Kateryna Gandz­iuk’s mur­der ex­poses rot­ten core of Ukraine’s sput­ter­ing re­form drive

Kyiv Post - - Opinion - Mo­ham­mad Za­hoor is the owner of the ISTIL Group and for­mer owner of the Kyiv Post.

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.

The hu­man­i­tar­ian

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.

The ac­tivist

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)


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