As war with Russia rages, Ukraine’s government confronts an old enemy: Corruption

As war with Russia rages, Ukraine’s government confronts an old enemy: Corruption

26 Jan 2023 ( NBC News )

A cellphone video shared widely on social media shows a woman jumping up and down as she unwraps a gift.

Inside the box is a red piece of paper, which she waves at the camera in excitement. “It’s a permit for Rynok Square for my Mercedes,” she exclaims. “The best present.”

The gift allowed her to drive through one of the main pedestrian squares in Ukraine’s western city of Lviv, a route usually reserved for emergency vehicles. And the gift came from her boyfriend — the head of the city’s traffic police — the Police Patrol of Ukraine said in statement.

Within hours of the video being posted on Instagram over the weekend, the woman’s boyfriend had been suspended from his duties, the statement said, adding that “an official investigation” had been ordered. The Lviv traffic police chief did not respond to a request for comment.

He is now one of around a dozen officials who resigned, were fired, or were put under investigation this week as Ukraine’s government confronts an old enemy: corruption.

Even as he fights against Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is eager to show his public — as well as Western governments whose aid his country relies upon — that he is also continuing to wage war on graft in Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt public sector.

The scandal comes at a precarious time for Kyiv, with the United States and its allies stepping up their supplies of military and humanitarian aid as the war with Moscow nears the one-year mark. Ukraine is also seeking to join the European Union and NATO and will be hoping the wartime purge will help those bids and won’t boost the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine its reputation. 

“Any internal problems that interfere with the state are being cleaned up and will be cleaned up. This is only fair, it is necessary for our protection, and it helps our rapprochement with the European institutions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Tuesday.

Among the officials who lost their jobs Tuesday were Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and five regional governors. Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko resigned after the country’s media reported he went on vacation to Spain over New Year’s — a move widely seen as decadent when many are struggling through winter with limited electricity because of Russian attacks. On Monday, Zelenskyy banned public officials from traveling abroad for anything other than work.

Shapovalov and the ousted prosecutor did not respond to a request for comment. NBC News has not verified the reports of his travel.

Perhaps the most painful loss for Zelenskyy was the resignation of his own deputy chief of staff. Kyrylo Tymoshenko was a longtime friend of the president who worked with him in his pre-political career as a comedian, and his proximity made him one of Ukraine’s most powerful men. But he was also the subject of a series of embarrassing stories after he was photographed driving a new Porsche around Kyiv.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko holds a handwritten letter the day he presented his resignation to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an image shared Tuesday.

Tymoshenko denied owning the car. In a social media post, he gave no reason for his resignation but thanked Zelenskyy “for the trust and for the opportunity to do good deeds every day and every minute.”

The pursuit of corrupt officials has been led by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an investigative agency established in 2015. This week, the bureau announced that a deputy minister of Communities, Territories and Infrastructure Development had been detained while allegedly receiving a $400,000 cash bribe. The deputy minister could not be reached for comment.

But Ukraine has a long and entrenched problem with corruption — an issue Zelenskyy vowed to tackle when he ran for office as an anti-establishment upstart.

President Joe Biden grappled with the issue as vice president. In 2016, he threatened to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee if Ukraine’s government did not fire a prosecutor the U.S. considered soft on corruption.

“I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,” Biden recalled telling Ukrainian leaders, speaking during a 2018 event. The prosecutor was fired soon after.

U.S. lawmakers greeted Tuesday’s latest corruption crackdown. 

“It’s a defining moment for Ukraine. It’s a defining moment for all of us,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at a news conference days after returning from Kyiv.

“We’re confident this is a first step in a long journey to change the way business is done,” Graham said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who was also on the trip, said the personnel changes were important. “It demonstrates what President Zelenskyy has told us, that there will be zero tolerance for fraud or waste,” he said.

However, the spate of firings this week appears to have been sparked by pressure from Ukraine’s own media and civil society rather than American intervention. 

“The President sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand — justice for all,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. 

There is still a long way to go. Ukraine is currently ranked 132 out of 180 countries on a corruption index compiled by Transparency International, a good-governance nongovernmental organization.

Before entering parliament in 2019, Yaroslav Yurchyshyn was the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine’s chapter. 

In an interview with NBC News, Yurchyshyn said he was optimistic that Ukraine could fight corruption at the same time as fighting Russian forces. He pointed to what he saw as an uptick in anti-corruption activity since the fall, when a new prosecutor was appointed.

“I think that after the war, we will have a better Ukraine than we had before the war,” he said.