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In Ukraine's Corridors Of Power, An Effort To Toss Out The Old

May 7, 2014
Originally published on May 8, 2014 8:57 am

The first time I saw the word "lustration," I thought it was a case of bad translation from Ukrainian. In Kiev, a flyer advertised a talk by the head of parliament's "lustration" committee.

"What does this word mean in English?" I asked a press aide.

"I don't know the English word for it, but it will be an interesting speech," he replied.

And indeed, it was.

Weeks later, Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King's College in London, explained to me that lustration actually is an English word.

"It comes from Latin. It means to shed light on something," he said.

Lustration has the same root as the words "illustrate," and "luster."

"It is bringing something that was hidden or in the dark, in the shadows, out into the open," Greene explained.

For a country that has just gone through a revolution, lustration is a sort of government-wide housecleaning. It's a process of rooting out people who are tainted by the old regime. Those people could include judges, cops, bankers, even newspaper editors.

In Ukraine, lustration may provide one way of addressing the deep corruption that reaches every level of government. Although many former communist countries have done it, every attempt in Ukraine over the last 20 years has failed.

A Tough Sell

Agnieszka Piasecka is from Poland, where the lustration process took years.

"Convincing society that this process is needed was very, very difficult," she told me.

Piasecka is now based in Kiev, with a group called the Open Dialog Foundation. She's trying to help Ukraine figure out what its housecleaning process will look like: how deep into society it should reach, and what the consequences should be for involvement with the old regime.

"You need to face the reality that nobody is absolutely clean here, which is normal in plenty of post-Soviet republics," she explained.

"Well then, what do you do?" I asked. "How do you clean house if everybody is dirty?"

"You find people who are less dirty, and you work with them," she replied.

One of those people is Yehor Sobelev. He's the head of parliament's Lustration Committee, the man who gave that talk in Kiev. Sobelev is pushing a very aggressive lustration program. There are other, less sweeping proposals are out there, too.

In one of the most striking lines of his speech, Sobolev said, "The big challenge is to make parliament vote for this bill, because according to this legislation at least half the lawmakers will be lustrated." In other words, lose their jobs.

Asking people to vote themselves out of government is a tall order.

Yevhen Hilbovytsky is a Kiev lawyer who advises companies doing business in Ukraine.

"Probably this particular vote will be a loss," he said. "But this is the beginning of a very long process."

Ukrainians are preparing to choose new leaders in elections on May 25. That won't begin to address the deep-seated problems that lustration hopes to solve, though.

No matter who is at the head of government, the underbrush remains full of the same corrupt officials who have been there for decades. The old guard is deeply entrenched. They may have to be excised bit by bit, over many years.

Lustration Gone Bad

Even if this process gets off the ground, there are huge risks, and not everybody is sure it's a good idea. Lustration can be a perfect opportunity for blackmail and witch hunts.

"The process that was meant to be lustration that Americans are probably most familiar with historically is the McCarthy hearings," said Greene, the King's College professor.

Sen. Joe McCarthy's hunt for American communists is a prime example of lustration gone bad.

"That was meant to be a process of bringing all of this out into the light," said Greene. "Finding these hidden communists and hidden un-Americans and enemies of the state in power — in Hollywood, in banking, in publishing, in all these other parts of American life, and making sure they had no place there."

Another example of misguided lustration was the de-Baathification process early in the Iraq war. It was supposed to get rid of people with ties to Saddam Hussein's government. Instead, it inflamed sectarian divisions and fueled the insurgency.

Even in the best scenario, there are always casualties, said Piasecka.

"I call it collateral damage. When you do a housecleaning, you will always have some collateral damage," she said. "But I would not call it a witch hunt. Because if you do it too gently, if you do it too smoothly, you will have no result at all."

So this is one of many tough decisions Ukraine's government faces today: Start the lustration process, and risk sliding into a pattern of vengeance and score-settling? Or leave the old system in place, even though it is corrupt to the core?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And as we've been reporting, the government of Ukraine is desperately trying to keep the country from slipping into civil war, something that could see more of Ukraine claimed by neighboring Russia. One issue at the root of the challenge to keep the country together is a culture of corruption - at every level of the government. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this story about a possible way to end corruption, involving a process with an odd name.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A couple weeks ago in Kiev, I saw a flier for a talk by a member of Ukraine's parliament. The politician's title was head of the Lustration Committee. So I asked a press aide, what does this word "lustration" mean in English. The guy said: I don't know the English word for it, but it will be an interesting speech.

SAM GREENE: Lustration is an English word, it comes from Latin. It means to shed light on something.

SHAPIRO: This is Professor Sam Greene, of King's College London. He says lustration has the same root as the words illustrate, and luster.

GREENE: It is bringing something that was hidden - or in the dark, in the shadows - out into the open.

SHAPIRO: For a country that has just gone through a revolution, lustration is a sort of government-wide housecleaning. It's a process of rooting out people who are tainted by the old regime. Those people could include judges, cops, bankers, even newspaper editors. Many former communist countries have done it, including Poland.

AGNIESZKA PIASECKA: Convincing this society that this process is needed was very, very difficult.

SHAPIRO: Agnieszka Piasecka is Polish. She's now in Kiev with a group called the Open Dialog Foundation. She's trying to help Ukraine figure out what its housecleaning process will look like - how deep into society it should reach, and what the consequences should be for involvement with the old regime.

PIASECKA: You need to face the reality that nobody is absolutely clean here, which is a normal reality in plenty of post-Soviet republics.

SHAPIRO: Well, then what do you do? I mean, how do you clean house if everybody is dirty?

PIASECKA: Then you find people who are less dirty, and you work with them.

SHAPIRO: One of those people who may be less dirty is Yegor Sobelev. He's the head of the Lustration Committee, who gave that talk I mentioned earlier. Sobelev is pushing a very aggressive lustration program. There are also other, less sweeping proposals out there. Here was the line that struck me most in Sobelev's speech.

YEGOR SOBOLEV: (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: He said: The big challenge is to make Parliament vote for this bill because according to this legislation, at least half of the lawmakers will be lustrated - in other words, lose their jobs.

Asking people to vote themselves out of government is a tall order. Yevhen Hilbovytsky is a lawyer in Kiev who advises companies doing business in Ukraine.

YEVHEN HILBOVYTSKY: Probably, this particular voting will be a loss. But this is a beginning of a very long process.

SHAPIRO: Lustration in Ukraine could happen piece by piece, in tiny bites. And it might take a very long time. But even if this process gets off the ground, there are huge risks. Not everybody is sure it's a good idea. Lustration can be a perfect opportunity for blackmail and witch hunts.

GREENE: The process of what was meant to be lustration, that Americans are probably most familiar with, is - historically, is the McCarthy hearings.

SHAPIRO: Professor Greene says Sen. Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee is a perfect example of lustration gone bad.

GREENE: That was meant to be a process of bringing all of this out into the light; finding all of these hidden communists, and all these hidden un-Americans and enemies of the state, in power - in Hollywood, in banking, in publishing and in all these other parts of American life - and making sure that they had no place there.

SHAPIRO: Another example of misguided lustration was the de-Baathification process early in the Iraq War. It was supposed to get rid of people with ties to Saddam Hussein's government. Instead, it inflamed sectarian divisions and fueled the insurgency. Even in the best scenario, there are always casualties, says Agnieszka Piasecka.

PIASECKA: I call it collateral damage. When you do a housecleaning, you will always have some collateral damage. But I would not call it a witch hunt. Because if you do it too gently, if you do it too smoothly, you will have no result at all.

SHAPIRO: So this is one of many tough decisions Ukraine's government faces today. Do they start the lustration process and risk sliding into a pattern of vengeance and score-settling? Or do they leave the old system in place, even though it is corrupt to the core?

Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.