Can Ukraine Be the New Georgia?

Can Ukraine Be the New Georgia?
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KYIV, UKRAINE - Will what worked in Georgia work in Ukraine? It will if it is up to Davit Sakvarelidze, deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine and the chief prosecutor of the Black Sea city of Odessa.  Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has brought in veterans of the country of Georgia's reform process to help Ukraine remove the legacy of decades of Soviet and oligarchic corruption. Sakvarelidze, appointed to the national post in February 2015, and to the Odessa post several weeks ago, is attempting to bring change to the one state organization that has most resisted the political reforms sweeping the country, the General Prosecutor's Office, which enjoys very low trust among the Ukrainian people - indeed, for good reason. I sat with Sakvarelidze last week, during a visit to the Academy of Prosecutors in Kyiv, to discuss the challenges ahead of him. The place was teeming with young, energetic applicants making their way through the new selection process. There seemed to be a pervasive, youthful motivation, albeit possibly naive, with the people I met while engaged at the facility.

Sakvarelidze was the prosecutor in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, in 2009-2010, and deputy prosecutor general of Georgia from 2010 to 2012. Along with former Georgian Prime Minister Mikhail Saakashvili and others, Sakvarelidze is working to bring trust in government to the Ukrainian people. He actively coordinates with Saakashvili, who is now governor of Odessa, through his position as head prosecutor. The governor is also working to revitalize this strategic port in a historically corrupt region of Ukraine.

Sakvarelidze is attempting to overhaul the General Prosecutor's Office and remold it into a professional force that can deal with the sickness destroying Ukrainian society. The number of prosecutorial positions have been reduced significantly and all candidates, even current hires, must undergo rigorous testing and training to be accepted into the new reality. More than 700 positions must be filled. 

Sakvarelidze: "Many people will lose their jobs. They are supported by politicians and business interests, oligarchs, etc. The strongest challenge will be in the actual interviews and selections at the end of the process. It is a public relations battle. We have people trying to discredit us already. That is why we have made the process as transparent as possible. We have also increased salaries so the temptation to take a bribe will not be there. They can survive on this salary ... We will reconstitute it from the ground up, starting with local offices and then to the regional and national level."

The entire effort is behind schedule. In fact, the newly created National Anti-Corruption Bureau cannot begin its work until the prosecutor's office is up and running. Yet Sakvarelidze is optimistic and seems determined. "Ukrainians have very good organizational skills," he says. "They are very European. If given the chance, they can succeed. We have to show the new Ukraine is going to be different.

"I'm not afraid to say that an internal ‘Maidan' [referring to Ukraine's revolution] is going on in the Prosecutor General's Office which we have never seen before. Political changes have reshaped the political structure, but the Prosecutor General's Office has not changed; the system has remained the same. Now we are trying to correct it," he recently said at the 12th Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting in Kyiv.

Regulatory reform should also be a big part of the anti-corruption effort, according to Sakvarelidze; the ability for bureaucrats to siphon cash from the public needs to be reduced. In Georgia, the time needed to get a new passport was reduced to 60 minutes. The new police force patrolling the streets of Kyiv is also a big part of the new Ukraine. The force is there to protect and to serve, not to use the average citizen as a piggy bank to better your lifestyle and pad your pension. They have even adopted Western-style uniforms to reinforce this point.

The stakes for Ukraine are huge. There have been many half-baked anti-corruption campaigns in the past that lacked the political will for real reform. This time Sakvarelidze hopes it's different. "It is not just Ukraine who will feel the pain if we fail. Ukraine is the gateway to Europe, a wall against the tide of Soviet-style corruption. I'd hate to think of the consequences to Europe and the world if we fail."

(AP photo)

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