Son of Avakov, nation’s top cop, accused in major theft
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine on Oct. 31 arrested the son of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who is arguably the nation’s second most powerful person after President Petro Poroshenko.
The arrest is the NABU’s most high-profile anti-graft raid since the detention of State Fiscal Service Chief Roman Nasirov in March and ex-People’s Front party lawmaker Mykola Martynenko in April.
Avakov’s son Oleksandr, ex-Deputy Interior Minister Serhiy Chebotar and IT firm Turboseo’s CEO Volodymyr Lytvyn are accused of embezzling Hr 14 million in a case related to the supply of overpriced backpacks to the Interior Ministry. The suspects deny the accusations and believe them to be a political vendetta by the NABU.
The three suspects were released without bail on Nov. 1. Experts say this case, like many others, will not lead to any results due to the massive political influence on the judiciary.
Until independent anti-corruption courts are created, such cases will inevitably be buried by Ukraine’s corrupt and politicized courts, anti-corruption activists say.
The Oleksandr Avakov case is also seen as a result of an ongoing power struggle between Avakov and Poroshenko, who wants to control the powerful minister.
Meanwhile, the backpack supply scheme is just the tip of an iceberg, with numerous media investigations into Avakov’s alleged corruption still being ignored by law enforcement agencies.
Igor Lutsenko, a lawmaker from the 20-member Batkivshchyna Party, said on Facebook that Avakov should be suspended from his job during the investigation.
But Anastasia Krasnosilska, an expert at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Post there’s “zero chance” that Avakov would be suspended or would step down.
Kyiv's Solomyansky Court was initially reluctant to consider the case on Oct. 31, saying its working day was over. On Nov. 1, it made a bizarre decision to release the suspects without any bail, which was seen by critics as a sign of political interference in the judiciary.
Moreover, the ruling cannot even be appealed due to legal technicalities.
The hearing was attended by dozens of camouflaged supporters of Avakov, who were disparagingly called “titushki”, or pro-government thugs, by his opponents. Lawyer Yevhenia Zakrevska said it was pressure on the court.
Anti- corruption prosecutor Oleksandr Snegiryov said at the hearing that titushki and police had prevented NABU detectives from searching Avakov’s offices in Kharkiv. National Guards and police were also brought to the NABU building in Kyiv.
Lawmaker Sergii Leshchenko said on Facebook that the NABU had been ready to charge Oleksandr Avakov in early 2017, but Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky had been dragging his feet on approving the notice of suspicion for him. Kholodnytsky, who is accused of being influenced by the Presidential Administration and denies the accusations, authorized it only now amid a conflict between Poroshenko and Avakov, Leshchenko added.
The backpack case was investigated by the military prosecutor’s office starting from 2015 and was transferred to the NABU in 2016. However, first military prosecutors and then Kholodnytsky blocked it until now, Oleksandr Lemenov, an anti-corruption expert at the Reanimation Package of Reforms, told the Kyiv Post.
Avakov withdrew National Guard troops and police from a protest tent camp in front of the Verkhovna Rada on Oct. 31 in what some interpreted as either reluctance to protect Poroshenko’s interests or desire to use the troops to protect his son. Poroshenko has been unhappy with Avakov for failing to prevent his opponent Mikheil Saakashvili’s re-entry into the country in September and disperse protesters in front of the Rada, according to sources cited by the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper.
“Poroshenko wants to keep Avakov on a hook to force him to be ‘friendly’,” Lemenov said.
Video footage has been published on the Internet where Oleksandr Avakov and Chebotar discuss an allegedly corrupt scheme to supply backpacks to the National Guard in Chebotar’s office. Since the National Guard is involved in the war with Russia, the case is seen as an example of war profiteering.
Meanwhile, in a video recorded by the Security Service of Ukraine and recognized by courts as genuine, Chebotar, the Interior Ministry’s State Secretary Oleksiy Takhtai and state firm Spetsvervis CEO Vasyl Petrivsky, an ex-aide to Avakov, negotiate a corrupt deal to sell sand at a rigged auction in Chebotar’s office.
In the video, Chebotar says that Avakov is also aware of the deal and is worried that the sand has not been sold yet. Petrivsky has pled guilty and has been convicted in a theft case for selling the sand. Avakov denies graft accusations, while Chebotar has resigned amid graft scandals.
The video about the sand scheme appears to be part of the same footage as the video that features discussions on backpack supplies.
The NABU is also investigating Avakov’s deputy Vadym Troyan over video footage where people resembling Troyan and Chebotar discuss corrupt revenues from the traffic police and extorting money from businesspeople. Troyan denies accusations of corruption.
Troyan’s house was searched in July as part of a bribery case. The Security Service of Ukraine and prosecutors said that three associates of Troyan had been arrested for extorting a Hr 1.5 million bribe, while he had nothing to do with the bribery. The statement was seen by Troyan’s critics as an effort to let him escape punishment.
The Novoye Vremya magazine has published an investigation on alleged tax evasion in natural gas production projects by Avakov — accusations that Avakov denies.
Meanwhile, Avakov’s top ally and lawmaker Ihor Kotvitsky is under investigation by the NABU over an undeclared transfer of $40 million to Panama.
In 2015 Leshchenko also published a document according to which Avakov is identified as Italian company Avitalia’s president as of April 30, 2015. Ukrainian law bans ministers from simultaneously working as business executives. According to Avakov’s property declaration, the minister owns 100 percent in Avitalia.
Avakov was accused of large-scale corruption when he was governor of his native Kharkiv Oblast in 2005 to 2010.
In 2012 the Prosecutor General’s Office charged Avakov with abuse of power and illegally privatizing land worth Hr 5.5 million. Avakov then called the case political persecution by then President Viktor Yanukovych and his allies and fled to Italy.
After Avakov became interior minister in February 2014, the case was closed, and the investigators who were pursuing it were fired.
In 2008 Avakov’s ally-turned-opponent Gennady Kernes, now mayor of Kharkiv, accused Avakov of killing his business partner Oleksandr Konovalov and seizing his assets — a claim denied by Avakov. He was investigated in the case but it has seen no progress.
In April 2014 hardline nationalist Oleksandr Muzychko was killed during a standoff with the police. The police said he had been shot for resisting arrest, while the Rivne and Lutsk city councils passed resolutions recognizing it as a political murder and blamed it on Avakov, who denied the accusations.
Oleksandr Avakov, son of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, sits at a hearing on his arrest at Kyiv's Solomyansky Court on Nov. 1. (Volodymyr Petrov)