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Ukraine purge: Communists, cronies, and crooks face the axe (+video)

Ukraine is launching a review of officials to weed out former President Yanukovych's appointees, members of the Communist Party, and anyone living beyond their reported means. But critics say the move could hurt Ukraine more than help it.

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    Activists throw water at various lawmakers as they demonstrate to demand sanctions against Russia, during a protest opposite the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine, in August. As anger simmers over persisting corruption, the government is launching a purge of officials connected to prior governments.
    Efrem Lukatsky/AP/File
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For the past few weeks angry crowds of Ukrainian activists have been literally trashing politicians suspected of corruption or pro-Russian sympathies – by throwing them into garbage-filled dumpsters, holding them down, and dousing them with water.

Now those activists – and, surveys suggest, much of the Ukrainian public – are going to get what they've been demanding since the Maidan revolution overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Under a new lustration law that goes into effect today, the Ukrainian government is to begin a thorough vetting of almost a million Ukrainian officials. A pink slip awaits those with links to the regime of Mr. Yanukovych, members of the former Soviet Communist Party, and anyone whose lifestyles cannot be explained by their declared incomes.

The law on "lustration" (Latin for "cleansing") was key to the post-Maidan government's pledge to sweep away corruption and reform a notoriously arbitrary bureaucracy. In the first stage, to be implemented within ten days, senior officials will be vetted, though President Petro Poroshenko, who served as trade minister under Yanukovych, is exempt from the process because he was elected by the people. Likewise, successful candidates in parliamentary elections due Oct. 26 will not be reviewed. 

Over coming months, virtually all public servants, including military, police, and judges will be screened for signs of corruption or links to the Yanukovych regime. About 1 million people, including all of Ukraine's estimated 300,000 government officials, will be affected.

Necessity or populism?

But critics argue that it's a populist distraction at best. Some warn that it could undermine the government's efficiency, at least in the short term, by purging large numbers of experienced personnel at a time of national emergency. Others suggest that in Ukraine's present rough-and-tumble political environment, the law could be abused by some politicians to settle scores – or even extract bribes from others.

"This law was adopted to placate public opinion, compensate for the military defeat we've suffered, and relieve peoples' disappointment that the Maidan revolution hasn't delivered any tangible benefits yet," says Vitaly Filipovsky, an independent journalist in Zaporizhia, eastern Ukraine. He warns that it could deepen Ukraine's social divisions by being aimed at "anyone who seemed to be on the other side of the barricades." 

The Ukrainian law is modeled on similar lustration campaigns in post-communist Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Critics point out that all of those laws were implemented amid stable social conditions, but nevertheless remain controversial to this day. Ukrainian supporters of lustration point to the post-Soviet republic of Georgia where, following the 2003 Rose Revolution, then-newly elected President Mikhael Saakashvili fired the entire national police force and hired a whole new crop of officers.

Alexei Haran, political science professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says "tens of thousands" of firings can be expected in coming months. "I think the law is mostly directed at officials whose appointments were political, or who justified what Yanukovych was doing," he says. It's possible it could be applied selectively, "but if an official has no sins to answer for, he probably doesn't have anything to worry about," he adds.

Ukrainian press reports suggest that hundreds of officials are already voluntarily resigning rather than face scrutiny under the law. Populist firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko, whose Batkivshchyna party is trailing in the polls, announced this week that 1,500 party members, including some in the current parliament, have been purged from the ranks for "dishonest" activities that have come to light. 

However, at least two members of Mr. Poroshenko's government – including the prosecutor general – have criticized the law as illegal and counterproductive.

"The lustration bill largely contradicts the Ukrainian constitution and requirements of international law. It is applicable to over one million citizens and thereby violates the principle of personal liability," Prosecutor General Vitaliy Yarema said earlier this month. "If the law goes into effect, this would lead to a large number of lawsuits, including at the European Court of Human Rights."

Supporters of the law say the basic demand of the Maidan Revolution cannot be ignored, and the country's corrupt bureaucracy must be overhauled even at the cost of short-term turmoil.

"If not now, when?" says Sergei Gaiday, an independent political consultant in Kiev. "This is 20 years overdue. Our present state machinery isn't working, so however much it gets reduced will be a net improvement."

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