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Zelensky newly determined to root out corrupt oligarchs and Russian influence

Henry St George

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Amidst a brewing constitutional crisis that has increasingly alarmed Kyiv’s partners in Washington and Brussels and put the country’s visa-free regime with the EU in jeopardy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doubling down on the bent for cracking down on graft which swept him to power. In particular, the comedian turned anti-corruption crusader is striking back against what he has described as an “attack” on Ukraine and its democratic values—a set of rulings by the country’s Constitutional Court that have frittered away anti-corruption legislation.

Zelensky has characterised his tussle with the Constitutional Court in stark terms, calling it a “fight for the soul and the future of our nation”—and has made it clear that he is ready to take dramatic steps to continue battling corruption and Russian influence, including attempting to replace the entire court. This bold initiative is a direct response to the court’s October 28th ruling to strip away— among other things— the compulsory and transparent asset register for public servants which was an essential part of the country’s anti-corruption architecture, painstakingly built after the Maidan.

Zelensky and anti-corruption activists see the Constitutional Court’s ruling as the last straw in its systematic attempts to attack Ukraine’s anti-graft institutions, a push that they suggest is “driven by pro-Russian politicians and lawmakers allied to powerful oligarchs who want to wreck Kyiv’s relations with the IMF and EU”. Indeed, while Zelensky and some of his closest allies, in particular security chief Ivan Bakanov, have distanced themselves from the oligarchic networks and Russian influence which long dominated Ukrainian politics, the constitutional court’s manoeuvring—which has brought thousands onto the streets of Kyiv in protest and which Zelensky has warned could lead to bloodshed if not swiftly resolved— is a reminder of the uphill battle they face to excise these corrupt remnants.

Security services a bright spot under Ivan Bakanov

If the special interests entrenched in Ukraine’s judiciary have slowed down the ambitious reforms which Zelensky pledged to carry out, progress in cleaning up some areas of the government, in particular the country’s security agency (SBU), offers a blueprint of how even institutions with deep Soviet roots can be overhauled and modernised. Specifically, the reform of the SBU highlights how fresh blood in the Ukrainian political and security landscape is vital to ensuring that Kyiv is a trusted international partner for its Western allies, despite continuous Russian pressure.

Before Zelensky’s administration, the SBU remained true to its KGB roots, a bloated body with little oversight and far too many cases of abuse of power. A 2018 assessment deemed it “the only agency in the country that has avoided any reform since 2014”, highlighting a cornucopia of scandals in which high-ranking SBU officials schemed to illicitly enrich themselves. The rot at the core of the security services went far beyond garden-variety graft, however; of particular concern were reports that top SBU cadres had close ties to Russia and that private businessmen with Russian connections exploited the SBU for their business interests.

Given Russia’s relentless aggression in Ukraine, reforming the SBU was a matter of national security— with significant implications for other European states, given the vital role which Kyiv plays in safeguarding the continent’s security due to its strategic location. Under SBU director Ivan Bakanov, in his post since August 2019, the agency has proven effective in rooting out corruption and Russian influence. Bakanov, by virtue of not himself being a product of the pre-reform SBU, has proven less susceptible to pressure from pro-Russian forces and corrupt actors than his predecessors.

Some 510 corruption cases have been opened so far in 2020, the SBU recently announced, with 143 government officials sacked over graft. In April, an SBU investigation uncovered “indisputable evidence” that Major General Valery Shaytanov was collecting information for Russian intelligence and had agreed to plan terrorist attacks on Ukrainian soil in exchange for $200,000 and a Russian passport. In early October, meanwhile, the SBU blocked several cybernetworks of pro-Russian agitators who were attempting to destabilise the country ahead of the local elections.

In a sign that the Ukrainian security services are earning the confidence of their Western counterparts, Zelensky and Bakanov recently had a meeting with MI6 chief Richard Moore, to discuss issues ranging from Russian aggression to the importance of promoting independent journalism in Ukraine, where a number of major media channels are still controlled by powerful oligarchs.

Pervasive influence remains in courts

An independent and trustworthy SBU is an invaluable partner for the EU as the bloc faces up to increasing Russian aggression and tries to reinforce the rule of law across the European continent. It’s particularly fortunate that Bakanov has led the SBU to turn over a new leaf, because he will likely play a key role in investigating the oligarchic networks which have played a role in the brewing constitutional crisis. It’s abundantly clear that Ukraine’s judicial system needs a major overhaul. Ukrainians’ trust in their court system is appallingly low—as little as 5% of the country’s citizens has confidence in the judiciary overall, while a mere 2.2% of citizens have full confidence in the Constitutional Court.

There’s good reason for their scepticism. One of the main elements of the controversial October 28th ruling was a severe curb on the National Agency for Preventing Corruption (NAZK). Four of the Constitutional Court judges who stripped the NAZK of a broad swath of powers—including the agency’s ability to verify public officials’ asset declarations and conduct anti-corruption inspections in government agencies—are themselves under investigation by the NAZK for failing to properly declare their own assets; the head of the court is under investigation for having secretly purchased property in Russian-occupied Crimea. The fact that these four judges refused to recuse themselves from the case naturally casts a further pall over the ruling, which the head of one NGO lambasted as an “indulgence” granted to corrupt officials.

The standoff between anti-corruption activists and the court shows no signs of abating—a number of other petitions from pro-Russian MPs are pending before the court and it seems increasingly likely to annul the creation of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Court, one of the main success stories in Kyiv’s fight against graft. The Constitutional Court judges’ gross conflicts of interest only emphasizes the need to systematically ferret out influence from Moscow and oligarchic networks. If an institution which once teemed with graft and Russian influence, like the SBU, can be reformed into a dependable European partner by placing it under the leadership of someone who’s not a “product of the system”, then there’s hope yet for Ukraine’s judiciary, no matter how deep the veins of profiteering and Russian ties run.

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EU countries should ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs urge member states to protect and further enhance women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in a report adopted today (11 May).

In the draft report approved by the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality by 27 votes in favour, six against and one abstention, MEPs point out that the right to health, in particular sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), are fundamental women’s rights which should be enhanced and cannot in any way be watered down or withdrawn.

They add that violations of women’s SRHR are a form of violence against women and girls and hinder progress towards gender equality. They thus call on EU countries to ensure access to a full range of high-quality, comprehensive and accessible SRHR, and remove all barriers impeding full access to these services.

Access to abortion, contraception and sexuality education

Women’s Rights and Gender Equality MEPs stress that some member states still have highly restrictive laws prohibiting abortion except in strictly defined circumstances, leading to women having to seek clandestine abortions or carry their pregnancy to term against their will, which is a violation of their human rights. Thus, they urge all member states to ensure universal access to safe and legal abortion, and guarantee that abortion at request is legal in early pregnancy, and beyond if the pregnant person’s health is in danger. They also recall that a total ban on abortion care is a form a gender-based violence.

Furthermore, MEPs demand that EU countries ensure universal access to a range of high-quality contraceptive methods and supplies, family counselling and information on contraception.

They also urge member states to ensure access to comprehensive sexuality education for primary and secondary school children, as SRHR education can significantly contribute to reducing sexual violence and harassment.

The negative impact of the pandemic on women’s health

Regretting that access to abortion continues to be limited during the COVID-19 crisis, as well as the effects the pandemic has had on the supply and access to contraceptives, MEPs urge EU countries to consider the health impact of this crisis through a gender lens and ensure the continuation of a full range of SRHR services through the health systems.

Rapporteur Pedrag Matić (S&D, HR) said: ‘‘In the text adopted today, we clearly call on member states to ensure universal access to SRHR for all, and demonstrate there is strength in the EP to counter those opposing basic human rights. Sexuality education, access to contraception and fertility treatments as well as abortion constitute some of the key components of SRHR services. This is an important step in ensuring that all EU citizens have access to SRHR and that no person is left behind in exercising their right to health.

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Civil protection: Council adopts new rules to strengthen disaster response

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council today (11 May) adopted a regulation to strengthen the EU civil protection mechanism. The new rules will allow the EU and the member states to better prepare for natural and man made disasters and to respond faster when they strike, including in cases which affect a majority of member states simultaneously, such as a pandemic. The text also sets out the funding of the civil protection mechanism in the context of the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027.

The proposed rules will allow the European Commission to address gaps in the area of transport and logistics, and, in cases of urgency, directly procure certain additional rescEU capacities. These rescEU capacities, as well as those hosted by member states, will be fully financed from the EU budget.

Prevention and preparedness will also be improved under the proposed regulation. The Commission, in co-operation with member states, will define and develop EU disaster resilience goals in the area of civil protection

The text sets out a total of  €1.263 billion in funds for the 2021-2027 period. It also includes an amount of up to €2.56bn to implement the civil protection related measures to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis foreseen in the EU recovery instrument. This is an increase of over three times as compared to the 2014-2020 budget. It reflects the strengthening of the EU's collective response to disasters, including the recent establishment of a reserve of capacities (rescEU), the reinforcement of the European civil protection pool and the improvements in disaster prevention and preparedness.

Background

The EU civil protection mechanism was first established in 2001 and it coordinates the response to natural and man-made disasters at the EU level. Its objective is to foster cooperation among national civil protection authorities, increase public awareness and preparedness for disasters and enable quick, effective, coordinated assistance to affected populations.

The EU civil protection mechanism includes a European civil protection pool. This is a voluntary pool of capacities pre-committed by member states for immediate deployment inside or outside the EU. The civil protection mechanism was last amended in 2019, when an additional reserve of resources, called rescEU, was created to provide assistance in situations where overall existing capacities are insufficient.

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EU and Japan hold high-level policy dialogue on education, culture and sport

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On 10 May, Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel held a videoconference with the Japanese Minister for Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Koichi Hagiuda (pictured), to discuss EU-Japan co-operation in the fields of their portfolios. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to continued cooperation and support from their respective programmes, and agreed to join forces on researcher mobility. This ongoing cooperation has taken on new significance during the COVID-19 crisis, which has hit these sectors hard.

Commissioner Gabriel said: “Education, culture and sport bring people together – to learn, to teach, to create and to compete. International cooperation in these areas will always lead to a better understanding – like between Europe and Japan. In Brussels, as in Tokyo, we are looking at the future of education and the digital transition. I was delighted to exchange ideas and good practices in this field, as well as in culture and sport, with Mr Hagiuda and his team.”

Ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in Japan, Minister Haiuda shared updates during the meeting on the organisation of such a large-scale event in these unprecedented times. Commissioner Gabriel and Minister Hagiuda also welcomed the progress of the three special joint EU-Japan Erasmus Mundus Master programmes in robotics, extended reality, and history, which were launched as an outcome of the first policy dialogue of July 2018. Finally, they both emphasised the importance of people-to-people exchanges and agreed to maintain direct discussions on a regular basis. The forthcoming EU-Japan Summit will further highlight the scale and breadth of cooperation under the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement. A joint statement and more information following today's meeting are available online.

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