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Former Journalist Spearheads Ukraine's Lustration Effort

Yegor Sobolev (left) became frustrated with journalism and moved into politics.
Yegor Sobolev (left) became frustrated with journalism and moved into politics.
KYIV -- Just a few weeks ago, Yehor Sobolev was warned not to expect Ukraine's parliament to pass legislation that would require judges to be screened for corruption and political bias.

But on April 8, lawmakers did just that when a so-called "judicial lustration" bill sailed through the Verkhovna Rada following street rallies that saw protesters seize Ukraine's Supreme Court.

"The Maidan taught us that you don’t forecast the future, you create it," Sobolev, a journalist-turned-activist who heads Ukraine's newly formed Lustration Commission, said.

Signed into law by Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on April 10, the legislation mandates that all court chairs appointed under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych be fired from their administrative posts and that judges be screened for corruption and participation in so-called "politicized justice" -- such as banning opposition rallies. It could lead to hundreds of judges being kicked off the bench en masse.

Sobolev, who vocally supported the law, was elated. But he's not finished.

"This is just the first step toward cleansing the state of profiteers, criminals, and the people who terrorized Maidan," Sobolev said.

The 37-year-old Sobolev is now setting his sights on this larger goal: a broad lustration law that -- in its various current drafts -- promises to end the public service careers of "thousands," including even some of the country’s leading political figures.

The Lustration Commission was formed in the hopeful aftermath of the Euromaidan protests and is tasked with preparing laws to purge Ukraine’s bureaucracy of officials from the ousted Yanukovych regime as well as those tied to the country's Soviet-era elite.

From Journalist To Activist

Affable, cocksure, and militantly optimistic, Sobolev reflects the swagger of a new generation of public figures. They have become the emissaries of the street, ooze a romantic scorn for politicians, and say Euromaidan was about a lot more than toppling Yanukovych.

Sobolev was born in Krasnodar in the Soviet Union's Russian Republic and moved to Ukraine in the mid-1990s.

He began his career in journalism in Donetsk before moving to Kyiv, where he worked as a financial and political reporter for various newspapers including the influential weekly "Zerkalo nedeli."
Sobolev was part of a group of journalists and activists protesting against the libel law in Kyiv in October, 2012.
Sobolev was part of a group of journalists and activists protesting against the libel law in Kyiv in October, 2012.
He also co-hosted the popular "Vremya" news program on Channel 5, but left the station following a conflict with the station's owner, Petro Poroshenko -- now a top candidate for president. Sobolev also clashed with business magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who broke his contract just two hours after hiring him as a top editor at his Ukrayina television station.

As head of Kyiv's media labor union, Sobolev -- whose wife, Marichka Padalka, is a popular television host -- took on censorship on Ukraine's central television channels.

In 2008, he founded the Svidomo Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which provides reporting for local newspapers.

But Sobolev eventually grew frustrated with journalism. In July he announced that he was leaving the profession after an 18-year career and pursuing political activism aimed at creating "a Ukrainian state that we can be proud of."

Last year, he co-founded the political movement "Volya" (Will). This past summer, the group stormed Kyiv's city administration building in a protest over the failure to hold a mayoral election.

When the Euromaidan protests broke out late last year, Sobolev emerged as one of the most vocal and visible leaders. "We want to change the rules," Sobolev says. "We want proper judges, proper police officers, proper, responsible bureaucrats who are transparent, really efficient and really cheap. Until we have this, the revolution is not over."

Sobolev has no illusions that this will be easy. "The politicians would like us to all go home so that they can get administrative opportunities, including making money from power," he says. "But people didn’t come out onto the street just for Yanukovych to flee and new people to replace him. That’s simply not enough.”
IN FOCUS: Lustration Process Unlikely To Be Smooth Sailing

This week, a hint of the street struggle ahead was on display.

Sobolev called for activists on April 7 to rally outside the Supreme Court to prevent an 11th-hour effort by judges trying to appoint their stalwarts to Ukraine's highest courts before the lustration bill passed. These allies were meant to have the judges’ backs if things got rough.

Instead, the protesters surrounded the court and evicted the judges. One judge in a shiny suit clutching his briefcase scurried off with his aides, eyes to the ground, after being turned away by a motley group of trendy youngsters, angry pensioners, and grubby Maidan security guards.

The following morning activists came in the hundreds to the Rada with signs, flags, and slogans.

Amid the yellow and blue of Ukraine flags, a mannequin judge dangled from a noose affixed to a truck. One activist clambered onto the roof and led loud chants of "lustration, lustration!" through light, spitting rain. Two women, one with a pair of bolt-cutters, stood atop cars with a banner reading: "Lustration, not castration."

The bill passed that afternoon.

'We Chased Out The Bandits'

The court lustration bill has been criticized by rights workers who say it violates judicial independence. Others worry that lustration could exacerbate divisions in Ukraine's deeply fractured society.

But on the street, lustration holds appeal for people who, according to polls across the board, see corruption as Ukraine’s biggest problem.

Nonetheless, political support could wither. The pending full lustration law could end the careers of top politicians like presidential front-runner Petro Poroshenko, who served as a minister under Yanukovych.

Moreover, the Lustration Commission itself actually has very little political authority. The commission is officially under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet of Ministers. But it was never accorded formal power as no decree or legislation has been issued to regulate such a body.

By Sobolev’s own admission, this effectively makes the commission little more than a "public initiative."

Sobolev, however, is undaunted. "We chased out the bandits, but as a result crooks have taken up their seats. Now we have to agree with the crooks that the bandits don’t return and also that thievery stops happening," Sobolev explains with a smile.

It’s not the simplest task.”

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