the courts.
Important changes will be occurring in the media field. 2017 will finally become the year for public broadcasting in Ukraine. The National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine starts its work in January. A very important step in the first half of the year will be the competitive selection of its chief and the heads of regional branches. It is at the regional level that the most changes should take place, because that’s the level where public broadcasting is a chance to provide balanced and impartial coverage of local events, as opposed to the former RSBCs [Regional State Broadcasting Companies] who have been the mouthpiece of the local government for years.
Print media will also be undergoing changes. Public media outlets are being reformed into private ones. Journalists have the chance to become owners of the newspapers at which they work. However, there is a risk that the state support system will fail here, and that in 2018 the country will witness massive bankruptcies of those newspapers who fail to survive in a competitive environment.
Law enforcement is another important area for reformers in 2017. During the year, the State Bureau of Investigation should be established, to which the Prosecutor General is to grant the authority to conduct investigations. Unfortunately, the competition for the position of its head gives rise to doubts whether this body will be truly independent. Meanwhile, there are few positive expectations regarding changes in the prosecutor’s office.
The shift towards decentralization will continue. Combining local communities should provide for better solutions to local problems and leave more money in local budgets. The reform of public administration means many new competitions in 2017, which must be held under close public scrutiny.
An equally important challenge in 2017 will be the re-election of the CEC [Central Election Commission]. The authority of the vast majority of the Commission members ended back in 2014, and a criminal case against the head of the CEC, Michael Okhendovsky, completely undermined the credibility of this body. At the same time, another very important systemic change is necessary – the new law on open-list parliamentary elections has very little chance of being passed this year.
2017 will be a turning point for Ukraine on its reform path. Further delays in the implementation of reforms could finally bury the tectonic changes which the government managed to put in place, under tremendous pressure from the expert community and civil society. The third sector can and should influence the agenda, and demand these changes from the authorities.
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