The EU and the UN’s Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) yesterday (6 April) launched a programme to help Eastern Partnership countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – claw back assets linked to organised crime.
The EU-funded €1.5 million project will attempt to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains and improve inter-institutional and cross-border coordination in the the bloc’s Eastern neighbourhood. It will focus on financial crime investigations.
UNICRI will aid officials in the six partner countries by providing “highly-specialised training”, “peer-to-peer mentoring” and legal advice to tackle issues such as cooperation across borders.
Fighting money-laundering and organised crime is one of the new priorities under the “accountable institutions, the rule of law, and security” objective of the European Commission’s vision for the Eastern Partnership post-2020, which was presented last month.
The UN estimates that 2%-5% of the world’s GDP is laundered every year by organised crime.
Current policies in the Eastern partners lead to the freezing or seizure of at most 1% of the assets linked to money laundering and other organised criminal activity, said Bettina Tucci Bartsiotas, interim director at UNICRI.
Long-standing issues linked to rule of law and good governance in the bloc’s Eastern neighbourhood are frequently highlighted by EU officials as the areas most in need of significant improvement.
Ukraine: ‘right steps’ amid coronavirus storm
Last week, Ukraine’s parliament voted to lift a nearly two-decade ban on the sale of farmland. Lawmakers also gave the green light for the second-reading of a bill that will prevent former owners of banks from regaining their assets after insolvency.
The banking law dubbed by many as the “anti-Kolomoiskyi” bill is the last major hurdle towards securing an $8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund, which is much needed to prop up Ukraine’s developing economy amid the coronavirus storm.
However, resistance to the bill remains high, illustrated by the record-number of 16,000 proposed amendments submitted by MPs since last week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has faced scrutiny for his business ties with oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi and repeatedly batted away suggestions that he would help the oligarch regain control of PrivatBank, which was forcibly nationalised in 2016.
“These are important reforms,” said a group of MEPs in a statement, adding their support for Ukrainian lawmakers “in their fight against corruption at all levels and will follow, very closely, all developments in this respect”.
However, many remain sceptical after concerns for justice reforms grew following the dismissal of the country’s prosecutor general and a sweeping government reshuffle last month.
The new prosecutor general, Irina Venediktova, “does not instil much hope”, MEP Viola von Cramon from the Greens/EFA group told EURACTIV. “Besides insufficient qualifications, her dubious contacts and lack of independence suggest backtracking on anti-corruption reforms.”
Venediktova’s appointment is seen by many in Ukraine as an attempt by Zelenskiy to press ahead with a criminal investigation into former President Petro Poroshenko.
When asked if she was appointed to lock up Poroshenko, Venediktova said “that is how I understand the society perceives me”.
However, when her candidature was discussed, Venediktova told Ukrayinska Pravda that “there were no conditions and the name of Poroshenko did not come up”.
Another recent scandal surrounds Andryi Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, which erupted after video tapes surfaced last week allegedly showing Yermak’s brother selling government posts.
“Combating corruption is a cornerstone for Ukraine’s European future and as the unfolding events around Mr. Yermak and his brother demonstrate the government does not take this crucial reform with adequate care,” said von Cramon.
“The pandemic and the power it concentrates in the executive government’s hands can further imperil the [justice system] reforms,” the MEP added.
“Yet, considering the positive role President Zelenskyy played in adopting the Land and Bank bills, I hope he will remain prudent and not use the health crisis as a pretext for undemocratic decisions.”
As of 7 April, Ukraine has 1,462 confirmed COVID-19 cases with a total death toll of 45.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]