The Washington Post

Zelensky takes on Ukraine’s top internal enemy


Ukraine is widely assumed to be preparing a spring offensive to take back lost territory from Russian invaders. In the meantime, President Volodymyr Zelensky has already launched another offensive of great importance to the country’s future. He is battling what Andrii Borovyk, executive director of Transparen­cy Internatio­nal Ukraine, described to me, in a telephone interview from Kyiv, as “our internal enemy number one: corruption.”

The enemy might be internal, but the issue has serious implicatio­ns for Ukraine’s internatio­nal relations. In the United States, for example, Republican critics of Ukraine often cite corruption as a reason not to give Kyiv a “blank check.” Ukrainian leaders realize they are almost totally dependent on foreign aid and are keenly aware of the damage that any scandal could do to their country’s future.

In recent weeks, the Zelensky government has taken action against a number of senior officials who were accused of wrongdoing. Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov was fired and arrested after a Ukrainian news site reported that the armed forces were paying double and triple the market prices for foods such as eggs and potatoes. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov’s job was also in jeopardy from the scandal — he was accused of lax management, rather than corruption — although he seems to have survived for now.

A deputy infrastruc­ture minister, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired and put under house arrest after prosecutor­s claimed he had taken a $400,000 bribe in connection with the purchase of electrical generators that Ukraine desperatel­y needs to recover from Russian attacks on its electrical infrastruc­ture.

Even more significan­t — because it hit closer to home — was the forced resignatio­n of Zelensky’s own deputy chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko. He was reported to have commandeer­ed an SUV that had been donated by General Motors for humanitari­an purposes for his personal use, and he had been spotted driving a new Porsche, costing about $100,000, which belonged to a prominent businessma­n. Several regional governors close to Tymoshenko, who oversaw regional policy, were also sacked.

Perhaps the most significan­t move of all was the raid that Ukrainian security forces conducted on Feb. 1 at the home of billionair­e oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Zelensky’s most influentia­l backers and the owner of the television network that made Zelensky a star by airing his comedy series, “Servant of the People.” A former regional governor, Kolomoisky had been placed under U.S. sanctions in 2021 because of his alleged involvemen­t in “significan­t corruption,” but he had been considered untouchabl­e in Ukraine — until now. It remains unclear, however, whether he will be charged with any crimes.

Corruption remains a serious problem in Ukraine, but Transparen­cy Internatio­nal reports that real progress has been made in recent years. Ukraine is still assessed as more corrupt than neighbors such as Poland and Romania, but it is considerab­ly less corrupt than Russia — whose badly led and badly equipped army is paying the price for so much high-level peculation. Surveys show that the number of Ukrainians who reported paying a bribe in the previous year fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2021.

Borovyk told me that progress has continued since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022; Ukraine is one of the few countries in the world to improve its corruption score in the past year. He marveled that even in the first few months of the war — when Kyiv was in danger of falling — the anticorrup­tion courts continued to function in the capital. “Even for me, it sounds weird,” Borovyk acknowledg­ed. “I was in Kyiv all the time, and I remembered what it was like, but they continued working.”

Ironically, Ukrainian attempts to root out corruption only serve to elevate the issue in the West and provide further fodder for Republican critics of U.S. aid to Ukraine. In fact, U.S. and European officials say they have found no evidence of any foreign aid being siphoned off in Ukraine, but the United States does have painful experience in the recent past with how U.S. aid for an embattled ally can be misused.

In Afghanista­n, as Sarah Chayes detailed in her book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” pervasive corruption fueled by U.S. spending helped to undermine popular support for the Kabul regime. History cannot be allowed to repeat itself in Ukraine, and so far it isn’t.

In Afghanista­n, corruption was a product of tribalism. In Ukraine, it is a legacy of the old Soviet system. In most of the former Soviet republics, the end of communism created a new class of oligarchs who became fabulously wealthy by appropriat­ing state assets and utilizing the power of the state against their rivals. Russian President Vladimir Putin has fueled corruption by spreading around vast numbers of rubles to buy influence in Kyiv, among many other places.

The fight against graft in Ukraine began in earnest in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity toppled a pro-russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian parliament establishe­d corruption­fighting institutio­ns — the National Anti- Corruption Bureau, the Specialize­d Anti- Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the High Anti- Corruption Court — with help from Western government­s. By one count, Ukraine has passed 127 laws against corruption since 2015.

“Ukraine has the most intrusive asset-declaratio­n policy in the world,” William B. Taylor Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me. “Government officials must list assets — cars, apartments, watches, cash — owned by them or members of their families. And the declaratio­ns are available online for aggressive journalist­s to compare to the officials’ salaries.”

Of course, it’s one thing to have institutio­ns in place to fight corruption; it’s another thing to utilize them. John Herbst, another former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me that “there were serious steps taken against corruption” in the first year of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency (2014-2015) and the first year of Zelensky’s presidency (2019-2020). Then, in both cases, the anti-corruption fight lagged behind other priorities, and there was a return to business as usual.

Now, Zelensky seems to be making the battle against graft a priority once again. He is aided by a free press and civil society organizati­ons that uncover official wrongdoing in ways that would never be permitted in Russia. There is less tolerance now for officials lining their own pockets when Ukraine is fighting for its very survival and tens of thousands of Ukrainians have given their lives for the country.

Ultimately, Herbst told me, the “big blow against corruption” will be struck only if Ukraine wins the war and makes real progress toward European Union membership. The lure of joining the E.U. made it possible to overcome entrenched interests and clean up corruption in other Eastern European states that were once under Moscow’s thumb, and it will be no different in Ukraine. But in the meantime, Zelensky is showing that he is serious about preventing corruption from underminin­g the Ukrainian war effort.

 ?? HEIDI LEVINE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at his office in Kyiv in August 2022.
HEIDI LEVINE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at his office in Kyiv in August 2022.

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