Kateryna Gandziuk’s murder exposes rotten core of Ukraine’s sputtering reform drive
Ukraine again has generated depressing headlines in the international press — Kateryna Gandziuk, only 33, a civil society activist, anti-corruption campaigner and independent political adviser, died on Nov. 4 of complications from an acid attack. Her tragedy is the story of Ukrainian civil society: We acknowledge the contributions of people like Katya not often, but often too late.
She was not well-known outside Ukraine — Kateryna was not a self-promoter — but losing her has shocked Ukrainians to the core. Not because Ukraine is not used to more than its fair share of violence: The brutal, savage attack on Gandziuk is a sign that anyone who is willing to speak truth to power — no matter on which level — has become fair game, especially outside of the major urban centers, where cries of outrage are more easily smothered. Learning about the life of this extraordinary activist makes her untimely death even more enraging and the need for action even more apparent.
The civil servant
Kateryna Gandziuk spent her life in public service. She grew up in Kherson, a city of 300,000 people located 200 kilometers east of Odesa. As a teenager, she had a keen interest in politics and at the age of 18, she joined the Homeland Party (Batkivshchyna) in 2003, quickly becoming the head of its youth organization in Kherson. One year later, she would become one of the most visible figures of the Orange Revolution protests in Kherson. In 2006, she became a deputy in the regional council. Out of loyalty, she left the Batkivshchyna party with Mayor Volodymyr Mykolaienko after Vladyslav Manger became the new local party head, under supposedly dubious circumstances. In the mayoral elections of 2015, Manger and Mykolaienko would face off, but with Kateryna Gandziuk running Mykolaienko’s campaign, he would prevail.
In 2012, Kateryna began to implement locally the youth programs of the United Nations that were aimed to strengthen education, social cohesion and a healthy lifestyle among youths. She also co-founded the Agency of Civic Journalism MOST, a communication platform that was to inform the local community on policy issues and public finances and procurement. She was a regular contributor to the platform she established until the very end. After the Russian military aggressions in Crimea and the Donbas, Kateryna would assist internally displaced people as an aide to the United Nations High Commissioner. Her skills would make her become a special adviser to the International Organization for Migration.
Kateryna had a rare combination of ability and passion. She simply wanted her corner of Ukraine to become a better place. Once more, during the Revolution of Dignity, she raised the banners of protests, actively con- fronting separatists and pro-Russian groups. Kateryna Gandziuk was never afraid to shy away from the good fight. In the many functions that she occupied, she strove to raise awareness of the widespread and deep levels of corruption and abuse of power. This created an ever-growing list of enemies. Some took it upon themselves to "correct" the problem by sending her a message that would eventually lead to her death.
Broken to its core
Investigations are ongoing, but people close to Kateryna have little faith in the official versions. The procedures reek of obstruction, manipulation and theatrics bordering on the absurd. Some of the statements make the blood boil. Serhiy Kniazev, head of Ukraine's National Police, has produced testimony where five accused suspects admitted to have been offered $5,000,000 to “teach” Kateryna Gandziuk. Originally, they were to assault the activist and beat her up, but apparently this was considered to be physically too strenuous, so the team of thugs opted for acid. This final act of evil, stupidity and laziness has cost the life of Ukraine’s best and brightest.
Unfortunately, this loss of life is not the most outrageous fact of this tragedy. The greatest reason for outrage is that an activist has to be martyred for the international community to realize that despite reforms that have been undertaken over the last few years, Ukraine is still broken to its core.
Hundreds of attacks
Since 2017, there have been no less than 55 attacks on regional activists, four of whom ended up dead. More than 140 attacks against journalists in the last two years, one of which ended in death, 440 corporate raids in 2017, almost double the number of 2014. These are not indicators of successful reform.
The hovernment is not willing to take responsibility for these developments. To them, sctivists are a nuisance, not an asset worth protecting. The general prosecutor went even as far as to place blame of the activists themselves for creating "the atmosphere of total hatred to the authorities." On Nov. 5, he staged an absurd piece of theater by announcing his resignation. Regrettably, parliamentarians partook in this farce.
The public has no faith in the prosecution of such cases. The legal apparatus protects the individuals who gave the orders for such attacks. Moreover, many fear collusion. The international community must acknowledge the sad reality that Ukrainian civil society will remain under attack unless these outrages are covered by international media. Right now, such attention is the only thing that will protect activists.
Honoring her legacy
In response, the Kamaliya & Mohammad Zahoor Foundation has decided to amend its journalistic fellowship program. From now on, it will be known as the Kateryna Gandziuk Fellowship. The fellowship will focus on supporting investigative journalism to cover attacks and harassment of activists and journalists, as well as raider attacks.
In her last public statement on a social media video from her hospital bed, the acid-scarred Kateryna Gandziuk stated:
“I know I look bad, but still not as bad as current Ukrainian justice and rule of law. I’m getting treatment. But nobody is curing our justice system.”
We all must make sure that Kateryna’s sacrifice was not vain.
A picture of murdered civil activist Kateryna Gandziuk lies on the ground among candles during a rally and memorial for her in Kyiv on Nov. 4. Gandziuk, who was attacked with acid on July 31, died on that day in hospital. (Oleg Petrasiuk)