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Testing times for #Ukraine anti-corruption reforms

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Ukraine’s new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) may have netted its first big fish. The arrest of State Fiscal Service Head, Roman Nasirov on 2 March on suspicion of helping to embezzle 2 billion hryvnias ($75 million) suggests that Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are breaking new ground, writes John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
The Nasirov case is part of a wider battle for control of the anti-corruption agenda pitting an alliance of civil society organizations, reformist forces in parliament and Western governments against a group of entrenched interests in government, parliament and business.

Ukraine’s leaders are the products of a system of institutionalized corruption based on state capture by a narrow group of wealthy individuals. Not surprisingly, they are reluctant to give up their control of the state’s economic resources. Nor are they willing to relinquish their hold over the law enforcement agencies or the politically dependent judiciary. As a result, they pay only lip service to the need to clamp down on corruption.

Since the Euromaidan protests in 2014, no senior officials past or present have gone to jail despite the revolution’s demands for justice and an end to high-level corruption. The ‘new’ authorities’ failure to deliver on their commitment to punish the guilty has generated anger in Ukrainian society.  Western governments have also grown increasingly frustrated at the absence of political will to rein in corruption.

The State Fiscal Service is a powerful institution because of its control of revenue streams and tax privileges. Nasirov, who has held his position since May 2015, almost certainly has detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the current administration. In normal circumstances, access to such information might protect the holder from criminal investigation, or at least allow them to escape abroad.

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Yet it seems that Nasirov did not receive sufficient warning of his arrest. He was able to flee only to a hospital bed, claiming that he was suffering from hypertension. With the danger of his initial arrest order expiring on a Sunday, civic activists blocked him in a court building until a judge appeared the next morning. In the end, Nasirov was released on bail of 100 million hryvnias ($3.7 million) paid by his wife despite prosecution efforts to raise bail to 2 billion hyrvnias.

It is unclear at this stage whether Ukraine’s top leadership has offered up Nasirov as a genuine sacrifice to civil society and Western governments in return for concessions on other parts of the anti-corruption programme, or whether he will be allowed to evade justice. The determination of civil society to see Nasirov successfully prosecuted will make it hard for him to avoid a trial.

However, the Nasirov case comes at a time when Ukraine’s anti-corruption reforms are meeting with increasing resistance from the ‘old’ political and economic elites.

NABU and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) became operational in late 2015 with a remit to investigate and bring to justice corrupt senior officials. Both have been under heavy attack in recent months for failing to produce results despite showing far greater signs of activity than the Security Service or any other part of the law enforcement system in tackling corruption. The heads of the two agencies were selected by open competition and act independently. NABU also finds itself in a turf war with the Prosecutor General’s Office, controlled by the president, while SAPO’s progress has been stymied by an unreformed and understaffed judicial system that has found ways to delay or sabotage the cases that it has brought to court.

Parts of the ‘old’ system are continuing to try to limit the high levels of transparency required by the new e-declaration system for officials, including MPs and judges. Launched last September after repeated delays caused by political interference, the system initially required 100,000 senior officials including the president and prime minister to disclose their income, property and assets and those of their family members. The level of cash holdings by officials surpassed all expectations, totalling 26 billion hryvnias (nearly $930 million), and caused public outrage.

A group of nearly 50 MPs recently filed a case with the Constitutional Court arguing that the requirement to disclosure of assets to family members is unconstitutional.

In theory, any declarations of cash deposits exceeding $100,000 will lead to investigations to check the origins of the money. This could keep NABU detectives busy for a considerable period, particularly since a further two million officials are due to file their declarations by 1 April.

The influential civil society organizations that have driven the anti-corruption reforms, including e-declarations, now find themselves under attack. President Poroshenko yesterday signed into law a requirement for anti-corruption campaigning organizations to file their own e-declarations and disclose their funding. This measure clearly provides the authorities with a means to intimidate campaigners using the threat of criminal investigations.

Despite the lack of criminal convictions, Ukraine’s anti-corruption reformers with strong backing from the EU and IMF have scored some other significant successes by limiting the opportunities for corrupt behaviour by officials and their associates. The widely praised ProZorro online state procurement system has eliminated the rigged auctions of the past for government contracts. Similarly, energy sector reforms, including the overhaul of Naftogaz, the state oil & gas company, have removed what were some of the largest opportunities for corruption prior to 2014.

The ‘old’ system is clearly discomfited by the advances of the anti-corruption reforms. It remains to be seen whether the Nasirov case will mark a victory for the reformers or define the limits of their influence. Western governments may well have to enter the fray to keep the anti-corruption effort on track.

Chatham House

As Iran veers right, ties with Gulf Arabs may hinge on nuclear pact

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Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran, Iran June 18, 2021. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Gulf Arab states are unlikely to be deterred from dialogue to improve ties with Iran after a hardline judge won the presidency but their talks with Tehran might become tougher, analysts said, writes Ghaida Ghantous.

Prospects for better relations between Muslim Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies could ultimately hinge on progress to revive Tehran's 2015 nuclear accord with world powers, they said, after Ebrahim Raisi won Friday's election.

The Iranian judge and cleric, who is subject to US sanctions, takes office in August, while nuclear talks in Vienna under outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a more pragmatic cleric, are ongoing.

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Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime regional foes, began direct talks in April to contain tensions at the same time as global powers have been embroiled in nuclear negotiations.

"Iran has now sent a clear message that they are tilting to a more radical, more conservative position," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a UAE political analyst, adding that Raisi's election might make improving Gulf ties a tougher challenge.

"Nevertheless, Iran is not in a position to become more radical ... because the region is becoming very difficult and very dangerous," he added.

The United Arab Emirates, whose commercial hub Dubai has been a trade gateway for Iran, and Oman, which has often played a regional mediation role, were swift to congratulate Raisi.

Saudi Arabia has yet to comment.

Raisi, an implacable critic of the West and an ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran, has voiced support for continuing the nuclear negotiations.

"If the Vienna talks succeed and there is a better situation with America, then (with) hardliners in power, who are close to the supreme leader, the situation may improve," said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of Gulf Research Center.

A revived nuclear deal and the lifting of US sanctions on the Islamic Republic would boost Raisi, easing Iran's economic crisis and offering leverage in Gulf talks, said Jean-Marc Rickli, an analyst at Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

Neither Iran nor Gulf Arabs want a return to the kind of tensions seen in 2019 that spiralled after the U.S. killing, under former U.S. President Donald Trump, of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Gulf states blamed Iran or its proxies for a spate of attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil plants.

A perception that Washington was now disengaging militarily from the area under U.S. President Joe Biden has prompted a more pragmatic Gulf approach, analysts said.

Nevertheless, Biden has demanded Iran rein in its missile programme and end its support for proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen, demands that have strong support from Gulf Arab nations.

"The Saudis have realised they can no longer rely on the Americans for their security ... and have seen that Iran has the means to really put pressure on the kingdom through direct attacks and also with the quagmire of Yemen," Rickli said.

Saudi-Iran talks have focused mainly on Yemen, where a military campaign led by Riyadh against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement for over six years no longer has U.S. backing.

The UAE has maintained contacts with Tehran since 2019, while also forging ties with Israel, Iran's arch regional foe.

Sanam Vakil, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House, wrote last week that regional conversations, particularly on maritime security, were expected to continue but “can only gain momentum if Tehran demonstrates meaningful goodwill”.

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Chatham House

What is externalization and why is it a threat to refugees?

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Ascension Island. Moldova. Morocco. Papua New Guinea. St. Helena. These are some of the far-flung destinations where the British government has considered sending asylum seekers once they have arrived in the UK or have been intercepted on their way here, writes Dr Jeff Crisp, Associate Fellow, International Law Programme, Chatham House.

Such proposals are emblematic of externalization, a migration management strategy that has won increasing favour among countries in the Global North, denoting measures taken by states beyond their borders to obstruct or deter the arrival of foreign nationals lacking permission to enter their intended destination country.

The interception of asylum seekers travelling by boat, before detaining and processing them in offshore locations, is perhaps the most common form of this strategy. But it has also been manifested in a variety of other ways, such as information campaigns in countries of origin and transit, designed to dissuade citizens of developing countries from attempting the journey to a destination country in the Global North.

Visa controls, sanctions on transport companies and the outposting of immigration officers at foreign ports have been used to prevent the embarkation of unwanted passengers. Wealthy states have also done deals with less prosperous countries, offering financial aid and other incentives in return for their cooperation in blocking the movement of asylum seekers.

While the notion of externalization is a recent one, this strategy is not particularly new. In the 1930s, maritime interceptions were undertaken by a number of states to prevent the arrival of Jews escaping from the Nazi regime. In the 1980s, the US introduced interdiction and offshore processing arrangements for asylum seekers from Cuba and Haiti, processing their claims to refugee status on board coastguard vessels or at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay. In the 1990s, the Australian government introduced the ‘Pacific Solution’, whereby asylum seekers on their way to Australia were banished to detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Over the past two decades, the EU has become increasingly eager to adapt the Australian approach to the European context. In the mid-2000s, Germany suggested that holding and processing centres for asylum seekers might be established in North Africa, while the UK toyed with the idea of leasing a Croatian island for the same purpose.

Such proposals were eventually abandoned for a variety of legal, ethical and operational reasons. But the idea lived on and formed the basis of the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey, whereby Ankara agreed to block the onward movement of Syrian and other refugees, in exchange for financial support and other rewards from Brussels. Since then, the EU has also provided vessels, equipment, training and intelligence to the Libyan coastguard, providing it with the capacity to intercept, return and detain anyone trying to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

The Trump administration in the US has also joined the externalization ‘bandwagon’, refusing admission to asylum seekers at its southern border, forcing them to remain in Mexico or return to Central America. In order to implement this strategy, Washington has used all the economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal, including the threat of trade sanctions and withdrawal of aid from its southern neighbours.

States have justified the use of this strategy by suggesting that their primary motivation is to save lives and to prevent people from undertaking difficult and dangerous journeys from one continent to another. They have also argued that it is more efficient to support refugees as close to their home as possible, in neighbouring and nearby countries where the costs of assistance are lower and where it is easier to organize their eventual repatriation.

In reality, several other - and less altruistic - considerations have been driving this process. These include a fear that the arrival of asylum seekers and other irregular migrants constitutes a serious threat to their sovereignty and security, as well as a concern among governments that the presence of such people might undermine national identity, create social disharmony and lose them the support of the electorate.

Most fundamentally, however, externalization is the result of a determination by states to avoid the obligations they have freely accepted as parties to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Put simply, if an asylum seeker arrives in a country that is party to the Convention, the authorities have a duty to consider their application for refugee status and grant them permission to stay if they are found to be a refugee. To evade such obligations, a growing number of states have concluded that it is preferable to prevent the arrival of such people to begin with.

While this might suit the immediate interests of potential destination countries, such outcomes do serious damage to the international refugee regime. As we have seen with respect to the refugee policies pursued by Australia in Nauru, the EU in Libya and the US in Mexico, externalization prevents people from exercising their right to seek asylum, puts them at risk of other human rights violations and inflicts serious physical and psychological harm on them.

Furthermore, by closing borders, externalization has actually encouraged refugees to undertake risky journeys involving human smugglers, traffickers and corrupt government officials. It has placed a disproportionate burden on developing countries, where 85 per cent of the world’s refugees are to be found. And, as seen most starkly in the EU-Turkey deal, it has encouraged the use of refugees as bargaining chips, with less-developed countries extracting funding and other concessions from wealthier states in exchange for restrictions on refugee rights.

While externalization is now firmly entrenched in state behaviour and inter-state relations, it has not gone uncontested. Academics and activists around the world have mobilized against it, underlining its adverse consequences for refugees and the principles of refugee protection.

And while UNHCR has been slow to respond to this pressure, dependent as it is on funding provided by states in the Global North, change now seems to be in the air. In October 2020, the High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of ‘UNHCR’s and my personal firm opposition to the externalization proposals of some politicians, which are not only contrary to the law, but offer no practical solutions to the problems that force people to flee.

This statement raises a number of important questions. Can externalization practices such as interception and arbitrary detention be subject to legal challenges, and in which jurisdictions might they most effectively be pursued? Are there any elements of the process that could be implemented in a way that respects refugee rights and strengthens the protection capacity of developing countries? As an alternative, could refugees be provided with safe, legal and organized routes their destination countries?

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who as former UNHCR chief knows all too well the plight of refugees, has called for a ‘surge in diplomacy for peace’. Indeed, if states are so concerned about the arrival of refugees, could they not do more to resolve the armed conflicts and prevent the human rights violations that force people to flee in the first place?

 

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Belarus

Seven ways the West can help #Belarus

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Outlining the key steps that government, international institutions, and NGOs can take to bring an end to the suffering of the Belarus people.
Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
1. Acknowledge the new reality

A huge number of Belarusians across all levels of society simply no longer recognize Lukashenka as their legitimate president. The unprecedented size and persistence of protests against his regime and the sheer scale of reports of repressive actions, torture, and even murder, mean Belarus will never be the same again.

However, current paralysis in EU policy and the absence of a comprehensive US policy are both serving as a de facto licence for Lukashenka to deepen the political crisis. The sooner policymakers realize this and act with more responsibility and confidence, the quicker the increasing repression can be reversed.

2. Do not recognize Lukashenka as president

If the international community stops recognizing Lukashenka as president, it makes him more toxic to others, including Russia and China, both of which will be reluctant to waste resources on someone who is seen as the main cause of Belarusian instability. Even if Russia still decides to save Lukashenka and financially support him, ignoring Lukashenka decreases the legitimacy of any agreements he signs with the Kremlin on collaboration or integration.

Demanding a re-run of the presidential election should also remain firmly on the agenda as functionaries within Lukashenka's system should know this international pressure is not going away until a truly transparent vote takes place.

3. Be present on the ground

In order to curb repression and establish ties with actors within Belarus, a monitoring group should be organized under the auspices of the UN, the OSCE or other international organizations to establish a presence on the ground, and to stay in the country as long as it is needed, and is possible. Governments and parliaments can send their own missions, while staff from international media and NGOs should be encouraged to report on what is actually happening inside the country.

The bigger the visible presence of the international community is in Belarus, the less brutal Lukashenka’s agencies can be in persecuting protestors, which in turn would then allow more substantial negotiations to take place between the democratic movement and Lukashenka.

4. Announce a package of economic support for a democratic Belarus

The Belarusian economy was already in bad shape before the election, but the situation is going to get much worse. The only way out is support from the international community with a ‘Marshall Plan for a democratic Belarus’. States and international financial institutions should declare they will provide significant financial assistance through grants or low-interest loans, but only if there is democratic change first.

It is essential to make this economic package conditional on democratic reform, but also that it will have no geopolitical strings attached. If a democratically-elected government decides it wants to improve relations with Russia, it should still be able to count on an assistance package.

This would send a strong signal to economic reformers who remain inside Lukashenka's system, giving them a genuine choice between a functioning Belarusian economy or sticking with Lukashenka, whose leadership is seen by many as to be responsible for ruining the country’s economy.

5. Introduce targeted political and economic sanctions

The Lukashenka regime deserves tough sanctions internationally, but so far only selective visa restrictions or account freezes have been imposed, which have little to no effect on what is actually happening on the ground. Visa sanction lists need to be expanded but, more importantly, there should be increased economic pressure on the regime. Companies which are the most important to Lukashenka's business interests should be identified and targeted with sanctions, all their trading activity halted, and all their accounts abroad frozen.

Governments should also persuade their own country’s large companies to reconsider working with Belarusian producers. It is shameful that international corporations continue to advertise in media controlled by Lukashenka and appear to be ignoring the reports of human rights violations at Belarusian companies they do business with.

Moreover, there should be a deadline set to halt all repression, or broader economic sanctions will be imposed. This would send a strong message to Lukashenka and also his entourage, many of whom would then become more convinced he has to go.

6. Support NGOs to investigate allegations of torture

There are few legal mechanisms to prosecute those thought to be involved in election fraud and acts of brutality. Nevertheless, all reports of torture and falsifications should be properly documented by human rights defenders, including identifying those alleged to have taken part. Gathering evidence now prepares the ground for investigations, targeted sanctions, and leverage on law enforcement officials in the future.

But, given that such an investigation is not possible in Belarus right now, international human rights activists should be enabled to start the process outside the country with support from Belarusian NGOs.

7. Support known victims of the regime

Even with an unprecedented campaign of solidarity among Belarusians, many people need support, especially those alleged to have suffered torture. Some media outlets claim to have lost a significant amount of revenue because advertisers were forced to pull out, and journalists arrested. Human rights defenders need funds to keep organizations running in the heat of this crackdown.

Supporting all these people and organizations will cost tens of millions of euros, but it would significantly ease the huge financial burden facing those who have opposed the regime.

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