Ukraine: Are Kyiv’s anti-corruption efforts serious?

Ukraine: Are Kyiv’s anti-corruption efforts serious?

04 Feb 2023 ( )

Ukrainian authorities have begun carrying out searches targeting politicians, civil servants and oligarchs. Some people have been fired, and others are suspected of corruption. But is the anti-graft drive for real?

Ukrainian authorities have stepped up their fight against corruption. At the beginning of February, there was a slew of high-profile searches and employment terminations.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced that it had searched the house of the oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy in connection with the embezzlement of 40 billion Ukrainian hryvnia (about €980 million/$1 billion today) by the former management of the largest Ukrainian oil and gas producer, Ukrnafta, and pipeline operator Ukrtransnafta. Kolomoiskiy held shares in both then partly state-owned firms, which were fully nationalized last year under Ukraine’s martial law.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation (DBR) also announced that a former minister of energy and the coal industry is suspected of corruption as well. Ukrainian media outlets report that the suspect is Ihor Nasalyk. He is accused of signing contracts that were advantageous to companies associated with Ukrainian oligarchDmytro Firtash, who has lived in Austria for years. The allegedly shady dealings were said to have cost Ukraine 1.5 billion hryvnia (around €35 million/$37 million).

Beyond that, the SBU and the DBR searched the residence of a former interior minister, Arsen Avakov. He has already acknowledged that the search was related to the helicopter crash in Brovary (a suburb of Kyiv), in which 10 people – including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky – were killed. Authorities were particularly interested in purchase agreements made with the Interior Ministry for Airbus helicopters with the model number H225.

Media have also reported on searches of premises linked to representatives from Kyiv-based construction companies that were regulated by a Ukrainian politician who was a member of the now banned pro-Russian party Opposition Platform — For Life. At the same time, the DBR also carried out searches at Kyiv’s Finance Ministry. Officials said they had uncovered schemes worth millions there as well.

High-level officials being investigated

Searches have targeted former employees at Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense as well. The prosecutor general’s office also announced that a former department head at the ministry is suspected of embezzling particularly large sums of money, in addition to other malfeasance.

A former deputy defense minister is also suspected of illegal activities. He is accused of hindering the work of Ukraine’s armed forces and other military bodies at critical moments. Investigators claim that the suspect put his weight behind signing contracts that saw food delivered to the military at inflated prices and purchases made of bullet-proof vests, helmets, uniforms and other items that were of inferior quality.

While investigators were carrying out searches, the government fired almost all leading officials at Ukraine’s State Customs Service and a number of other bodies.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his satisfaction with the investigations in a national address. He emphasized that “in some areas, lawfulness can only be ensured when the implementation of institutional changes is carried out simultaneously with changes in leadership.”

Are the anti-corruption efforts serious?

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political scientist and director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, thinks engaging in a highly publicized fight against corruption allows President Zelenskyy to kill two birds with one stone.

“This has been one of the biggest demonstrations in the fight against corruption. It’s no coincidence that this took place just before the EU summit in Kyiv this February. Tangible results of anti-corruption efforts are one of the criteria for Ukraine integrating into Europe,” Fesenko says.

He believes that Zelenskyy’s anti-corruption campaign also allows the president to appease the public’s widespread desire to see corrupt officials be punished.

Who’s carrying out the searches?

Fesenko recommends taking a critical look at the organizations that have carried out the searches. They include the SBU, the DBR and the Bureau of Economic Security — the latter of which answers to the prosecutor general. “Those institutions all actively work with the president’s office, even though the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) are more independent and should also play an active role in corruption cases,” Fasenko says.

Oleksandr Lemenov, director of the Ukrainian anti-corruption organization State Watch, believes that the searches are meant to demonstrate that corruption is actually being fought and taken seriously. However, Lemenov doesn’t believe the cases will lead to convictions.

Feigned anti-corruption efforts?

Mykola Khavroniuk from the Ukrainian think tank Center for Political and Legal Reforms thinks it is a good sign that searches are being carried out and that people are being investigated for wrongdoing. “In order to investigate effectively, authorities have to collect evidence for illegal activity over an extended period of time, while documenting everything. It’s impossible to do all of this in just one day, in advance of a summit, for example,” Khavroniuk insists.  

Since the Ukraine’s survival is at stake in the war with Russia,  Khavroniuk maintains that it would be an unwise and even dangerous move on the part of Ukraine’s leadership to risk undermining the trust of the international community by staging sham anti-corruption efforts. Khavroniuk hopes President Zelenskyy won’t engage in such an endeavor.