KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine will soon begin mass firings of state officials who served under disgraced Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich and feathered their nests through corruption, the government said on Friday.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, with an eye to a Oct. 26 parliamentary election that Ukraine's pro-Western leaders hope will turn a new page in the country's murky post-independence history, unveiled plans for a "full clean-out" of government, law enforcement, the courts and state security.
The so-called "lustration", which could lead to up to one million civil servants being sacked, would begin to bite within the next 10 days, Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko said.
"We are 20 years late with this law, but better late than never," Yatseniuk said, referring to the years since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 which have been tainted by endemic corruption.
"It almost seemed that the main way of getting rich in the country was to get into power," he told a government meeting.
The lustration follows the models of other east and central European countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany which used similar methods to purge vestiges of communist rule after the end of the Cold War.
On the eve of a crucial election, with a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine still unresolved, it also meets the rallying calls of "Euromaidan" activists whose protests chased Yanukovich and his allies from power in February.
The Euromaidan movement commands moral authority, enhanced by the fact that 100 demonstrators were shot dead by police. So although opinion polls show President Petro Poroshenko's bloc will perform strongly in this month's election, he wants to be sure of its supporters' votes.
The latest poll by the GfK research group suggested his bloc would win 29.9 percent of the vote, far ahead of the second-placed party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the Radical Party, led by a populist politician, Oleh Lyashko.
Though bribery has been widespread at virtually all levels of Ukrainian government and public life since independence, international watchdogs say corruption and cronyism worsened markedly during Yanukovich's four years as president.
He and other top officials and allies fled to Russia after the shooting of the 100 activists in Kiev, ending any hope of a negotiated end to the protests. But many officials have kept a low profile and stayed on in office since.
Justice Minister Petrenko said those targeted by the law, which Poroshenko signed on Thursday, would include officials at minister and deputy minister level who had served under Yanukovich for more than one year.
"The purge has to start with the head," he said. They will fall under 'lustration' and must be dismissed within 10 days of the law coming into force."
Among those in the firing line would be prosecutors, judges, investigators who had falsified criminal proceedings during the Euromaidan protests and civil servants who, by their actions, had supported separatism and "terrorists", he said, using the government's term for pro-Russian fighters in the east of the country.
State officials would also have to make available for inspection their income and expenditure in order to justify their lifestyles - a move targeting officials leading a life of luxury financed by bribe-taking and cronyism.
"Those who do not submit to a check will be dismissed without the right to occupy other (state) duties for 10 years, and evidence about them will be sent to the law enforcement bodies," Petrenko said.
The Poroshenko leadership is at pains to head off any suspicions it may be having stage fright over enacting bold and controversial legislation. Crowds have been regularly gathering outside parliament to demonstrate against foot-dragging by deputies over laws to combat corruption.
Some business leaders have expressed the fear that the 'lustration' purge could lead to a damaging brain drain of experienced bureaucrats needed to run the vast state machinery.
Addressing that issue, Yatseniuk said: "We have young people - clever, honest and educated. In our big country, which has such potential, our young people must be given the chance of making these changes."
The planned purge affects only civil servants and not parliamentary deputies. But, eyeing the forthcoming election, Yatseniuk warned people against being tempted to vote again for candidates who were tarnished with past misdeeds.
"There are those who have stolen from the state, caused blood to be shed, supported separatism and terrorists and now seek the support of Ukrainians and a place to hide," he said.
"They will seek shelter in parliament and hide behind immunity. The Ukrainian people will need to show political will and wisdom when they vote."
Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mark Trevelyan