The car bomb assassination of journalist Pavel Sheremet on 20 July in central Kyiv should be condemned by all Ukrainians. It is both a personal tragedy for Olena Pritula who has lost a second partner in her life (the first being Georgiy Gongadze) and also a direct attack on Ukrainian democracy. The way the Ukrainian state responds to this apparently politically motivated murder will tell us much about the current government’s commitment to the rule of law and ability to achieve the goals of its ambitious European pivot.
Justice denied: Ukraine’s depressing track record
I am particularly concerned at the apparent widespread naivety of Ukrainian journalists who report on the promised investigation by President Petro Poroshenko and General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. These promises inevitably ring hollow given the proven incapability of Ukraine’s courts and prosecutors to resolve a series of previous high-profile killings and other political crimes. If, as many are already speculating, Russia is behind the murder, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) will also have to overcome widespread skepticism regarding its investigative abilities – especially as it seems there are Russian spies within the SBU structure.
I am not alone in harbouring such doubts. Are we not still waiting for a full investigation into the death of Georgian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who was murdered 16 years ago? Remember how President Viktor Yushchenko promised in his first month in power in a speech he gave to the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE): “I would like to assure you that the investigation of Gongadze murder case will be ·completed. All cases related to instances of violence against journalists will be investigated. Those guilty will be brought to trial.” We are still waiting for those who ordered the killing to face justice. Nor is this an isolated incident - the Gongadze murder is just one of many such unsolved cases.
We are still awaiting the completion of the investigation of Viktor Yushchenko’s 2004 poisoning during the presidential election campaign – arguably the most notorious political crime of the post-Soviet era. This failure made many people (including this author) suspicious of whether he was ever poisoned, feeding conspiracy theories and undermining the credibility of the Yushchenko government. After all, surely if somebody tries to murder you, you will mobilise all the available forces to secure justice? Instead, Yushchenko allowed the Donetsk clan gain control the General Prosecutor’s office through Oleksandr Medvedko, and is even accused of helping Viktor Yanukovych come to power in 2010. More recently, there have been no criminal convictions of members of the Yanukovych regime despite mountains of evidence of systematic looting of government assets and other crimes. Given the loss of life during the Euromaidan Revolution and subsequent Russian hybrid war sparked by Yanukovych’s flight from power, this failure is particularly difficult to comprehend.
Foreign convictions and domestic political repression
I have long joked in talks I have given in the West that there are only two ways to secure criminal prosecutions and jail sentences for corrupt or criminal Ukrainian officials. The first is when Ukrainians are arrested and put on trial in foreign countries such as the US, Germany and Spain. The second is when there is political repression in Ukraine, as with the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko.
Sadly, I will be highly surprised if the promised investigation into the disgusting murder of Sheremet will be any more successful than the many other promised investigations that have never been concluded. The General Prosecutor’s office – which President Poroshenko defends to the last and where he has installed three of his own loyalists – is the most unproductive state institution in Ukraine and is widely regarded as the biggest single obstacle to the rule of law in the country. It is a formidable opponent, with around 20,000 staff and deep ties to state structures and key power bases in the private sector.
Poroshenko presidency on trial
President Poroshenko must accept final responsibility for the inability of criminal investigations to lead to criminal convictions against senior figures. I hope I am wrong in the case of Sheremet, but history offers little reason for optimism. In order for Ukraine to fundamentally change and introduce the rule of law, the country requires a President capable of completely closing down and reforming the General Prosecutor’s office. After these two steps are taken, the next step should be to build more jails. If the Sheremet investigation follows the familiar pattern of failure, it will send an ominous signal of Ukraine’s inability to overcome structural barriers blocking the path to further Euro-Atlantic integration.
About the author: Taras Kuzio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. His most recent book ‘Ukraine: Democratization, Corruption and the New Russian Imperialism’ (Praeger, June 2015) surveys modern Ukrainian political history from 1953 to the present.