Ukraine government shake-up signals pressure to adopt tough approach to corruption

Ukrainian authorities cannot afford to lose the battle of public opinion

Officials from Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau stand next to seized money. AFP
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The Ukrainian government dismissed more officials on Wednesday in its biggest political shake-up following a major corruption scandal linked to the Russian invasion.

Authorities announced the departure of a senior defence ministry official as well as five regional prosecutors.

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that an official in charge of army procurement, Bodgan Khmelnytsky, had been dismissed after being suspended in December.

The defence ministry has been accused by the media of signing food contracts at prices two or three times higher than the current rate.

Following the accusations, the ministry on Tuesday announced the resignation of deputy minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who worked on providing logistical support for the army.

Initially, the ministry had called the media reports “false” and said it “purchases relevant products in accordance with the procedure established by law”. But on Wednesday, the ministry said it was ready to “make procurement more transparent and budget funds more accessible to public control”.

The head of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee, Anastasia Radina, also said that the ministry had admitted “errors” related to food contracts and were “checking and examining prices to correct them”.

Separately, the General Prosecutor's Office said it had dismissed the regional prosecutors of the southern regions of Poltava, central Kirovograd and northern Poltava, Sumy and Chernihiv regions.

The move by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to fire several senior officials over corruption allegations is a signal that his administration cannot afford to lose the battle of public opinion both domestically and abroad, at a time when western military support is more important than ever, analysts told The National.

The government shake-up comes after other officials were fired for alleged corruption in recent months, but the new announcements felt different, said Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kyiv School of Economics and an adviser to Mr Zelenskyy’s administration.

Reasons for this include rapid decision making, the sheer number and high rank of the civil servants affected, that the perception of wrongdoing was reason enough for removal, and the government’s intention to change public procurement policies to minimise corruption in the future.

Mr Mylovanov said that such a move was a necessity for Ukrainian authorities not to lose control of the narrative. This zero-tolerance approach has been well received in Ukraine, where many view it as a sign of a healthy democracy, he said.

“If there’s just some suspicion of impropriety, we don’t just suspend, we remove them altogether,” he said.

Andrii Borovyk, executive director of non-profit group Transparency International’s Ukraine branch, also said that the layoffs were a positive development.

“It would be much worse if there was corruption and no scandals. If there is a scandal, it means someone reacts and does their job. That’s fine. That’s normal democratic process,” he said.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an official in Mr Zelenskyy’s administration, was among those who resigned. Though the President gave no reason, Mr Tymoshenko’s departure is believed to be linked to criticism over driving flashy cars in wartime.

Other officials who were forced to step down including five regional governors, a deputy general prosecutor and the defence minister’s deputy, who was accused by local media of paying inflated prices for food supplies for the military.

The announcements came one day before German Chancellor Olaf Scholz caved to pressure from other European countries and said on Wednesday that he would send Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

There is no direct link between the two events, but it gives a sense of the level of western scrutiny on Mr Zelenskyy, who cannot afford to give any reason to his backers to halt their support.

“Ukraine wants to demonstrate that we are in control, that there’s going to be zero tolerance and that we’re on top of it,” said Mr Mylovanov.

Fighting corruption is among the requirements for Ukraine to start negotiations to become a member of the EU. The EU’s military, financial, economic and humanitarian support reaches almost €50 billion.

In its most recent ranking, Transparency International ranked Ukraine's anti-corruption efforts 122nd out of 180 countries. Russia ranked 136th.

Ukraine had no anti-corruption institutions until 2014, after which five were established from scratch with European backing.

“There has been important progress in Ukraine in the sense that anti-corruption structures have been created thanks to EU support, and of course now it’s about establishing a track record and reinforcing the resources dedicated to these agencies,” an EU Commission spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

Ukraine gained six points in the Transparency International ranking between 2012 and 2021, explained Mr Borovyk. Only 25 out of 180 countries gained more than four points in the same period.

“People still see corruption as a problem for the country, but people also see it as a one of the prioritised spheres that should be improved for the country,” said Mr Borovyk.

It remains to be seen whether Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions will continue working effectively in the coming months.

Priorities include the partial reinstatement of the obligation for state officials to fill annual asset declarations, which was suspended at the start of the war for security reasons, as well as the gradual reopening of access to state databases, which had been suspended for similar reasons, according to Mr Borovyk.

“Dismissing a few people won’t impress for a long period of time, though it was the correct answer on the short term,” he said.

“I hope we will see other actions, and this is what I think it’s what our international partners are waiting for: systematic changes, not just changing faces.”

Updated: January 25, 2023, 10:17 PM