Ukraine launches a wave of anti-corruption busts ahead of EU summit

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Ukraine on Wednesday announced searches of government buildings and the homes of high-profile ministers and oligarchs as part of a clampdown on corruption. The move comes ahead of a gathering of European leaders in Kyiv to discuss Ukraine’s path towards EU membership. 

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Among those targeted by coordinated searches on Wednesday were residences linked to influential billionaire Igor Kolomoisky and former interior minister Arsen Avakov. Law enforcement also raided tax offices in the capital and senior customs officials were fired, said the head of Zelensky’s party David Arakhamia. 

These are the latest in a string of high-profile efforts to tackle corruption in recent weeks.  

In the midst of war with Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has upped the ante in an internal fight against corruption, pledging to make as many personnel changes “as necessary” even at the highest levels of office. 

“People in the government who do not meet the basic requirements of the state and society should not occupy their seats,” he said in a video address on Tuesday.  

Zelensky was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform. Yet efforts to ongoing efforts to stamp out misconduct have been overshadowed by the Russian invasion almost a year ago.

Ukraine currently ranks a low 116 out of the 180 countries listed for perceived corruption, according to anti-corruption group Transparency International. 

Ukraine's ongoing fight against corruption has included implementing major government and judicial bodies to tackle misbehaviour.
Ukraine’s ongoing fight against corruption has included implementing major government and judicial bodies to tackle misbehaviour. © FRANCE 24

Multi-million-dollar fraud 

Investigators from the Ukraine’s security service SBU released images of a search from the home of Kolomoisky, who was barred from entering the United States over allegations of corruption and undermining democracy. 

Prior to the Russian invasion, Kolomoisky was one of the country’s richest men, with holdings in a slew of industries, including media, aviation and energy. 

The security service said the search had been launched over an investigation into the embezzlement of 40 billion hryvnia (about $1.1 billion) from energy holdings.

Last week Ukrainian authorities fired around a dozen senior figures, including defence officials and a top aide to the president’s office. 

One such official was former deputy defence minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who worked on logistical support for the army. The ministry has been accused of signing food contracts at prices up to three times the market rates. 

The SBU also said it had uncovered a scheme by the head of the Kyiv tax office involving “multimillion-dollar” fraud schemes. They accuse the official of having abused a position of authority. 

Additionally, the government has also seized stakes in the energy companies – oil producer Ukrnafta and refiner Ukrtatnafta – as part of moves to consolidate the war effort. 

More dismissals are possible. The State Bureau of Investigation and the Prosecutor General’s Office said Wednesday they had informed several senior officials they were under investigation for crimes including misappropriation of state funds and misuse of state property. 

“Every criminal who has the audacity to harm Ukraine, especially in the conditions of war, must clearly understand that we will put handcuffs on him,” said Vasyl Maliuk, the head of the SBU, on Wednesday. 

Speed vs integrity 

Renewed efforts to tacks corruption are thought to be aimed at appeasing EU leaders who arrived in Kyiv on Thursday for a summit to discuss Ukraine’s bid to join the EU. 

Ukraine currently has EU “candidate status”, with Brussels saying strengthening the judiciary, fighting corruption and curbing the clout of powerful oligarchs are key conditions for joining. 

“Ukraine wants to show it can present a stable government that can deliver at the negotiating table, that can demonstrate the value systems and the commitment to transparency that are needed to be able to be part of the EU,” says Dr Melanie Garson, associate professor of international security and conflict resolution at University College London, UK. 

Yet, among EU member states, there are widely divergent views on how fast the process will go. Ukraine’s strongest cheerleaders – including Poland and the Baltic states – insist Kyiv is making big strides against corruption and progress could come quicker than expected.  

But others insist that while making Ukraine a candidate sent the right symbolic message of support in light of the war, working through the nitty-gritty of the major reforms needed would be long and arduous. 

“The EU needs to strike a balance between speed and integrity,” says Joel Reland, research associate at UK in a Changing Europe. “It clearly wants Ukraine to be given fast-track membership but, at the same time, it can’t totally compromise on its principles of membership, which define the integrity of the EU.” 

Even so, French President Emmanuel Macron warned last May it could take “decades” before Ukraine meets the criteria and achieves full membership. 

The upper hand 

In the meantime, demonstrating values such as transparency is not just a question of values. 

In 2016, then US vice president Joe Biden withheld loan guarantees from Ukraine until the country’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin was dismissed as part of a push for anti-corruption reforms developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. 

In 2023, countries providing crucial military and financial aid to Ukraine still have “the upper hand to force their position”, says Garson, associate professor of international security and conflict resolution. “Zelensky is very aware of this and is trying to reiterate increased bipartisan support across the world.” 

Although the public dismissal of figures – including a high-level defence official – in the midst of war may seem like a risk, not tacking corruption during wartime can have even more serious long-term consequences.   

Funding for reconstruction and recovery efforts can be “drastically undermined by wrongdoers pocketing funds, both during the war and after”, said Transparency International in its 2023 report. 

“The visibility that the work has been done to make this a place where donors don’t feel their funds are going into the pockets of oligarchs is really important,” adds Garson. “There needs to be confidence in government funds coming in and from external investors – it’s critical to long-term strategic rebuilding.” 

(with AFP)