‘Ukrainians understand corruption can kill’: Kyiv takes on an old enemy
Much work remains to be done, but campaigners say recent scandals and court cases are a good rather than a bad sign
As the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive continues against Russian forces in the east of the country, another battle is raging on the home front in Kyiv – against corruption.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently sacked Oleksii Reznikov as defence minister. There are also numerous court cases against various defence ministry officials. Separately, one of Ukraine’s most notorious oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering, and is in pre-trial detention.
As the full-scale war passes the 18-month mark, stories of a return to familiar corrupt schemes and the old way of doing business pop up ever more frequently from Ukrainian media outlets. The government is now trying to show the population – and the country’s foreign donors – that corruption in wartime will not be tolerated.
“Now more than ever, Ukrainians understand that corruption can kill,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Kyiv-based NGO the Anti-Corruption Action Centre. “Zelenskiy’s skill is reading the public mood, and it is clear that he is forced to act.”
“The war changed Ukrainian society and now everyone in government understands that people want a new social agreement with authorities,” she added.
Over the past year and a half, millions of Ukrainians have crowdfunded to raise money for financial and logistical support for the soldiers on the frontline. At the same time, there was a huge inflow of money and supplies from abroad that naturally offered opportunities for less scrupulous officials to profit.
“In 2022 there were 400 new contracts through the defence ministry,” said Anastasiia Shuba, a lawyer and volunteer supporter of Ukraine’s army who is also a member of a 12-person civilian oversight body set up by Reznikov in spring to promote transparency in procurement.
Suddenly, the needs of the Ukrainian army were much greater than expected, said Shuba. “The budget for 2022 was set in 2021, and it was predicted we would need 67,000 winter uniforms. In fact, we needed 1.2 million.”
Nonetheless, Shuba said Reznikov had acted to improve transparency, including by setting up the oversight body, and doubted the wisdom of changing the minister during the counteroffensive.
Others, however, said Reznikov’s position became untenable after a number of procurement scandals.
“Nobody suggests the direct involvement of Reznikov in corruption, but if there are court cases and so on and the ministry does not show effective work to tackle it and communicate this well with society, then it clearly requires a change of management,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to the president.
Podolyak said there was so much “informational toxicity” around Reznikov, that Zelenskiy felt he had no choice but to fire the minister. He added that tackling corruption was now one of the president’s main priorities.
“The president is very harsh on this. He thinks we have to fight very hard against corruption at all levels, there should be court cases and prison sentences, not just people being quietly moved aside,” Podolyak said.
Some in Ukraine worry that the very public corruption scandals are putting the flow of foreign supplies at risk, as governments in the west may question the wisdom of sending aid when part of the value may end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.
“Many countries are sending major resources to Ukraine, and rightly so, but governments and populations will soon lose patience for that if there are not signs that the government is serious about fighting corruption,” said one western diplomat in Kyiv.
Anti-corruption campaigners say there is much work to be done, but suggest the recent scandals are a good sign rather than a bad one.
“It’s important for people outside Ukraine to understand that the fact that we can have public corruption scandals in Ukraine, even in the defence ministry at a time of full-scale war, is a positive sign of a healthy, democratic society,” said Kaleniuk.
Since independence, successive Ukrainian governments have been accused of corruption. The country’s powerful oligarchs controlled parliamentary blocs, ran television stations and had outsized political influence.
After the Maidan revolution in 2014, there were significant efforts made by activists and some politicians to combat corruption, but many of the old schemes continued. Zelenskiy came to office promising “deoligarchisation” and zero tolerance for corruption, but was dogged by suggestions that he owed his success to Kolomoisky, who owned the television station that brought him to prominence as an actor and executive.
Now, Kolomoisky is in jail awaiting trial.
“There will be no more decades-long ‘business as usual’ for those who plundered Ukraine and put themselves above the law and any rules … The law must work,” Zelenskiy said in a statement, apparently referring to the arrest.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist and MP, described Kolomoisky as “a dinosaur of the generation of wild capitalism”. Leshchenko pointed to the fact that several different state agencies have been pushing to take the lead in the Kolomoisky prosecution.
“Five or 10 years ago there was a competition between agencies to take money from the corrupt so as not to prosecute them, now there is a competition to lead the prosecution,” he said. “We have an opportunity to change the rules of the game.”
Other oligarchs have also had their wings clipped in the new wartime reality, losing their influence in the media and in parliament, though many may find new ways to thrive.
“We are on a good track with diminishing the power of oligarchic influence, but there is no guarantee that new oligarchs won’t rise up in their place,” said Kaleniuk.
For many in the international community, looking ahead to the likelihood of many years of funding Ukraine militarily and subsequently investing in the country’s reconstruction, the fight against corruption is almost as important as the fight on the battlefield.
“If Ukraine expects its international partners to stay the course, it needs to show the world it’s serious about building real institutions and stamping out corruption,” said the western diplomat.