Ukrainian and international policy makers have launched the Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society

The Transatlantic Task Force on Elections and Civil Society in Ukraine was officially launched during the press-conference in Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, where participants from Kyiv, Brussels and Washington (via Skype) discussed the challenges Ukrainian reforms will withstand during the upcoming elections. “As for the agenda of the task force, in the next 12 to 18 month we plan to cover the progress of Ukrainian reforms from anticorruption and judicial reforms, to electoral reform, of course, to energy independence, to defence, cyber-security, economic development and, of course, safety for the civil society,” said Olena Prokopenko, head of the international direction of the “Reanimation Package of Reforms”.

Olena Prokopenko noted that the initiative for the establishment of the task force evolved from the understanding of the need of Ukraine civil society – currently the strongest driver for the reforms in the country – for political and technical support of the international partners, such as the US, EU, Canada and others. On the other hand, Jonathan Katz, senior researcher at the “German Marshall Fund of the United States”, underlined the fact that foreign experts need a more profound understanding of the processes in Ukraine. “One of the things we saw as a gap is that US policy makers and others that are making decisions about US policy in the region, and I think this goes for Brussels as well, often don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening on the ground,” the expert remarked.

Mykhailo Zhernakov, member of the Board of the “Reanimation Package of Reforms” and director of the DEJURE Foundation, described the current problems in the Ukrainian judicial sphere, such as very dismal efforts in replacement of the judges, specifically in the appellate courts, and continued pressure on them from politicians and other actors alike. “One of the reasons is the notorious political will so to say, that the big part of government did not really want to change the judiciary, they still want to keep it as a tool for the elections and for the other purposes. Also, there is an institutional problem that we, unfortunately placed the implementation of the reform into the arms of the same old judges that we would like to change (…) This is like making turkey vote for Christmas or Thanksgiving,” he said. Mykhailo Zhernakov also spoke about the low levels of trust for the courts, stating that according to the latest polls, Ukrainians trusts the civil society 6 times as much as they trust the judiciary branch representatives.

Speaking about electoral reform, Denys Kovryzhenko, senior legal adviser to the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) and expert on the election reform of the “Reanimation Package of Reforms”, concluded that it is doubtful the new electoral system will be in place before the upcoming election as the debates in Verkhovna Rada regarding the amendments to three electoral laws (on parliamentary, presidential and local elections) are still ongoing. He also noted the difficulties the internally displaced persons and labour migrants face when voting, stating that they not only receive just a party ballot in parliamentary elections, meaning they cannot select a majoritarian candidate, but cannot vote in local elections as well. Denys Kovryzheko congratulated the government on electing new members of the Central Electoral Committee, but remarked on the difficulties they will be experiencing, in particular with possible hacker attacks that will disrupt the elections. “When we talk about the priorities for the election reform, what we need first just to wait until it is clear whether the election code is processed or not and whether it has any chance to be adopted by the Parliament. If not, then we need to quickly fix the key issues well in advance of at least parliamentary elections,” the expert concluded.

When discussing the progress of the anti-corruption measures, the experts agreed on the necessity of establishment of the anti-corruption court as soon as possible. Olena Prokopenko spoke about the current situation, when the results of the work of the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine, more than 160 cases, end up in the unreformed courts, which severely reduces the efficiency of the whole process. “Because of the independence of the NABU from the political influences, it is under constant attacks from all kinds of stakeholders, including on the highest political level and from the General Prosecutor’s Office as well. (…) The first thing that has to be done to protect the NABU from further attacks is to eliminate political influence on the audit of the NABU (…) the audit has to be transparent. It is also important to prevent the sabotage of the NABU’s activities through the leadership of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, including the leaks of information on the investigations of the NABU. On the legislative side, it’s crucial to finally give the NABU powers to wiretap,” suggested Olena Prokopenko.

Experts also discussed the growing number of attacks of civil society activists and media, stating that as many as over 55 people were attacked this year in Ukraine. Olena Prokopenko described the situation as rather grim, stating: “The fact that there is no public reaction of the highest political leadership, including the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to these attacks and, again, there is no progress in these investigations, is very symptomatic as to lack of the political will to deal with those case. It also send a clear signal and greenlights the continuation of those attacks and aggravation of this tendency. (…) We call on the international community to keep monitoring those cases”.

As for the possibility of Russian meddling in the elections, Orest Deychakivsky, deputy chairman of the Board of the “U.S. Ukraine Foundation”, spoke about the threat of: “malign election interferences, which will be considerable, whether it will be malicious cyber-attacks on Ukraine’s election infrastructure (…) or whether disinformation, provoked conflicts or exacerbating already existing differences. This is not unique to Ukraine as we see from our own experience lately. By the way, Ukraine has a lot to teach us here.” Mykhailo Zhernakov noted that: “Single constituency format can be used for infiltration by Russian agents into our Parliament, presenting them as independent candidates. (…) Also, we are lacking a viable state policy regarding combating disinformation”. Denys Kovryzhenko added: “The issue of disinformation can only be addressed through voter awareness campaigns. (…) When it comes to regulation, the issue itself cannot be effectively regulated”.