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Changing the cogs Journalist Konstantin Skorkin breaks down Kyiv’s wartime corruption crackdown

Source: Meduza

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov’s ousting may be Ukraine’s biggest government shake-up since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, but he’s far from the only official to have faced scrutiny in recent months. Regional and local officials have come under fire for spending public money on “non-essentials” in wartime, and a countrywide effort to clean up corruption in the military’s enlistment system is ongoing. During a recent interview, Zelensky also revealed that he had proposed legislative changes that would equate corruption with treason in wartime. “I understand that such a ‘weapon’ can’t operate permanently in society, but during wartime, I think it will help,” the president said. (Some of Ukraine’s top anti-corruption experts wholeheartedly disagree.) So, what to make of the Zelensky administration’s wartime anti-corruption crusade? Journalist and researcher Konstantin Skorkin tackles this question for Meduza.

Meduza first published this article (in Russian) on August 11. The following English-language translation, which has been updated, as well as lightly edited and abridged for context and clarity, appeared in The Beet, our weekly email dispatch covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology’s polling, Ukrainians perceive corruption as one of the country’s most serious problems, second only to the ongoing Russian invasion (89 percent of survey respondents expressed this view).

In an effort to root out the issue, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team has initiated investigations and reshuffled the state bureaucracy. But Kyiv’s anti-corruption efforts haven’t appeared to be sufficiently systematic. At the same time, the central government is capitalizing on popular discontent over public spending in its own long-standing conflicts with local and regional officials. 

And all the while, new opportunities for corruption arise as the war becomes protracted.

‘We won’t drive out the enemy with paving stones’

Against the backdrop of ongoing fighting in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions and Russian strikes across the country, several Ukrainian cities have undertaken large-scale public works projects. Given Ukraine’s growing budget deficit and reliance on international aid, however, road work and landscaping can look untimely, to say the least.

This problem is especially acute in Kyiv, where Mayor Vitali Klitschko has been embroiled in conflict with the President’s Office ever since Volodymyr Zelensky’s election in 2019. Zelensky’s office has long sought to rein in Klitschko, who actually occupies two roles, serving as the capital’s popularly-elected mayor and the appointed head of the Kyiv City State Administration. And as a result, any and every problem related to municipal governance provokes a new round of confrontation. 

At the start of the summer, for example, the State Emergency Service found that roughly a third of Kyiv’s bomb shelters were closed or unfit for use. More bad press followed when the results of government contracts in one district showed that the local authorities planned to equip bomb shelters with drums (supposedly intended as “psychological relief” for children) and newfangled vegetable slicers. Rumors circulated that the President’s Office had already found a candidate to replace Klitschko as head of the City State Administration, in order to strip him of his real powers. But the expected resignation never came. 

Inside a bomb shelter in Kyiv. June 5, 2023.
Oleg Petrasyuk / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

There was another wave of criticism against Klitschko in July due to road work on Bohdan Khmelnytskyi Street in central Kyiv. The controversy had such resonance that Zelensky himself alluded to it later that month during an address to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Ivano-Frankivsk. “No offense to some of the representatives of the local authorities; now is definitely not the time to replace paving stones,” the president said. “We won’t drive the enemy out of our state with paving stones.” 

Meanwhile, beautification work was also underway in cities far from the front line. For example, the Lviv Mayor’s Office spent one million hryvnias ($28,000) on landscaping and maintenance of green spaces, while officials in the Volyn region splashed out for a costly stadium renovation. Against the backdrop of volunteers fundraising constantly to support soldiers at the front and displaced civilians, these expenditures have caused understandable discontent. The central authorities, in turn, clearly use this to their advantage and level criticism against regional leaders regularly. 

Lawmaker Davyd Arakhamia, the parliamentary faction leader for Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, even threatened to curtail local authorities’ powers. “If you don’t stop spending money on non-essentials, on things that do not bring us closer to victory, then the parliament will introduce legislative restrictions for the period of martial law,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. (At this writing, Ukraine is set to remain under martial law until at least November 15.) 

The Ukrainian government has been mulling the measures Arakhamia described for some time. In the summer of 2022, the Finance Ministry suggested appropriating a portion of the revenues from local income tax, which had increased considerably in certain regions due to contributions from additional soldiers stationed there. In total, these revenues ensured a local budget surplus of up to 61.5 billion hryvnias ($1.67 billion) in the first five months of 2023 alone.

Predictably, the local authorities fired back, noting that the additional tax revenues are unevenly distributed, with rear regions drawing in considerably less than front-line areas. The authorities in Kyiv, meanwhile, believe that heavy traffic in the capital necessitates laying new paving stones. The City State Administration’s first deputy head, Mykola Povoroznyk, has also said that the local authorities are always prepared to allocate money for defense needs if they receive an order from the central government to finance purchases for a specific military unit. 

At the same time, the government has other options for imposing restrictions. For example, under martial law, the State Treasury cannot allocate money for public works until military needs are met. 

In reality, the war has become the latest backdrop for the conflict between the center and the regions that has been going on since 2020, when Ukraine held its last local elections before the full-scale Russian invasion. The central government is now apparently trying to use martial law to kill two birds with one stone: eradicating corruption at the local level and getting rid of inconvenient regional politicians. 

‘The most disgusting carve-up in wartime’

Ukraine’s central leadership has also faced its share of criticism. Investigative journalists from uncovered that officials in the Kyiv region (ones appointed by the central government) had hired unqualified contractors and firms, including some implicated in criminal proceedings, to carry out reconstruction work in Bucha and Borodyanka — two cities that have become synonymous with Russian war crimes. Most of these multi-million-hryvnia contracts were concluded without competitive bidding and were not published in the government’s open-source e-procurement system, ProZorro. 

Government spending on culture and propaganda is another hot topic. In a particularly contentious case, the Culture Ministry allocated 594 million hryvnias ($16,000) to complete the Holodomor Museum. The construction estimate was approved before the full-scale war, but Zelensky vetoed the decision following intense discussions. The authorities also raised questions by spending 28 million hryvnias ($758,000) to replace the Soviet hammer and sickle on the Motherland monument in Kyiv with a Ukrainian trident. (Though, the Culture Ministry claims the money came from private sponsors, not public funds.) 

The Ukrainian trident being affixed to the Motherland monument in Kyiv. August 6, 2023.
Roman Pilipey / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Shortly before the refurbishment, Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko stepped down after European Solidarity, the opposition party led by former President Petro Poroshenko, revealed that the ministry had allocated millions of dollars to produce television programming. Writing on Facebook, European Solidarity lawmaker Iryna Gerashchenko accused Tkachenko of “the most disgusting carve-up” of state funds in wartime. In turn, the culture minister explained that this was earmarked funding from the West that couldn’t be spent on anything else. Nevertheless, Zelensky immediately suggested replacing Tkachenko​​. 

Several other high-profile resignations in the aftermath of investigative reporting were also at the initiative of the government’s top brass. After multiple officials resigned from the executive branch at the start of the year (Oleksiy Arestovych, a prominent adviser to Zelensky’s office, stepped down around this time), lawmakers from the ruling party were the next to go. The first to lose their mandates were Servant of the People lawmakers Yuriy Aristov, who went on holiday to the Maldives under the pretext of a business trip, and Andriy Kholodov, who left Ukraine in January and hasn’t returned since.

Most men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been banned from leaving Ukraine since February 24, 2022, when Zelensky declared martial law in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion.

In January 2023, Zelensky banned both lawmakers and government officials from going abroad unless on official business. The bylaws needed to enforce these orders are still being finalized, however, and opposition lawmakers have complained about a de facto blanket ban on leaving the country without direct permission from the President’s Office. 

Old habits

Lastly, but certainly not least, Ukraine’s military enlistment system has become rife with corruption. And while this isn’t as explicitly political, it has provoked no less public outcry given the context of the ongoing war. In June, the Odesa region’s top recruitment official, Yevhen Borysov, found himself at the center of a scandal after investigative journalists learned that his family had acquired some $4.5 million worth of property and luxury cars in Spain during the full-scale war. 

According to Ukrainian investigators, Borysov had been selling forged documents that allowed people to avoid conscription or go abroad. Meanwhile, army recruiters in the Odesa region had developed a reputation for doling out summonses on beaches and unceremoniously detaining draft dodgers. Borysov tried to abscond but was arrested in Kyiv on July 24. 

Yevhen Borysov in court
Ruslan Kaniuka / ZUMA Press / Scanpix / LETA

After the Borysov revelations, Zelensky called for a nationwide inspection of Ukraine's Territorial Recruitment and Social Support Centers. The results were not long in coming: By early August, the State Bureau of Investigation had opened 112 criminal proceedings against recruitment officials across the country. “The inspection is revealing many abuses. Frankly disgusting ones,” Zelensky commented in one of his nightly addresses. Shortly after that, the president dismissed the heads of all regional recruitment offices. 

High-profile corruption scandals have also hit Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. A journalistic investigation that revealed the purchase of military food supplies at inflated prices nearly unseated then-Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov in January (his deputy and the ministry’s head of procurement were forced to resign instead). The Defense Ministry came under fire again in August when another investigation uncovered that it had spent $33 million on overpriced “winter” clothing for the military that proved unfit for cold-weather use. 

Reznikov denied any wrongdoing but handed in his resignation on September 4 — the day after Zelensky nominated Rustem Umerov, the chairman of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, as his replacement. 

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* * *

The anti-corruption campaign now underway in Ukraine will certainly work in favor of the authorities. But as in previous cases, it appears to be reactive rather than a systematic effort. As former National Anti-Corruption Bureau director Artem Sytnyk warned, history tells us that corruption tends to flourish in wartime — and the authorities are inclined to hush up the problem so as “not to harm the country” or “play into hostile narratives.” 

Right now, the Defense Ministry is grasping for systemic anti-corruption measures that look impressive but aren’t necessarily effective. One such measure is the plan to replace nearly a third of territorial recruitment office heads with “ideologically motivated” war veterans by the end of the year. Another reform under discussion is having recruitment officials work outside their home regions so they won’t have the necessary connections to realize corruption schemes. 

In the meantime, Zelensky’s plans to clean house are underway, as promised. “Our work on cleaning public institutions of those who tried to drag from the past all those old habits, old schemes that weakened Ukraine for a very long time, for decades, will continue,” he said in early August.

But so far, it looks as though only the cogs will change, not the system itself. 

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Story by Konstantin Skorkin 

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart for The Beet

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