Ukraine’s president has ordered the suspension of the country’s chief justice, escalating a power struggle between the government and the constitutional court that has threatened anti-corruption reforms and derailed multibillion-dollar financing from the IMF and western backers.
The presidential decree signed by Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday night suspends Oleksandr Tupytsky, head of the constitutional court, for two months for ignoring a summons in connection with allegations of bribery and witness tampering during his time as a regional judge many years ago.
But Mr Zelensky made clear the move was part of a wider drive to reform a court that in October ruled that anti-corruption institutions established as conditions for IMF and western financial support were unconstitutional.
The ruling was triggered by appeals from pro-Russian and oligarch-backed MPs who form a minority in Ukraine’s parliament and oppose reform efforts and Kyiv’s engagement with the IMF.
In a statement, Mr Zelensky said: “I am signing this decree in order to restore justice and solve the constitutional crisis.”
It was not immediately clear if the constitutional court, where a majority of judges have recently ruled in line with Mr Tupytsky, would abide by the president’s decree. The court previously warned such a move by Mr Zelensky would be unconstitutional.
The court issued a statement saying judges would convene to decide whether to suspend Mr Tupytsky.
It said sidelining of judges “is adopted exclusively by the Constitutional Court of Ukraine at a special plenary session, and no other body or official may adopt such a decision in its place”.
Mr Zelensky appears to be trying to gradually squeeze out Mr Tupytsky and other judges appointed to the court years ago by Viktor Yanukovich, the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine who fled to Russia during the 2014 Maidan revolution.
Pro-western MPs in Ukraine’s parliament have submitted legislation that would reshuffle power in the court, increasing the quorum and changing the required number of votes needed for rulings to be adopted.
The crisis was sparked by two controversial rulings by the court this autumn which triggered Mr Zelensky’s unsuccessful and unconstitutional push for parliament to disband the court and re-establish it. MPs have so far refused to vote on relevant legislation submitted by Mr Zelensky, leaving the president in search of other ways to incrementally reform the court.
In October, the court ruled that obligatory public asset declarations by officials were unconstitutional.
Several of the court’s judges were investigated for inconsistencies in their declarations but did not recuse themselves from ruling on the matter. Mr Tupytsky was under investigation for owning lavish property in the Kyiv region and for failing to declare property in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia occupied in 2014.
The court ruled in September that Artem Sytnyk, head of the NABU anti-corruption bureau, was illegally appointed by presidential decree by Mr Zelensky’s predecessor. With no mechanism to replace him, Mr Sytnyk has held on to his position.
Ukraine’s parliament this month reinstated a watered-down version of the asset declaration system. But to unfreeze western loans and a $5bn IMF programme, it needs to strengthen the legislation by reintroducing prison sentences for officials who lie in their declarations.
Early this month, the Venice Commission, a European judicial watchdog, issued its findings on the stand-off, criticising the court’s rulings on anti-corruption infrastructure and concluding that “reform of the Constitutional Court is warranted”.
EU officials have said the constitutional crisis highlights the need for Ukraine to further crackdown on corruption including through “robust judicial reform”.