Odessa Customs – A Chernomyrdin moment?April 10, 2017
During the tumult of the Yeltsin years, former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Viktor Chernomyrdin once stated “we wanted to do better, but things turned out as always”.
To be fair to Ukraine, whilst the progress is slow and replete with retrograde acts, things have not (yet) “turned out as always”. That said, there are very few areas of public policy and reform that can be considered consolidated and irreversible. There is little that cannot be undone by way of policy change or the deliberate undermining of reform set in statute.
Starting in the late Spring and early Summer 2014 and continuing to this day the blog has been visited by a sparkling array of senior diplomats, enlightened leading civil society figures, politicians and well known journalists all seeking to glean something erudite and insightful from an old and tired brain that rarely produces anything insightful or erudite.
Without fail when discussing Odessa specifically, the same question has been raised regarding how to fight corruption in a city renowned in deed, folklore and esteemed literary prose for its organsied criminality and wanton corruption.
The answer given has always been unerringly the same.
To significantly curtail the corruption and criminality of Odessa as a source, hub and transit route there is only one place to start – the ports. Odessa, Chernomorsk, Yushni, Ismail and Reni (not necessarily in that order).
However, if that battle is to be waged then it can only be waged with the serious commitment of winning. To enter into that battle and lose would send a very detrimental message.
As of 2017 it can hardly be claimed, despite the valiant efforts of some, that this battle has been effectively engaged in with anything approaching the necessary resources or collective will to win it. (Something that will not surprise a reader when the significant illicit money flows generated at the Odessa ports are simply swapped from one government to another (or those behind them) when power changes hands.)
A “competition” for the Head of Odessa SFS was launched on 29th March – and by 31st March it became clear that Alexander Vlasov would be appointed with the current “acting” Mr Safonov to be appointed his Number 2.
“Competition” is rightfully encased by inverted comma’s, for transparency and suitable time for applicants to submit their interest and battle for the position via interviews, tests, and be subjected to public scrutiny there was none.
“Competition” thereby can be read as “arbitrary appointment” despite the necessary lip service being given to statute and public alike. Indeed, while the “competition” was officially announced on 29th March, it was already clear at least a few days before that announcement in both media and social media that Mr Vlasov would “win” the yet to be announced “competition”.
For those wondering about Mr Vlasov’s background, for the first decade of this century he worked within the machinery of the SBU, more recently followed by year or two stints within the Tax Service, and then Economics Ministry. In 2016 he was the head of the Inter-Regional Management of Operational ATO Support Zone of the SFS (Phantom Unit), with his last position being Chief of the Interdepartmental Center for the Prevention and Detection of Violations of the Law on State of Customs (also known as the “Black Hundreds”).
Prima facie, an impressive resume – so why such a clearly opaque, rigged and rushed “competition”? At the time of writing there is nothing to suggest (serious) nefariousness by Mr Vlasov historically, nor any noted lapses in integrity. Perhaps some will surface, perhaps there are none to surface.
As the positions for similar positions in Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv City, Kirovograd, Kharkiv, Kherson and Cherkassy take place this month, and with far less certainty over the successful applicants, a reader may ponder why it was deemed necessary to force through the clearly rigged filling of the Odessa position in March?
The answer, no doubt, is that there is a very clear importance for those in Kyiv (be their intentions good or ill) as to who filled the Odessa vacancy in particular. With regard to outcomes, time will tell if Mr Vlasov makes things better or if things will “turn out as always” – and that will depend upon the support he gets and the rationale behind his clearly desired appointment.
Remaining with structures and process however, and returning to the words of Viktor Chernomyrdin – “we wanted to do better, but things turned out as always” – who benefits from being seen to go about matters this way when public perception clearly matters much more than it did a few years ago?
Why project an image of paying lip service to “competition”, statute, and public perception, instead protraying a return to “things turned out as always“? That is surely folly!