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Ukraine: Parliament advances legislation to secure EU visa-free package

AGORA moderator's picture

The Verkhovna Rada adopted a bill introducing electronic income and property declarations for public officials on March 15, the last remaining requirement to qualify Ukrainians for visa-free travel to the European Union.

However, the punishments under the compromise legislation are considered weak, with the threat of imprisonment for violations removed and replaced with fines.

In tribute to its importance, parliament made passing the law its first decision after a three-week break as lawmakers entered a turbulent session week with a change of prime minister looming.

The March 15 session was parliament’s second attempt to pass a strong declarations law.

The first one on Feb. 16 ended in scandal when Vadym Denisenko, a member of the Bloc of President Petro Poroshenko, just before voting slipped in amendments that weakened requirements and postponed the law's introduction by one year.

Parliament adopted the castrated bill on Feb. 16 to public outrage.

But the stunt didn’t trick the EU leadership.

Leaders of Ukrainian parliament factions had a series of meetings in Brussels in early March, where they received a warning: A strong declarations law must be adopted and come into force this year.

Poroshenko vetoed the law on March 12 and sent it back to parliament. However, he added several amendments of his own - and they, similar to the trick of his bloc's lawmaker back in February, weaken the law.

The original version of the bill introduced prison terms for the officials who lie on their declaration. But Poroshenko’s amendments softened the punishment.

Only an official who fails to declare property worth more than Hr 345,000 can be punished criminally - with a prison term, community service or a fine. For smaller sums, only fines that start at Hr 42,000 are specified. And those who fail to declare property worth less than Hr 137,000 will be subject only to disciplinary punishment from their employers.

Critics say that the punishment is too weak and too much discretion is left to judges, who are widely distrusted by Ukrainians.

“There is a big risk for corruption here,” said independent lawmaker Viktor Chumak during the debate in parliament on March 15.

At the same time, Chumak said that the law in this form was the best the parliament could get, and he called on lawmakers to support it.

“It’s the minimal compromise that is possible now,” he said.

Yegor Sobolev, a lawmaker who heads parliament's committee for preventing corruption, agreed. It's better than nothing, he said.

"I’m afraid that in our conditions a fine will be the only penalty ever executed,” he said. “But transparency without punishment is better than punishment without transparency.”

Poroshenko changed another part of the law, too, dropping the requirement to explain in the declaration the origin of art objects and jewelry.

“I think the idea here is that an official can declare, say, five Claude Monet paintings that he actually doesn’t have,” Sobolev explains. “But next year if he needs to explain how he got $250 million, he can say that he sold the Monet paintings.”

The law will come into force after it is signed and published, no later than early April. After that, all public officials will have 60 days to file the electronic declarations that list their income and property in detail.

But there is one more obstacle.

The institution that will be responsible for controlling and verifying the officials’ declarations is the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, a body that exists only on paper.

Created in 2015, the agency has been struggling for months to select five members for its board of directors.

So far, only two of the five have been selected. Poroshenko needs at least two more to be selected by his trip to Brussels on March 17, he told a group of anti-corruption activists in a meeting on March 12.

According to Andrei Marusov, the head of Transparency International Ukraine and a member of the selection committee, the selection is being delayed because the civic activists on the committee can’t reach agreement with the representatives of the government, who are loyal to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.