An Influential Voice For Ukraine’s Underdogs

KIEV, Ukraine -- The short woman with the outdated hairdo often shows up at public events, though she rather blends in with the crowd.

Nina Karpachova

A visit to her office does nothing to dispel the notion that she is not your typical Ukrainian functionary. The burly security guards ubiquitous in other government offices here are nowhere to be found. Instead, older women sit at the reception desk.

The unintimidating setup has a purpose; most of those coming to see her have troubles with the law or are on the breadline.

Nina Karpachova is the Ukrainian parliament’s long-time commissioner for human rights.

The ombudsman neither holds the state purse strings nor takes part in political decision-making. Still, every year, Karpachova does well in the respected Focus magazine rankings of Ukraine’s most influential people. Last year the magazine deemed her the sixth most influential woman in the country.

Influential and long-lasting. Karpachova, 53, is Ukraine’s first and only ombudsman. Since taking the post in 1998, the country has seen three presidents, four parliaments, and nine governments. She was most recently re-elected by parliament in 2007.

Some say the secret to her longevity has been friends she’s made through her position. In Ukraine’s cut-throat politics, influential people in all of the country’s top parties have needed her help at some point in the past decade.

In 2001 she helped detained opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. In 2005, after the Orange Revolution, Karpachova worked to free Tymoshenko's detained rivals, Borys Kolesnikov and Evgen Kushnarev – top figures in the Party of Regions, now the country’s ruling party. She is once again in the political news, this time as she defends the interests of Tymoshenko allies who were arrested last year.

In an interview, Karpachova said she is not interested in politics. "But it’s very difficult to find the line between politics and defending people. Sometimes political figures also have problems, like ordinary people, and I should be engaged in these problems.

But it doesn't mean that I become a politician. I always remained and will remain out of politics," she said.

That is not strictly true. Five years ago Karpachova had clear political ambitions. In 2006, she joined the Party of Regions and became one of its most visible candidates for parliament.

When the party won, Karpachova left the ombudsman’s office and declared her intention to stay in parliament. But in 2007 she made a sudden reversal, resigning her seat and, through the assistance of the party, regained the post of ombudsman, which had been left vacant in her absence.

Today Karpachova must regret some of the things she said during her political period. In particular, that Ukraine should “do away with” then-President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, leaders of the Orange Revolution.

In 2007, when Karpachova became ombudsman again, she worked hard to restore her credibility. "I have nothing to reproach her for. She has proved to be really an independent ombudsman, even during the period when she cooperated with the Party of Regions," Yushchenko said.

But the period left a bad aftertaste for some opposition politicians.

Andriy Shevchenko, a lawmaker from Tymoshenko's party, said that today Karpachova should be helping the opposition "to tell the world about evidence of authoritarianism in the country."

Since taking office last year, President Viktor Yanukovych has made legal and constitutional changes to consolidate his power and to make elections more difficult for the opposition.

Figures in the previous government have been charged or detained under controversial circumstances, and the country’s state-owned media have engaged in fawning coverage of Yanukovych while virtually ignoring prominent opposition figures.

But to Shevchenko’s criticism, Karpachova replied, "But the ombudsman is removed from politics."

Not that Karpachova avoids all political cases. She regularly visits opposition politicians who were imprisoned last year and has not shrunk from declaring publicly that most of their detentions are unjustified and illegal. At the same time, she has made a priority of dealing with the concerns of ordinary Ukrainians.

In 2010, more than 82,000 people sought help from Karpachova’s office, and her staff says that number is steady, year after year.

Among the most trying cases has been that of Dmytro Butko, a soldier who suffered a serious gunshot wound in 2004. He underwent 14 surgeries and remains disabled, but his military unit has refused to pay compensation for his injuries.

In 2009, a court ordered the military to pay moral and material damages to Butko, but the payments did not begin until late 2010, after Karpachova became involved.

Other tough cases involve Ukraine’s troubled penal system.

Svetlana Zaitseva was imprisoned in 2001, at age 23, for a murder she did not commit. Some years later Zaitseva was freed after the real murderers were convicted. By that time, however, she had contracted tuberculosis as a result of her prison stay.

Soon afterward, she died, orphaning her three children. Karpachova has helped the family get damages from the state, although they now face the loss of their home after Zaitseva’s lawyer filed a claim for legal fees.

In another case, Alexey Nechaev, the former mayor of a small town, was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for abusing his office. According to Karpachova’s office, prison officials refused to accept insulin for Nechaev, who is diabetic, during the weeks he was being prepared for transfer to another institution. Karpachova stopped the planned transfer and got Nechaev’s sentence reduced.

Many of those the ombudsman helps have not had the benefit of a trial.

“It’s been 10 years since I pointed out that Ukraine remains one of Europe’s leaders in pretrial detentions. Our courts order the arrests of people who do not need to be arrested. This problem affects not only former officials but hundreds of others," she said. Karpachova visits jails, prisons, and detention centers every third working day, on average.

The crowding in Ukrainian detention centers, and overburdened courts and investigators, mean that someone suspected of a serious crime can wait years for a trial. In one pretrial detention center in Kiev alone, she said, there are six people who were arrested in 2002.

If a court were finally to determine their innocence, they would receive only a brief apology for nine years behind bars, Karpachova said.

The rights of the convicted and accused are a persistent issue for the ombudsman, but obviously not the only one. "Actually the cruelest and most common form of human rights infringement in Ukraine is poverty," Karpachova said.

Ukraine’s economy was among the world’s worst-hit during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, and it has had to rely on a huge loan package from the IMF.

Every fourth appeal to Karpachova concerns someone’s financial situation. Often they are vulnerable people who have fallen victim to a fraud or swindle. Sometimes getting them legal aid is enough, but in most cases, helping them would take revamping the entire economy. "Nine million Ukrainians draw pensions not exceeding $120 a month,” she pointed out.

Karpachova readily responds to almost every question, even the uncomfortable ones. But one issue – her future – hangs in the air.

Parliament is set to choose a new ombudsman next year. Karpachova can apply for the post, but the question makes her testy. "I’m not involved in the elections and I don’t want to talk about it! I have a year more to work!" she said, visibly irritated.

It's not the first time a cloud has passed over Karpachova’s future. Last year, despite her impassioned pleas, parliament reduced her term from seven to five years.

Most of the criticism of Karpachova comes not from parliament, however, but from human rights activists.

Among them is Eugene Zakharov, co-chairman of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and a perennial rival for the post of ombudsman.

"Respect for human rights in Ukraine has catastrophically worsened in the past year, and the ombudsman has reacted very passively,” Zakharov said in a recent television interview. “The ombudsman system, created by Karpachova, is inefficient, too centralized. She’s the center of the information flow and of all decision-making.”

"Karpachova is not active enough. She’s taken part in several high-profile cases, but there’s no systematic work, and no law-making process. Applications she receives from citizens are usually just re-sent to other authorities," said Volodymyr Yavorskyy, director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

Others complain that she has spent too much time in office. "Rotation is necessary. Otherwise, the focus and professionalism of any official can start to fade,” said Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy.

But on the matter of Karpachova, there is no consensus in the human rights community. "I know that some of my colleagues have a lot of criticism, but I think Karpachova does the best she can within the limits of the current legislation [defining her job].

The real issue is to change the law, expanding rights of the ombudsman. But that isn’t up to her,” Volodymyr Chemerys, a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, said.

Members of Karpachova’s staff defend their boss and hint that Zakharov's criticisms are part of his election campaign. "Nina Karpachova can't delegate authority. It's only the ombudsman who can visit prisoners, who can sign appeals to authorities, and so on,” Karpachova adviser Igor Slisarenko said.

Whatever the arguments over Karpachova’s performance, they are likely to carry little weight when the Party of Regions-dominated parliament chooses the next ombudsman. Most lawmakers are much less critical of her.

"Karpachova has immense authority not only in Ukraine but abroad. And the main thing is, we have nobody else to appoint to this position instead,” said Eduard Pavlenko, a legislator from the Party of Regions who sits on parliament’s human rights committee. Pavlenko said his party would not consider electing Zakharov.

Most ruling party lawmakers give vague reasons for their dislike of Zakharov, complaining that he is not independent. Zakharov has been a consistent critic of those in power, particularly the Party of Regions.

For their part, many opposition politicians do not want to see a four-term ombudsman, but will likely support Karpachova anyway.

Liliya Hryhorovych, a lawmaker from Yushchenko’s party, supports Zakharov but concedes that "it’s better to let Karpachova stay in office” because he could not get past the Party of Regions’ opposition.

Otherwise, Hryhorovych predicted, the Party of Regions would find a loyal candidate and corral enough votes to get him or her elected.

“Then we could forget about the ombudsman's independence," she said.

Source: Transitions Online