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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.

Belgium

Belgian artist's 'portable oasis' creates COVID-free bubble for one

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When governments around Europe told people to create a "bubble" to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind, write Bart Biesemans and Clement Rossignol.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a "portable oasis" - a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

"It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly," Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium 16 April. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting," he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops - mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions - encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

"Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don't know, but it's a good idea," Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

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Indo-Pacific: Council adopts conclusions on EU strategy for co-operation

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council approved conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, setting out the EU’s intention to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance for EU interests. The aim is to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions in the region.

The renewed EU commitment to the Indo-Pacific, a region spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific island states, will have a long-term focus and will be based on upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.

Current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas. Human rights are also being challenged. These developments increasingly threaten the stability and security of the region and beyond, directly impacting on the EU’s interests.

Consequently, the EU’s approach and engagement will look to foster a rules-based international order, a level playing field, as well as an open and fair environment for trade and investment, reciprocity, the strengthening of resilience, tackling climate change and supporting connectivity with the EU. Free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law remain crucial. The EU will look to work together with its partners in the Indo-Pacific on these issues of common interest.  

The EU will continue to develop partnerships in the areas of security and defence, including to address maritime security, malicious cyber activities, disinformation, emerging technologies, terrorism, and organized crime.

The EU and its regional partners will also work together in order to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery.

The Council tasked the High Representative and the Commission with putting forward a Joint Communication on co-operation in the Indo-Pacific by September 2021.

The conclusions were adopted by the Council by written procedure.

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Conference on the Future of Europe: Make your voice heard

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Share your views on the EU, organize events across Europe and discuss with others through the new digital platform on the Conference on the Future of Europe, EU affairs.

Launched on 19 April, the platform is the multilingual hub of the Conference on the Future of Europe that will allow people to get involved and suggest what changes need to take place in the EU. Europeans will also be able to see what others propose, comment on them and endorse ideas.

The EU institutions have committed to listening to what people say and to following up on the recommendations made. The Conference is expected to reach conclusions by the spring of 2022.

How do you take part?

Choose a topic that interests you. It could be anything from climate change to digital issues or EU democracy. If you don’t see a category with your topic, share your opinion in the Other Ideas category.

Once you are in a specific category, you can read the introduction and explore some useful links. On the Ideas tab, you can share your views and find the ideas of others. Join the discussion by leaving a comment, or vote for ideas you like so that more people can find them.

You can submit your comment in any of the EU's official 24 languages. All comments can be translated automatically in any of the other languages.

Under the Events tab, you can explore events organised online or near you, register for an event or prepare your own.

The platform fully respects users’ privacy and EU data protection rules.

What happens when you submit an opinion?

The submitted opinions and the debate they initiate will be the basis for discussions in citizens’ panels that will be organised across the EU at regional, national and European level. These panels will include people from different backgrounds so that they can be representative of the whole population of the EU.

The conclusions of the different panels will be then presented at a plenary session of the Conference, which will bring together citizens, representatives of EU institutions and national parliaments.

Join the discussion on social media about the Conference with the hashtag #TheFutureIsYours.

Conference on the Future of Europe 

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