A number of Ukrainian officials have been dismissed or resigned over the last four days amid corruption allegations as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, attempts to take a zero-tolerance approach to the issue.
Fifteen senior officials have left their posts since Saturday, six of whom have had corruption allegations levelled at them by journalists and Ukraine’s anti-corruption authorities.
The wave of changes started on Saturday when Ukraine’s deputy minister of infrastructure, Vasyl Lozinskyi, was detained by anti-corruption investigators and dismissed from his post. He was accused by prosecutors of inflating the price of winter equipment, including generators, and allegedly siphoning off $400,000. Investigators also found $38,000 in cash in his office.
After Lozinskyi’s detention, Zelenskiy vowed in his nightly address to take a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, a problem that has plagued Ukraine since independence.
“I want it to be clear: there will be no return to the way things used to be,” said the president.
Zelenskiy also said on Sunday that there would be “decisions” made on the issue of corruption this week, without specifying what they would be. The European Union has said Ukraine must meet anti-corruption standards before it can become a member.
Since Zelenskiy’s address, a further four senior officials implicated in separate corruption scandals have been dismissed or resigned.
They include Vyacheslav Shapovalov, the deputy minister of defence, under whose watch alleged inflated food contracts were said to be signed. He has not admitted to any wrongdoing. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, who was recorded by journalists driving a car belonging to prominent Ukrainian businessmen, has also denied any wrongdoing. Pavlo Halimon, the deputy head of Zelenskiy’s political party, has not commented on recent evidence presented by journalists that he bought a house in Kyiv above his means.
Also dismissed was Oleksiy Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, who went on holiday to Spain in late December in a Mercedes owned by a prominent Ukrainian businessman. In response to the scandal, Ukraine’s national security council on Monday banned officials from travelling abroad until the war ends, except for those on official business. Until Monday’s decisions, male officials were considered an exception to the ban on military-aged Ukrainian men leaving the country.
The shake-up continued on Tuesday afternoon with Ukraine’s cabinet of ministers announcing that five regional heads had been dismissed, only one of whom is being investigated for corruption, along with a further three deputy ministers and two heads of state agencies – none of whom stand accused of corruption.
The leading anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin said the dismissal of those accused of corruption is evidence that Ukraine’s newly formed anti-corruption system is working.
“Not only is the anti-corruption system working, but the politicians are learning to work in a new way,” said Shabunin. Shabunin gave the example of Lozinskyi, whose boss, Oleksiy Kubrakov, the minister of infrastructure, requested the cabinet of ministers dismiss him an hour after his detention and the search of his office.
Shabunin criticised Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, however, for defending and not firing Shapovalov, his deputy minister in charge of logistics, when Ukraine’s ZN.UA publication published contracts on Saturday showing the price of some food for soldiers was several times higher than in a supermarket.
Shapovalov resigned on Tuesday in order, in his words, not to destabilise the Ukrainian army amid the accusations levied at the ministry.
Reznikov said the allegations were part of an information attack on the ministry and has ordered Ukraine’s security services to investigate who leaked the contracts.
Shabunin said the corruption scheme was “too primitive” for the public not to understand. According to the contracts obtained by journalists, a single egg cost 17 Ukrainian hryvnia (37p). The price of eggs, potatoes and cabbage are well-known in Ukraine, said Shabunin, who noted that wholesale prices should be lower than in the supermarket.
The ministry of defence has not denied the authenticity of the contract but insists the stated price was a technical error.
“The public have lost trust in Reznikov,” said Shabunin. “All (military) contracts are non-public because of the war and that is normal … but why should I now believe him that all the prices in the other contracts are OK? Everything is about trust.”
In a lengthy response on his Facebook page in English and Ukrainian, Reznikov did not deny the authenticity of the contracts. However, he said that the price of eggs was a technical error discovered in December and the person in charge at the ministry had been suspended when it was found. He also said he was willing to establish a parliamentary investigative committee as he was “confident (the ministry) had got it right”.
Corruption has been a thorny issue for Ukrainian journalists and activists since the war began. They worry that raising evidence of corruption could harm international support for their country’s war effort.
Shabunin said that, since the war, a silent contract has developed between activists and journalists and the authorities. “We will not criticise the authorities as we did before the war, but the authorities should in exchange very firmly and quickly react to any, even small-scale, corruption – as they did in the case of [Lozinskyi]. There, they fulfilled the social contract. But the ministry of defence has not.”
Shabunin added that the firing of Reznikov was the only way to reinstate confidence in Ukraine’s western partners.
The US is by far Ukraine’s biggest financial supporter. Its ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, said during a conference in Kyiv on Monday: “There can be no place in the future Ukraine for those who use state resources for their own enrichment. State resources should serve the people.”