Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky will this week seek to clear out his country’s constitutional court and reboot his drive to tackle corruption in what allies and analysts described as a pivotal moment for his troubled presidency.
Mr Zelensky was forced to confront judges at the court after they struck down a compulsory asset register for public servants, a cornerstone of anti-graft efforts put in place following the Maidan revolution of 2014 at the behest of western donors.
Activists say the ruling is part of a systematic attempt by the court to dismantle anti-corruption institutions driven by pro-Russian politicians and lawmakers allied to powerful oligarchs who want to wreck Kyiv’s relations with the IMF and EU.
Draft legislation presented to parliament by Mr Zelensky to replace the entire constitutional court will be debated as soon as Tuesday, but the president may struggle to muster enough votes to push it through.
“Zelensky’s presidency has entered its crucial moment,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, who served as economy minister until March.
For years Ukraine’s oligarchs have used a corrupt judicial system to manipulate the government or out manoeuvre competitors. Mr Zelensky was elected in 2019 on a promise to clean up graft. But Ukrainians and their western backers have grown disillusioned with the president’s meagre achievements.
He sacked his reformist public prosecutor, threatened to prosecute his predecessor Petro Poroshenko and has failed to defend officials who cleaned up the country’s corrupt banks four years ago. The president’s poll ratings have collapsed and his party took a hammering in regional elections last month.
A senior EU official said Brussels had begun to lose faith in Mr Zelensky’s anti-corruption credentials, not because of a lack of conviction but because of “incompetence”. But the move against the court had helped “re-establish his anti-corruption bona fides”.
“This is absolutely the come to Jesus moment,” the official said.
Writing in the Financial Times, Mr Zelensky described the constitutional tribunal, some of whose judges are themselves under investigation for asset declaration breaches, as a “kangaroo court”.
In what will be seen as a declaration of war against the oligarchs, Mr Zelensky also vowed to “pursue the people who acted illegally on behalf of vested interests of well-known influential financial groups and foreign powers to destroy our anti-corruption agencies”.
Last week’s court ruling against the asset declaration system followed a complaint by MPs allied to multi-millionaire Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
The court is expected to hear two fresh appeals brought by MPs from Mr Medvedchuk’s party and also lawmakers loyal to oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. One is challenging a law liberalising land sales, a landmark economic reform for Mr Zelensky’s administration demanded by western donors.
The other is seeking to strike down a law passed earlier this year to safeguard a banking sector clean-up and prevent the reversal of the 2016 nationalisation of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest lender, then co-owned by Mr Kolomoisky.
Mr Kolomoisky initially backed Mr Zelensky’s presidency but has since fallen out with the former comedian.
“We always knew there were forces against reform and Ukraine’s western orientation, especially allies of Kolomoisky,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House in London. “This is the end of coexistence with Kolomoisky’s group. This is a Rubicon for Zelensky.”
However, Mr Zelensky does not have the authority to oust the constitutional court. The Venice Commission, a European judicial watchdog, has said sacking the judges would be “blatant breach” of the constitution.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, a former prime minister, said “there is no doubt that the president has to act . . . there is no doubt that this decision of the constitutional court is complete nonsense.” But he added: “You cannot punish the crime by committing another crime.”
Mr Yatseniuk said Ukraine was now heading for a constitutional crisis on top of a “large-scale political crisis”.
Mr Zelensky has a theoretical majority of 246 in the 450-seat Rada, but has lost influence over dozens of MPs and can rely on 190-200 at most. Voice, a pro-reform party, is refusing to support the president’s “unconstitutional” attack on the court.
Kira Rudik, head of Voice, said she was instead calling on the judges to resign. Mr Poroshenko’s party meanwhile has risen in the polls and has an interest in snap parliamentary elections.
Mr Yatseniuk said a “legitimate” solution could involve persuading enough judges to resign, which could “paralyse” the court and force the rest to step down. The positions could then be filled in accordance with the law, with equal numbers chosen by the president, parliament and national judicial council.
Mr Mylovanov said the president could gain politically, whatever the fate of the legislation. “If the law goes through, Zelensky comes out a victor, recaptures control of the parliament, and demonstrates in the public eye that he is trying to fulfil his promises of getting rid of the corrupt elites and making Ukraine prosperous,” he said. “[But] if the law gets stuck, it is parliament that is to blame.”
But Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, said Mr Zelensky should seek to build broader support for his judicial reform.
“Ukraine’s constitutional court is acting unpredictably and irresponsibly, and thus destabilising Ukraine and its western course. But the remedy is not unilateral action by the president and his majority in the Rada. What is needed is a national consensus with the support of the pro-Western opposition.”