April 3, 2018 / 3:59 PM / 17 days ago

Ukraine's lawmaker keep NGO law despite Western pleas

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian lawmakers on Tuesday declined to scrap a requirement for civil society activists to file online wealth declarations in defiance of warnings from Western backers that the law undermines the fight against corruption.

Proponents say the legislation is needed to promote transparency. But critics within Ukraine and in the United States and the European Union say it places undue pressure on activists and plays into the hands of vested interests.

Parliament debated various draft proposals to either cancel the requirement or extend the filing deadline, but the bills either did not gain enough votes to pass or lacked the support to be tabled.

“Colleagues, frankly this is one of those days when unfortunately I am ashamed of our decisions,” parliamentary Speaker Andriy Parubiy said.

President Petro Poroshenko has called for the law to be scrapped but many members of his faction, BPP, and those of its coalition partner, People’s Front, did not vote to change the NGO law.

MP Serhiy Leshchenko, an investigative journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, called it a “cynical game” that would “destroy Ukraine’s relations with partners in the West.”

Ukraine’s foreign backers repeatedly warned the authorities not to backtrack on promises to tackle corruption in the wake of a 2013/2014 pro-European uprising.

In a sharply worded statement last Wednesday, the EU’s integration commissioner Johannes Hahn said:

“Ukraine has made remarkable progress over the past years. It is important not to create setbacks and undermine the progress that has been made.”

His comments and a similar statement from the U.S. State Department add to growing concerns that reforms are stalling. Last year Kiev’s failure to follow through on commitments held up billions of dollars in IMF funding.

A group of lawmakers plans to table another vote, but it is unclear when parliament would debate a fresh proposal.

Lawmakers and civil servants must already declare their income and assets in an online database, under a landmark law rolled out in 2016 to tackle corruption in state institutions.

Some officials argue it is fair to require civil society activists to do the same as many are recipients of foreign donor cash to support their anti-graft efforts and other work.

“Those guys are not living so badly on the technical support of our international partners. Their incomes are good,” said Poroshenko’s parliamentary representative Iryna Lutsenko, in comments to journalists.

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; editing by Matthias Williams

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