Despite a popular appeal to eradicate Ukraine’s toxic corruption that brought President Volodymyr Zelensky to power, the country’s publicly proclaimed fight against top-level graft faces ongoing sabotage.
The primary focus is on Ukraine’s Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), decapitated in August 2020 after the controversial Nazar Kholodnytsky left his post.
On Oct. 9, the process of choosing Kholodnytsky’s successor stumbled yet again after the 11-member selection committee failed to gather a quorum for the final bidding. The three committee members that didn’t appear were part of Zelensky’s 243-member Servant of the People faction quota.
Such blatant sabotage wasn’t left without a response from Ukraine’s western backers.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine issued an official statement stating that “the EU and the U.S. are greatly disappointed by unexplained and unjustifiable delays in the selection of the Head of SAPO, a crucial body in the fight against high-level corruption.”
“Failure to move forward in the selection process undermines the work of anti-corruption agencies, established by Ukraine and its international partners,” the Oct. 9 statement said.
Three days later, the committee once again didn’t convey as initially planned.
“Promptly selecting” the head of Ukraine’s top anti-corruption agency was one of the requirements put forward in the joint U.S-Ukraine communique published on Sept. 1 following Zelensky’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House.
The establishment of independent crime-fighting agencies has been a fundamental premise of Ukraine’s relations with the West.
Vitaliy Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, alleges that the President’s Office is trying to derail the process of choosing the head of SAPO since two candidates currently competing for the job remain independent from Zelensky.
“This case is closely watched by foreign embassies, no one wants to do business with (a president) who doesn’t keep his word,” Shabunin told the Kyiv Post.
Zelensky’s office denied these accusations. Zelensky has expressed concern about the recent delay, saying that the selection procedure must resume.
However, with 7 of 11 selection committee members appointed by the Zelensky’ controlled parliament, civic activists and Ukraine’s foreign partners see the president’s office as being responsible for the constant delays.
Creating a special anticorruption prosecution, tasked with fighting Ukraine’s high-level corruption, was among the key prerequisites for Ukraine to receive a visa-free regime with the European Union.
The SAPO was established in 2015 and the EU granted Ukrainians the benefits of traveling without visas a year later. However, Ukraine’s track record of fighting corruption didn’t improve.
Among the key stumbling blocks was the office’s chief, Kholodnytsky, accused of corruption.
During an investigation that began in 2017, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) bugged an aquarium in his office and recorded his conversations. The recordings appeared to show Kholodnytsky blocking or subverting corruption cases against powerful suspects.
Corruption probes derailed by SAPO included those into the son of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, Odesa Mayor Hennady Trukhanov, ex-Election Commission Chairman Mykhailo Okhendovsky and many more.
The Prosecutor General’s Office then launched a criminal investigation into Kholodnytsky, but soon closed it after concluding that he had not violated the law. Kholodnytsky denied wrongdoing.
In March 2019, following the scandal surrounding Kholodnytsky, then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch called on the Ukrainian authorities to fire him.
In August 2020, three months before his term was due to expire, Kholodnytsky resigned.
Under Zelensky, the SAPO was set to be revamped. Instead, the president’s office has been prolonging its de facto control over it.
After Ukraine was hit by COVID-19, the parliament passed a provision on April 2020 allowing the government to postpone open tender procedures for the selection of agency heads.
Open tenders were among the key western-backed initiatives in Ukraine.
Although this measure effectively expanding Zelensky’s powers was reversed in February, little has changed since then.
As a result, Ukraine’s two key agencies – the SAPO and the State Investigation Bureau – have been left without a permanent head for over a year. Both are overseen by people chosen by Zelensky.
Despite having prosecutor Maksym Hryshchuk as acting head, the law obligates Zelensky’s loyalist Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova to sign charges on behalf of the SAPO.
“While Venediktova controls the SAPO they can continue to derail high profile investigations,” says Shabunin.
The decision to disrupt the selection process came two days after U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robin Dunnigan visited Kyiv and issued statements supporting Ukraine’s anti-corruption institutions.
“This directly affects the credibility of Ukraine and Zelensky who disregarded the commitments assumed during his meeting with Biden,” says Shabunin.
As of now, the committee is set to choose from two candidates – Andriy Klymenko, a detective from NABU, and Andriy Syniuk, a prosecutor from the Prosecutor General’s Office. Neither is considered to be close to Zelensky.
On June 4, the selection panel blocked the candidacy of Andriy Kostin, a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People faction, from the final stage.
Since then, several pro-government members on the selection committee have blocked panel meetings.
In August, four independent selection committee members – Roman Kuybida, Nona Tsotsoria, Drago Kos and Thomas A. Firestone – issued a letter to Venediktova citing internal pressure from panel members nominated by parliament.
All four said they would resign if pressure continued.
According to a Kyiv Post source in the President’s Office, who spoke on conditions of anonymity, Zelensky’s Deputy Chief of Staff Oleg Tatarov has been involved in the process of derailing the competition.
Tatarov is under investigation for graft, an accusation which he denies. The case involving Tatarov was subsequently transferred from the NABU by Venediktova.
Without a selection committee quorum, the SAPO is in effect controlled by Venediktova, who first appeared on the national stage as a lawmaker from Zelensky’s party.
Tatarov was deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s main investigative department under then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Today, he is credited with influencing Ukrainian law enforcement agencies on behalf of the president, according to Ukrainian media.
On Sept. 1, Tatarov’s birthday party was attended by several key law enforcement officials, confirming speculation that Tatarov influences law enforcement bodies.
The ongoing sabotage hasn’t been left unnoticed.
“I did not hear adequate explanations for the delay of the competition for the election of a new SAPO head. The members of the selection committee must perform their duties properly,” Zelensky wrote on Oct. 9 after the reaction from the U.S. embassy.
Yet, on Oct. 12, the committee once again didn’t convene. Hardly evidence that foreign concerns are being heard in the President’s Office.
“This is an outspoken slap in the face of Ukraine-U.S. relations,” says Shabunin.
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