It’s become increasingly clear that Obama-era U.S. politicians backed the wrong people in Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko’s moves to consolidate his power now include sidelining the anti-corruption institutions he was forced to set up by Ukraine’s Western allies.
Poroshenko, who had briefly served as Ukraine’s foreign minister, looked worldlier than his predecessor, the deposed Viktor Yanukovych, and spoke passable English. He and his first prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, knew what the U.S. State Department and Vice President Joe Biden, who acted as the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine, wanted to hear. So, as Ukraine emerged from the revolutionary chaos of January and February 2014, the U.S., and with it the EU, backed Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk as Ukraine’s next leaders. Armed with this support, not least with promises of major technical aid and International Monetary Fund loans, they won elections, posing as Westernizers who would lead Ukraine into Europe. But their agendas turned out to be more self-serving.
While Ukraine was in existential need of Western money, Poroshenko and his political allies followed the conditions attached to the aid. Among other things, parliament voted to set up an independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) that was supposed to investigate graft, and a special anti-corruption prosecutor.
Gradually, however, it became clear that though the agency and the prosecutor could make loud noises and investigate hundreds of cases (about 400 so far), they found it hard to make charges stick because the largely unreformed court system pushed back. Ukraine’s European and U.S. allies demanded that a special anti-corruption court be set up. Poroshenko, however, has been lukewarm about the idea, pointing out that few countries had such an institution. Despite repeated Western demands, backed by a group of young pro-Western legislators, Poroshenko still hasn’t submitted a legislative proposal on the court — even though the Venice Commission, which analyzes legislation for the EU, has provided detailed recommendations on what the bill should look like.
At the same time, Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, a close Poroshenko ally, began an open war against NABU. An agent of the Anti-Corruption Bureau was detained last week while trying to hand over a bribe to a migration service official, and the bureau’s offices were searched. NABU chief Artem Sytnyk claimed in response that the bribe was part of a sting operation Lutsenko hadn’t known about. That didn’t stop Lutsenko from continuing to attack Sytnyk and his bureau, accusing them of illegal operations and unauthorized cooperation with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Poroshenko, while not officially taking Lutsenko’s side, denounced the whole squabble: “There’s so much noise and screaming, so many feathers flying that it’s sometimes reminiscent of some Latin American carnival. It would seem funny if it weren’t so sad.”