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Harbingers of Transformation

A few bright spots on Europe’s troubled periphery
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Even as the future of the European Union’s neighborhood remains under threat, a few developments on the EU periphery – in Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia – show that civil society and  rule of law are making inroads in post-Communist kleptocracies.

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(c) Mikhail Palinchak/Handout via REUTERS

For once there is some good news from the politically challenged periphery of the European Union. Chalk it up to nascent democracy, womanpower, and, believe it or not, the enduring attraction of joining the EU family.

In Ukraine, as the initial shock of Russia’s attack last year faded in memory, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky tried to return to business as usual and grab new state assets. After his private protection squad recently took over the head office of the huge Ukrnafta oil and gas concern in Kiev, however, he was sacked by the central government from his post as the governor of Dnipropetrovsk province. In Romania – a nation renowned for graft – the highest serving official to be investigated for corruption in the past quarter century, Finance Minister Darius Valcov, actually resigned. And in Serbia, for the first time since ethnic Serbs massacred some 8000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995, police arrested suspected Serb perpetrators of Europe’s worst atrocity in half a century for trial in Serbian courts.

Dangers still abound, of course. Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his nuclear saber-rattling. There are widespread fears that he may end the current fragile truce in eastern Ukraine when the spring mud hardens and overpower the outgunned Ukrainian army and militia defenders to seize more territory, and the crackdown on Kolomoisky has not stopped the greater menace that Vienna-based oligarch Dmytro Firtash poses to the Kiev government, as he wields influence by funding parties and politicians in Ukraine and throughout German-speaking Europe. In Romania, the political system there remains largely populated by unreformed members of the old pre-1989 Communist Party, who have formed a kaleidoscope of cozy clientelist parties. And in Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic still says that Serbia will never recognize the 2008 independence of Serbia’s one-time province of Kosovo, while the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights reports that respect for human rights deteriorated in Serbia in 2014.

Nonetheless, taming Ukraine’s oligarchs, putting previously immune Romanian officials on trial, and finally bringing Serb suspects in the genocide at Srebrenica to justice in Serbia’s own courts all mark turning points.

In Ukraine, the trigger to Kolomoisky’s fall from grace was neither the opening move of a coup, as widely reported, nor a repetition of the internecine feuding of the political winners of the earlier Orange Revolution. It was instead a backsliding to the oligarchs’ snatch-what-you-can reflex on the part of a billionaire who is skillful at murky deals but also feels some sense of civic responsibility. He tried to prolong his previous low-cost control of Ukrnafta, which he had maintained as a minority shareholder by blocking corporate meetings under an old sweetheart law requiring a quorum of 60 percent of shareholders. When Ukraine’s reformist Rada changed the law to a 50-percent-plus quorum, Kolomoisky sent his protection squad into Ukrnafta headquarters, allegedly to prevent a Russian raid. His quick dismissal from the Dnipropetrovsk governorship warned other oligarchs that undue political influence really is being curtailed – and that they would do well to emulate America’s 19th-century barons, support the rule of law to protect their new wealth, pay their taxes, and become philanthropists.

Everyone agrees that the oligarchs must be coopted into the new Ukrainian system if it is going to succeed, and Kolomoisky had himself already started to evolve in this direction. He contributed handsomely to construction of the world’s largest Jewish community center, which opened in Dnipropetrovsk in 2012 and quickly became a cultural magnet for the entire city.  After Russia attacked Ukraine a year ago, he returned from his homes in Switzerland and Israel to become governor of the key province of Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, where he personally paid and equipped volunteer militias that helped hold the line against pro-Russian incursions from eastern Ukraine last summer. His downfall came when he wanted to keep his favored position in both his civic and tycoon worlds – and his disciplining will continue as all volunteer militias are gradually brought under army command.

Moreover, a number of the civil society watchdogs who ignited last year’s “Revolution of Dignity” – learning by doing as they camped out in Kiev’s “Euromaidan” square for three months and organized seminars on good governance and writing legislation – now hold seats in parliament alongside oligarchs. They are continuing their crusade inside elected institutions.

In Romania, even as a post-Soviet kleptocracy took root in the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, it was women who bucked the hierarchy and kept a fledgling anti-graft movement alive. Human-rights activist Monica Macovei was appointed justice minister in the three years before Romania was admitted to EU membership in 2007, survived death threats, and managed to improve the country’s human-rights protection sufficiently to meet the minimum EU legal standard. Laura Codruta Kovesi, Chief Prosecutor of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate since 2013, won 90 percent of her indictments last year, convicting a former prime minister, five parliamentarians, 24 mayors, and 1,108 others. Romania’s women lawyers are now fully backed by Klaus Iohannis, a straight shooter from Romania’s tiny ethnic German minority who was elected president in a surprise upset last November. In order to allow the government to work without suspicion, Iohannis persuaded Finance Minister Valcov to resign last week while he is investigated on charges of accepting a two million-euro kickback for the award of a public works contract. This is a common precaution when senior officials come under investigation in northern EU member states, but not in Romania. Other senior politicians are already becoming more circumspect, especially since surveys show that the 55 percent of the electorate who supported Iohannis last November has now swelled to some 75 percent who approve of his fight against graft.

In Serbia it is the female human-rights activists, male prosecutors, and Brussels eurocrats who have worked together for transformation. Sonja Biserko founded the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade and railed against Great Serb hubris. Natasa Kandic founded the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and in 2005 broadcast a secret selfie video made by the Serb paramilitary Scorpions as they murdered six unarmed Bosniak boys and men from Srebrenica in 1995. The women braved death threats from compatriots who deemed them traitors to Serbdom. So did the unpopular male prosecutors who pursued Serb war crimes perpetrators.

Political pragmatism finally took hold as Aleksandar Vucic – who started his career as a wunderkind acolyte of strongman Slobodan Milosevic –quit Serbia’s most chauvinist party, won a decisive election, and, as prime minister reached an EU-brokered partial accommodation with Kosovo in 2013. This was the price demanded by Brussels for starting negotiations with Belgrade on Serbia’s coveted accession to the European Union. Today, twenty years after the Srebrenica massacre, Serb prosecutors are finally able to arrest Srebrenica suspects for trial in Serbian courts without igniting riots.

These are all harbingers of a healthy evolution in the region.