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It is all about the people. An interview with Yehor Sobolev

A movement in support of lustration is gaining momentum in Ukraine. A representative of the Open Dialog Foundation interviewed Yehor Sobolev, chairman of the lustration committee, to find out what the citizens want the new government plan to do, how they plan to achieve it, and what makes them feel ashamed. 

The conversation also broached the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov: the new government of independent Ukraine gave in to Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime and demands Ablyazov’s extradition from France to Ukraine.

“Better 5 years of mistakes than 50 years of sabotage”

Yehor Sobolev is a public activist, journalist, and the founder of the Svidomo Investigative Journalism Bureau. In June 2013 he was one of the initiators of a new political entity, Volia (Freedom). Later he became an activist of Maidan, the popular protest whose most strongly-voiced demand was the lustration of the Ukrainian government. In March 2014 Sobolev was elected chairman of the lustration committee under the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine.

Lustration (from Lat. lustratio) meaning an Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman ritual purification of an infant through offerings. Today this word is used to denote a process of regulation of access to public offices for individuals implicated in human rights abuses. Lustration involves a number of political and legal measures aimed at eliminating the after-effects of the previous, anti-human and anti-national regime. Several European nations have undergone processes of lustration at some point in their history: Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia.

According to Sobolev, the activists have drafted a lustration bill for Ukraine on the basis of international know-how.

When V. Havel was asked why he was anxious to get rid of experts and hire young university graduates instead, he answered: “Better 5 years of mistakes, than 50 years of sabotage.”

“The Czech Republic and Georgia seem to be the most felicitous examples, closest to us. The lustration process there involved not only the dismissal of public servants associated with the previous regimes, but also the re-creation of governmental bodies. This is the variant which we offer now in the new draft Law. We must create new courts of law, a new prosecutor’s office and a new security service and staff them with as many new people as possible. These new people should create and support justice and must struggle for the national interests and law enforcement in the country,” says Sobolev.

We would like to emphasise that lustration processes were the toughest in the Czech Republic. The measures, passed after the enactment of the 1991 Law on de-communisation and envisaging dismissal or demotion for secret service agents and collaborationists, were referred to as “witch hunts” or “the new Nuremberg.” The list of collaborationists with the communist regime between 1948 and 1989 included some 140,000 names. These persons were to be scrutinised within five years. Those implicated in the infringement of human rights and liberties (such as secret service officers, agents and communist party functionaries who exerted political control over state security) were banned from occupying any prominent positions in the public service.

All individuals who ever occupied certain positions in the government, as well as prospective candidates, were screened for collaboration with state security services. The then president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel is often cited; when asked why he was anxious to get rid of experts and hire young university graduates instead, he answered: “Better 5 years of mistakes, than 50 years of sabotage.”

The same principle was used by Mikheil Saakashvili when he decided to get rid of pervasive corruption in Georgia’s law enforcement system. In October 2010 parliament passed a law banning former officers of the KGB or communist party functionaries from prominent positions in public service. Such individuals would not be able to work in the executive and judicial branches of government, or preside over colleges or universities. A lustration commission, created in accordance with the law, is also busy with the elimination of communist symbols in Georgia, including names of streets and squares and monuments glorifying the totalitarian past.

According to Sobolev, Ukraine has chosen the same path. 

New rules, new people

What has changed in Ukraine after Euromaidan?

“We have only made the first steps. Frankly, the representatives of the ruling coalition are trying to lead the Yanukovych system rather than essentially change it. This is what society strongly objects to. Therefore the public demand that a new parliamentary election be held. Maidan has noticeably changed the society, but the government mechanisms and the state apparatus have virtually remained intact. This is what we still have to deal with.”

Recently you came back from Poland, where you exchanged know-how with representatives of numerous organisations, including the lustration department at the Institute of National Remembrance and the deputy prosecutor general. What measures could be applied in Ukraine?

“In my opinion, Ukraine’s Institute of National Remembrance should adopt the Polish practice of preserving the archives and assisting society in the interpretation of the past and its lessons. As far as the prosecutor general’s office is concerned, Poland undertook an interesting practice of reducing the prosecutor general’s powers, while other prosecutors are rather independent than subordinate to him. They have a very sensible idea for all other levels: if charges are brought against a law enforcement officer, they are supported by a prosecutor from another district, in order to exclude cover-ups. But what impressed me the most in Poland was its Central Anti-Corruption Bureau. What we actually need to do is create new governmental bodies and staff them with new people who will be able to become much more productive than the incumbents.

“It should also be mentioned that lustration legislation in Poland took a definitive shape in 2006-07. The law obliges every public servant to undergo the lustration procedure, starting with the nation’s president, government, legislators, local councillors and ranging to judges and prosecutors to university presidents and vice presidents. There was an attempt to put journalists, bankers, stock brokers, principals of private schools and even presidents of sports associations on the lustration list as well. However, the Constitutional Court deemed the respective provision of the latest draft of the law unconstitutional and removed it from the text.

“Poland has a complex lustration procedure. A candidate for public office or election must file a statement concerning his or her collaboration with the state security services under the communist regime. The screening function is vested with employees of the lustration bureau under the Institute of National Remembrance, where secret services’ archives are stored. Not only is an instance of such collaboration considered to be an offence, but also an instance of concealment of truth before society. In case a fact of deception is legally established by a court, the culprit could be deprived of the right to run for parliament or local government for 3 to 10 years. The recent history of Poland has seen such precedents. In particular, legislator Ryszard Smolarek lost his mandate in July 2001, after the court found him guilty of falsifications in the lustration procedure.”

In the Baltic States, lustration enjoys virtually unanimous support, while Poland has seen some scandals and denunciations. Who in Ukraine’s new government supports your idea? And on the contrary, who might find the new lustration law unfavourable?

“I have a good rapport with Pavlo Petrenko, the minister of justice. In the parliament we cooperate with individual MPs, but I cannot say that there is indeed a political force which will consistently support the idea of cleansing the government in reality, rather than verbally.

“On June 13 we sent the draft Law “On Lustration” to the newly elected president of Ukraine. We are convinced that he must be the first advocate of this measure. Otherwise, Poroshenko will simply be unable to run the rotten state apparatus, eaten away by corruption. Most of his voters support the idea of cleansing the government and expect that their candidate will do it.”

Do you count on Europe’s support? Who can be your ally in the EU?

“We are very hopeful that Europeans will support the idea of creating an efficient government in Ukraine and realise that first of all, it is associated with the need for renewal. We need to renew everything: the rules, the salaries, the functions of state bodies and, of course, their staff. In this respect, European expertise in staff training will be invaluable.”

On public servants and waiters

Ukraine paid for ousting the Yanukovych regime with the lives of Euromaidan activists. What should your country’s policy be regarding the new government’s cooperation with the dictatorships of the Eurasian Economic Union?

“Diplomacy always means a conflict of principles and advantages. I am convinced that we may not be party to discreditable accusations (like the Ablyazov case). Instead, we should try to cooperate where cooperation is possible. Even cultural and personal exchanges are very important for our country and the countries which have serious difficulties with establishing democracy. Dictatorship should be blamed not only on the rulers, but first of all on the citizens who tolerate it.

“Ukrainians have already taken their most important diplomatic step. We have let all our neighbours see how you can, and must oust dictators. However, our diplomats should always maintain their professional standards.”

What do you mean by “personal exchanges”?

“Meetings, conferences, education… in a word, everything necessary to intensify person-to-person communication. Our diplomats should do their best to promote this. I am convinced that the more Kazakh citizens visit Ukraine (and vice versa), the better it is for the future of both countries. Our people will get a better idea of what we have and what we lack. Likewise, your fellow citizens will be able to see a different country, with a different attitude to their government.”

Have you ever been to Kazakhstan?

“Yes, three times. I only have been to Almaty and therefore it is the only city that I have some idea of. I very much liked the culture, tactfulness and diligence of most of the people I met. However, I was surprised at people’s lack of confidence in democratic institutions and their sceptical attitude towards elections: ‘we will not vote because all elections are rigged.’ What struck me as well was the fact that the authorities are treated as something divine. In Ukraine it is absolutely the opposite. We are convinced that officials are our political representatives and must serve us, just like waiters in a café: they should be perfectly aware of their responsibilities and honest with the bills (laughs).”

What is your opinion, as a representative of the civic society, of the notorious case of oppositionist banker, Mukhtar Ablyazov? Ukraine’s previous authorities applied for his extradition. According to Ukrainian and French media, the Kazakh lobby associates Ablyazov with trumped-up cases concerning large-scale economic crimes. Although the case has been ongoing for nearly a year, the Ukrainian party have never adduced any evidence to implicate Ablyazov. However, this June, Ukraine and Russia submitted a joint application for the extradition of the Kazakh oppositionist. Don’t you think that the new administration should start with transparency regarding such activities?

“I am very sorry to hear that we keep assisting in persecutions. Maidan stood up for freedom. The new incumbents (including the top law enforcement officers) must choose a course aimed at the expansion of liberties rather than assist repressions, especially abroad. I believe we will be able to change it (including the policy pursued by the interior minister).”

Are the new Ukrainian leaders aware that such actions involve the country in new international scandals?

“Frankly, I can hardly imagine what the Interior Ministry’s motives are. In my opinion, the minister either does not understand what is going on, or this is blatant betrayal of Maidan’s principles. It is a shame for Ukraine to be involved in something like this.”

If your Committee gets hold of documents implicating Ukrainian officials in such a corrupt scheme, are you prepared to propose lustration for all Ukrainian citizens involved in the Ablyazov case?

By all means, we believe that individuals who compromised themselves through involvement in illegal persecutions, especially in other countries, may not represent the Ukrainian state. We will make sure they will never work in the government.”