In March 2014, as a shaky interim government took control in Kiev and President Vladimir Putin signed a bill paving the way for the Russian Federation to annex the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the Council of the European Union promptly imposed sanctions on 18 Ukrainian individuals “identified as responsible for the misappropriation of Ukrainian State funds and […] human rights violations”. Primarily comprised of allies to recently ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the sanctions list was adopted in part or in whole by other non-EU countries, including Norway and Switzerland and froze any relevant assets of the individuals, who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a revolution.
Emerging evidence now confirms initial suspicions, however, that the sanctions list, compiled in close coordination with Ukraine’s post-Maidan powerbrokers, was more political than judicial.
For starters, the Council recognised that, in many cases, evidence that the individuals listed did indeed engage in the misappropriation of state funds or human rights violations was far from conclusive. The sanctions were imposed while Ukrainian prosecutors prepared the cases against their fellow countrymen regardless of individual merits. The problem is that the sanctions had a predictably deleterious effect on the individuals’ reputations, destroying businesses and political careers, even when the charges against some of the Ukrainians later fell apart.
The case of Andriy Portnov, a former advisor to ex-President Yanukovych, is telling. A lawyer by training who was elected as an MP to the Rada between 2006-2010 before occupying a series of top bureaucratic positions, Portnov was accused by the post-Maidan regime of involvement in the mass murder of Maidan activists in Kiev during the protests, the misappropriation of land and buildings in the Mizhgirye district, and wrongfully claimed a salary at Taras Shevchenko National University.
Following these accusations, Portnov was dutifully placed on the EU sanctions list, among others, though his lack of any assets made the freeze absurd. The real damage, as was likely intended by the new Ukrainian authorities, was reputational, ensuring that the highly experienced politician and civil servant’s career was effectively quashed.
Less than one year later, the case against Portnov evaporated as the Pecherskyi District Court of Kiev declared the defendant not guilty on all three counts. Obliged to inform the European External Action Service of the decision, the EU accordingly removed Portnov from the Council’s sanctions list on March 6th, 2015, along with three other individuals.
The fact that sanctions were imposed against individuals without clear evidence of their guilt should force the EU to reconsider its sanctions policy, for the current system seems to aid the Ukrainian government’s own troubling political purges rather than deliver any sort of justice to the Ukrainian people. If the European Union insists on punishing citizens outside its borders, it should at least uphold the presumption of innocence.