The visa-free travel regime with the European Union is becoming a lifeline for President Poroshenko’s future presidential campaign and fits perfectly into the new political matrix crafted by his ideologists for the second term. The matrix includes intimidations of anti-corruption agencies, discredits critics of the government, and switches the agenda from corruption to patriotism.
When the European Parliament voted for visa-free travel for Ukrainians, Poroshenko called it “the finalized divorce from the Russian Empire after a 300-year union.” Speaking at the European Square last week, he cited a poem Farewell, unwashed Russia by a Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov.
The irony is that by itself the visa-free travel regime is not a hallmark of belonging to Europe. It extends to many countries of Latin America.
It also does not save Ukraine from Moscow’s embrace. A visa-free Moldova is a good example of that, where after years of stagnation in combating corruption, a pro-Russian president Igor Dodon took power.
Visa-free travel was, in fact, a way to prompt the ruling Ukrainian authorities to adopt necessary laws. The main achievement in this process was the creation of anti-corruption agencies. But overall, authorities have consistently blocked unfavorable new changes, which delayed the path toward visa-free travel. To say nothing about the saga with online income declarations, when officials tried to either postpone the launch of the system for a year or remove criminal liability for providing inaccurate information. As a result, Ukraine’s visa-free access to EU has been delayed for a whole year. Based on my personal experience as a member of parliament, I know how much effort it took to pass laws from the visa-free package. As a rapporteur of the law on prevention of political corruption, I witnessed behind-the-scenes pressure applied by Bankova in blocking this law to advance the ruling clans, as public funding for several opposition parties was cut.
In the foreseeable future, there are no new goals to push the country forward. Getting to candidate status for EU membership is a long road, and there is no consensus within the EU about Ukraine. And NATO membership won’t happen as long as our Ukrainian leaders don’t favor it. Last year I spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was surprised that Ukraine, unlike Georgia, did not even apply for NATO’s Membership Action Plan.
With the Trump administration ignoring Ukraine, the opportunity has emerged to tighten the screws inside the country, undermine the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, and harass anti-corruption activists.
The growing influence of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) keeps getting worse. Every week for the last six months, we’ve heard about new areas of its oppressive powers. Since last November, upon request by the SBU, a dozen independent traders of liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been blocked. In March, after the SBU found suspicions of terrorism financing to be unwarranted, it dropped its claims. But in June, it resumed its attacks by carrying out searches and blocking accounts. The outcome of this market cleansing was an increase in the stock price of Glusko company and its satellites associated with Viktor Medvedchuk.
Another oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, thanks to privileges under Poroshenko, now profits more from thermal power generation than he did during the Yanukovych administration. In one year, the Donbas Fuel and Energy Company’s energy tariff has doubled, while the Rotterdam-plus formula generates excessive profits.
In addition to LNG, the SBU blocks imports of spirits for the largest producers of Ukrainian cognac. To settle their scores, it recently assaulted the investment company Dragon Capital, while it’s also tormenting Ukraine’s IT sector.
In the long run, the visa-free travel regime may help clean up Ukraine’s contaminated politics. The more Ukrainians see how Europeans live, the more they’ll question their leaders who for the past twenty-five years have let the standard of living degrade to that of a banana republic. Ukraine is a nation traumatized by the Soviet past, where a decayed system resists change, but leadership is critical in any country needing reforms. But if the president devotes himself to splitting profits with Akhmetov, then he has no energy or desire left for reforms. In a democracy, such a government is doomed to meet an inglorious end.