By Yulia Marushevska
The speakers who participate in the Freedom Forum are constantly risking their livelihoods (and often their lives) to stand up for individual rights and human liberty. You may have come across the terrifying story of Vladimir Kara Murza, the Russian democracy advocate who spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum, who was mysteriously poisoned in Russia a few weeks ago. The truth of the matter is that since the the Freedom Forum began in 2009, our speakers have been the targets of repression: Anwar Ibrahim jailed, Garry Kasparov beaten, Leopoldo Lopez imprisoned, Rafael Marques de Morais sued,
Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado jailed, Zineb El Rhazuoi forced into police protection, Bassem Youssef exiled, Kimberley Motley detained, Urmila Chaudhury victimized by police brutality, Park Sang Hak threated with death, Janet Hinostroza targeted with a bomb threat, and Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani assassinated. Their speeches are available at Oslofreedomforum.com.
Last week the Ukranian civil society advocate Yulia Marushevska was with us in Guatemala, speaking at the College Freedom Forum. An hour before her speech she learned that her apartment building was raided by masked members of Ukraine's secret police. On Friday she published a powerful op-ed about her experience in the Wall Street Journal. It is an honor for our organization to partner with such courageous individuals.
Her op-ed is posted below:
Ten members of the Ukrainian secret service came looking for me last Friday. Armed and wearing ski masks, they brought no warrant but threatened to break down the door. Unsure what to do, my husband called the media. When the cameras arrived, my pursuers claimed they simply wanted to “invite” me to visit the prosecutor’s office. Luckily, I was out of the country.
For 13 months I served as Odessa’s chief of customs, overseeing the operations of five Black Sea ports on Europe’s eastern edge. The post I held is known as one of the most lucrative government offices in Ukraine. Tens of billions of dollars’ worth of goods pass through the ports annually. Many of the country’s political elites have benefited for years from lax enforcement of customs laws at Odessa’s ports, which I have publicly described as a “cash machine.”
The prosecutor general of Ukraine has accused me of fraud and abuse of power. Destroying me would send an unmistakable message to anyone who works for a reformed and democratic Ukraine: There is a price to be paid for honesty.
When I took it over, the customs service was a nightmare. Odessa’s provincial governor, Mikheil Saakashvili, offered me the job. My appointment was announced with fanfare by Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko. “You have to clean the customs office and pilot a national reform,” he told me.
So I did. With the help of experts on transparency and customs, I put together a plan to automate the import process and minimize the “human risks” associated with doing business at the border. Before these reforms, customs officials could make subjective decisions on tax assessments. An unscrupulous official could also delay import approval indefinitely, or until a bribe was paid.
Under my leadership, a one-hour time limit for customs clearance was enacted. In addition, we created a call center that ordinary Ukrainians could use to denounce corruption. Ukraine has suffered terribly under corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies. I wanted instead to offer my countrymen customer service, transparency and security.
We saw immediate results. More than 600 companies, many of them foreign corporations that had never cleared their goods through Odessa, began using it as their port of choice. Meanwhile, the smugglers got creative.
Ukrainian law allows importers who bring goods into Odessa to clear their import duties through any of the nation’s tax offices. Consequently, criminals (and those who benefit from their bribes) could use our ports in Odessa and “pay” their import duties through Kiev’s customs office.
Those threatened by our transparency efforts in Odessa quickly adopted a new strategy. Companies that had relationships with specific Odessa customs officers suddenly moved their business to Kiev. Those same customs officers then resigned and followed the companies to the capital. More than 50 senior customs officers moved to other customs houses or simply went on yearlong vacations. The internal customs investigations office filed criminal complaints against 30 officers. None were charged. With the help of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, we hired and trained 120 new customs officers.
My 13 months running Odessa’s customs agency was a longevity record; my predecessors had typically lasted only two or three months. My goal was to change the system. New software, new regulations and a new salary structure would, I hoped, prevent the corruption that I had been hired to clean up.
I realized shortly after taking office that Mr. Poroshenko did not actually want reform. He wanted, rather, to use the fame I had gained as an activist and YouTube star during Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution to connect with the nation’s youth. I tendered my resignation in November 2016, but the state fiscal service refused to accept it. I was fired in January.
Last month the secret service began an investigation of my decision to sign an order awarding $18 incentive bonuses to female customs officers, a tradition dating to the Soviet era. By law, officeholders may not award themselves bonuses. My name was erroneously entered into the payroll service along with 500 of my female colleagues.
Now, Mr. Poroshenko and the old political elites are trying to make an example of me, but I’m not the only one being targeted. The same day as the raid on my apartment, the secret service searched the homes of dozens of newly hired customs officers. Seventeen warrants have been issued and several criminal cases have been started against my colleagues and me.
The secret service was unable to deliver its “invitation” to me because I was in Guatemala delivering workshops on transparency at the College Freedom Forum. I plan to return to Ukraine next week, unsure what to expect. But the authorities should have no doubt about what they can expect from me. I will defend my colleagues and myself. We went into public service not to steal but to serve.
The politicians who were lifted into power by the revolutionary ideals of 2014 must answer for their failures. By tolerating corruption, they have helped preserve the old system of oligarchs, elites and post-Soviet politicians. To those of us who stood on the barricades at the Maidan, Ukraine’s current leaders are becoming as corrupt as the government they replaced.