The introduction of an e-declaration system, one of the most sophisticated worldwide, is widely believed to be among the nation’s greatest achievements in the post-Maidan era. It is regarded as a tremendously important step towards transparency, which is greatly supported by Ukraine’s overseas partners. Nevertheless, the e-declaration process for public servants has been under noticeable sabotage, according to Olena Prokopenko, who has written so in a blog post for the Atlantic Council.
The initiative has gained sufficient funding both from the Ukrainian state budget and overseas donors, as well as the apparent support of the most prominent civil society organizations. However, the nation’s government have obviously hurdled effective verification of the declarations through the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (NAPC), which is believed to be loyal to the ruling elites of Ukraine.
The institution never started using the equipment for automatic verification supplied by the United Nations; in more than a year, the equipment has verified 193 of 1.2 million declarations. Furthermore, the NAPC has been linked to multiple scandals including politically motivated persecution of activists. Whistleblowers, including those who have occupied the highest ranks within the agency, have reported numerous cases highlighting corruption and abuse of power by the organization.
Nowadays, the efficient work of the system is under threat by two other sabotage techniques: attempts to disrupt an independent technical audit of the system, and efforts to exempt a considerable portion of public servants from the application of the e-declaration requirement. Should any of the aforementioned techniques prove successful, it would be safe to say that one of Ukraine’s most significant achievement in government transparency will have failed.
A technical audit of the e-declaration register is vital not just for its efficient operation, but also for the long overdue launch of the declarations’ automated verification. The Ukrainian society has called for this on a number of occasions, whereas overseas partners have expressed their readiness to assist the process. In July 2017, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman issued instructions on the technical examination of the e-declaration system with the support of independent experts.
The National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption has announced a tender on the selection of auditors to assess the technical condition of the e-declaration register. All of these tenders involved multiple discriminatory requirements restricting the range of possible participants and disallowing prominent global auditors from taking part. Particularly, potential participants were required to prove at least a five-year presence on the Ukrainian market, as well as a certificate of conformity or expert opinion obtained from the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine.
The first one of them was canceled due to the public outrage as the result of its discriminatory nature, whereas the rest of them were pronounced void due to the fact that “less than two bids” had been received. Therefore, after the four attempts to organize an open tender have failed, the NAPC is in a position to select an auditing company as it sees fit via the so-called negotiation process.
Due to the set requirements, the audit is likely to be executed by the State Special Communications Service itself or an affiliated entity, which is rather problematic. The agency is known to have falsified the hacking of the e-declaration system in order to claim its technical malfunction and then appointed its administrator. It has disrupted the operation of the declaration register, falsified an electronic key in the name of a NAPC employee, and denied international experts access to the e-declaration register.
Members of the Ukrainian civil society argue that the technical audit of the e-declaration register can only be trusted if independent organizations are invited to participate in the process. On 20 February, they published an open letter to the Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman to ensure compliance with his instruction and to enable a genuine independent technical audit of the register.
The Prime Minister has not responded to the letter yet. In the meantime, on 1 March, he requested the State Special Communications Service to verify the situation around the e-declaration register and “introduce measures to ensure its uninterrupted operation.”
According to Oleksandra Drik, who serves as the head of the Declarations Under Control civil society watchdog and RPR anti-corruption expert, the uninterrupted operation of the system and the verification of e-declarations have been at risk since its introduction.
On 15 March, the Ukrainian parliament tried to nullify the e-declaration register, A group of legislators submitted a draft law #8129, which would amend the law “On corruption prevention.”. Yuriy Savchuk, the acting head of the anti-corruption committee of the Parliament, the amendments have to do with the defense capability of Ukraine are supposed to improve declaration requirements for Ukrainian intelligence agencies.
Nevertheless, arguing for the protection of national interests, the draft seeks to exempt many law enforcement agents and other state employees, including prosecution bodies, the Security Service, National Police, the State Bureau of Investigation, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the State Fiscal Service, the diplomatic service, military officers of the armed forces, the State Special Communications Service, state criminal-executive service, the tax police, the command staff of civil protection bodies, and officials of other state agencies and local government institutions from the e-declaration requirement.
The draft law says that the declarations of those public servants are required to be filed in paper form and will be subject to NAPC’s verification only upon the consent of the respective agency. According to experts, the bill’s provisions enable large-scale abuses by law enforcement officers and provide unacceptable discretion in determining whose declarations may remain away from the public eye.
“The draft law enables internal pressure on state officials, as their leadership might blackmail employees by submitting their declarations to the NAPC. This restricts opportunities for verification, and lifts the responsibility of the aforementioned individuals for falsifying testimonies on the assets of their family members,” Anton Marchuk, a board member of Anti-Corruption Headquarters NGO and RPR anti-corruption expert said.
Savchuk called on the committee and parliament to urgently support the draft law less than a week after it was registered. Members of the committee voted to postpone the consideration. Nonetheless, the bill is still on the parliament’s agenda and still retains every chance of passing.
All that being said, Ukraine’s partners in the West also have a role to play. They need to urge the Ukrainian government to execute an independent audit of the e-declaration register, in cooperation with independent corporations and experts. At the same time, it is also vital for all categories of government employees, who are currently required to declare their assets under the existing e-declaration provisions to remain in place. Also, it appears necessary at this point for international partners and donors to suspend funding for the NAPC and call for the immediate and transparent relaunch of the institution, which, for the time being, is detrimental to the entire anti-corruption policy adopted by the nation.
The proper operation of the e-declaration system and ensuring officials’ accountability through declarations of their assets remain among the most important conditions put forward by Ukraine’s international partners, including the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Compromising on this anti-corruption measure is a direct violation of Ukraine’s commitments and yet another signal that the current leadership is unwilling to proceed with anti-corruption reform.