Ukraine’s bid to gain visa-free travel across the European Union for the nation’s citizens was fading fast amid a row over the ability to prosecute corrupt officials.
Kiev was on the cusp of winning unrestricted access to the Schengen zone for the country’s 46 million people when the deal was seemingly torpedoed by the last minute snag.
The deal has been stalled by a lack of anti-corruption measures in Ukrainian government, and there have been frequent protests against corruption in Kiev
Brussels is furious Ukrainian officials have refused to sign off on a new anti-corruption computer system which would help catch and prosecute crooked officials.
The software, which would record public officials’ and politicians’ declarations of interest, was the final remaining condition to be fulfilled of the EU’s offer for visa-free access.
The government of President Petro Poroshenko, who had promised Ukrainians visa-free access to the EU, put the system online on Aug 15, which was the agreed deadline, but a ministerial department has refused to certify it.
The decision by the state service for government communications (SSSCIP), which it says was sparked by technical problems which could cause personal data breaches, means information from the system cannot be used in prosecutions.
Critics immediately accused the department of deliberately sabotaging the introduction of the system in order to protect corrupt officials in the war-torn eastern European country.
The huge setback came just a week after Poroshenko defiantly vowed that the computer system would be launched on time.
He wrote on Facebook: “Electronic asset declarations will be launched on 15 August.
“I’m not considering another date and can’t even hear of a delay! I’m asking you not to believe in rumours and speculation.”
Bringing in the system is linked to a wide-ranging EU deal which includes not only the lifting of visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens, but also a huge windfall of funding from Brussels, the IMF and the World Bank.
Battered Ukraine has been embroiled in a bloody civil war since Vladimir Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea and whipped up an independence insurgency in the east of the country.
The EU delegation to Ukraine said it was “very disappointed and concerned” by the launch of an incomplete system, adding that it needed to be certified “to ensure criminal liability for making false statements”.
In a statement they said: “This is essential for making such a system work and contribute to combating corruption, in accordance with Ukraine’s commitments to the EU and to the international community.
“From what we understand there are no substantive reason for withholding certification. Certification should be provided without further delay.”
The potential collapse of the visa-free travel deal will be a devastating blow to Ukrainians who hoped it was the next plank in their country’s hopes of one day joining the EU.
Earlier this year the Dutch people voted down the controversial agreement in a referendum, but Brussels simply ignored the result and ploughed ahead regardless.
Yehor Sobolev, an MP of the Self-help party and head of the anti-corruption committee in Ukraine’s parliament, said his country needed “tough love” from Brussels.
He told the EU Observer: ”The position of our key international partner should be firm. Corruption means no visa freedom.
“Indeed, it is very easy for the Ukrainian government to implement anti-corruption legislation that we – the MPs – have adopted. And that is what Ukrainian society needs.”