Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova portrays herself as an anti-corruption crusader and courts Western embassies by presenting herself as a reformer. She’s penned 11 opinion pieces, published by the Kyiv Post, extolling her supposed achievements in a bid to influence international public opinion.
Read the story High-profile cases that stalled under Venediktova
In this image offensive, Venediktova claims she is carrying out President Volodymyr Zelensky’s de-oligarchization drive and cleaning up the den of notoriously corrupt prosecutors, where self-enrichment and punishing enemies were the priorities over bringing justice.
But since she took office in March 2020, Venediktova’s results appear no better than any of her dismal predecessors in Ukrainian history. Not a single top incumbent or former top official has been convicted. Not a single major oligarch has been charged with any crime.
If no breakthroughs are forthcoming, the first female prosecutor general may go down in history just like all the men who preceded her — another time-server unwilling or unable to break the grip of a powerful elite that is stunting the nation’s future with criminal impunity.
Examples abound. But the derailment of two cases of seemingly obvious high-level corruption raise questions about her ethics, independence, and motives.
Venediktova’s office has effectively destroyed the best-known graft case against a sitting official — Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov.
In another case with wide-ranging implications for the perpetuation of judicial corruption, prosecutors have not taken on the leading symbol of bribe-taking judges, Pavlo Vovk, allegedly heard in leaked recordings bragging about how the Kyiv District Administrative Court that he leads is untouchable and unaccountable.
There are numerous other cases that form an unmistakeable pattern, say those watching Venediktova’s actions.
“All these cases demonstrated that she, as a person politically dependent on the President’s Office, will not fight top-level corruption,” Olena Shcherban, an expert at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, told the Kyiv Post.
The Prosecutor General’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. After months of assurances from her and two of her top aides that she will answer the Kyiv Post’s questions, she hasn’t made herself available for an interview with the newspaper.
In her TV interviews and published opinion pieces, Venediktova vehemently denied accusations that she is stalling or obstructing investigations. But even she is not satisfied with her accomplishments.
“Last year we jailed more than 14,000 people,” Venediktova said on the 1+1 television channel in April. “Obviously society demands jailing top corrupt officials… Is society satisfied with (prosecutors’) work? No. Am I satisfied? No. But our (conviction) statistics have increased by dozens of times in the past year.”
The statistics, however, don’t contain any big names or big crimes.
Venediktova’s dependence on Zelensky, who appointed her, is reflected in her ability to sidetrack a bribery case against the president’s deputy chief of staff Tatarov, who has denied the accusations.
Venediktova blocked the charges against him by twice replacing a group of prosecutors assigned to the case. She then took the case away from the ostensibly independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, known as NABU, and gave it to the Security Service of Ukraine, the powerful but politically pliable institution headed by the president’s personal friend, Ivan Bakanov.
In February, a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation, and prosecutors effectively killed it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.
Venediktova blamed court decisions, citing a Pechersk District Court ruling to take the case away from the NABU, and another by the Shevchenkivsky District Court, which refused to extend the investigation.
However, the Anti-Corruption Action Center argues that these courts had no jurisdiction and that Venediktova ignored a ruling by the High Anti-Corruption Court that the case must be investigated by the NABU.
Venediktova now decides the fate of all the NABU cases because she is effectively carrying out the duties of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor until a new one is chosen to replace Nazar Kholodnitsky, the discredited former one allegedly caught on tape instructing suspects in how to obstruct criminal investigations. Right now, the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office only has an acting head.
Venediktova has also been accused of blocking corruption cases against two lawmakers from Zelensky’s party — Oleksandr Yurchenko and Pavlo Khalimon — and against Denys Yermak, the brother of Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak.
She denied the accusations.
Shcherban of the Anti-Corruption Action Center said: “We don’t see any results in the field of criminal cases linked to the president’s team. As long as Venediktova is in charge of the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, we shouldn’t expect such results because she’s a political protégé of the president.”
So far, Venediktova has also failed to move effectively against the alleged corruption of ex-President Petro Poroshenko and his allies.
Zelensky was elected in 2019 with the slogan “Springtime — Jailtime,” implying that Poroshenko-era officials would be jailed for corruption. But three springs have passed, and neither the former president nor any of his top allies even remotely face the prospect of conviction.
“Spring doesn’t force us to do anything,” Venediktova told 1+1 in April. “We must do our work during any season and we jail people regardless of the day of the week and the weather.”
Venediktova’s predecessor, Ruslan Riaboshapka, was fired after only six months in 2020 amid criticism that he had failed to prosecute Poroshenko-era corruption or show other achievements.
Venediktova, who drafted charges for Poroshenko when she headed the State Investigation Bureau before becoming prosecutor general, was expected to go after the former president.
But the cases, as usual, have stalled.
Critics of Zelensky and Venediktova accuse them of reaching a bargain with Poroshenko in exchange for political favors after the opening of dozens of investigations in 2019–2020.
Among the cases: alleged money laundering in the sale of the Rybalsky Kuznya shipyard and the purchase of the Pryamy television channel by an alleged frontman for Poroshenko, as well as unlawful interference with the judiciary and the unlawful deportation of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
With so many cases to choose from, Venediktova’s prosecutors instead settled on formal charges against Poroshenko in a matter that is more trivial than consequential on the scale of crimes, further undermining her credibility in the eyes of critics.
In June 2020, Poroshenko was charged with abusing his power by appointing Serhiy Semochko as a deputy head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, in violation of procedure. The Prosecutor General’s Office said in July 2020 that the Semochko investigation had been completed. Venediktova said on the 1+1 television channel in April that she had authorized the charges against Poroshenko because she saw trial prospects for the case.
Since then, the case has seen no progress. She blamed delays on defense attorneys, who have been studying the investigation materials for a year. Venediktova said prosecutors could move to restrict the time for studying the materials, but they haven’t done so.
In line with Zelensky’s priorities, parliament has passed an anti-oligarch bill in a preliminary first reading in July. It could be a first step in curtailing the powers of a business elite.
However, Ukraine has historically depended on foreign prosecutors to bring any justice for the nation, given the feeble track record of its prosecutors.
And Shcherban, the anti-corruption activist, accused the President’s Office of “trying to replace a real fight against oligarchs with populist slogans.”
But in an interview for the Ukraine 24 channel in May, Venediktova countered that “criminal cases aren’t the panacea” and defended the anti-oligarch bill.
In January, Venediktova personally got involved in the criminal case concerning PrivatBank.
In 2016, the state was forced to nationalize the country’s largest financial institution after alleged insider lending, money laundering and fraud siphoned off $5.5 billion.
A report by forensic auditor Kroll into PrivatBank uncovered a “large-scale and coordinated fraud,” yet the bank’s former owners — oligarchs Ihor Kolomoisky and Hennady Boholyubov — have faced no criminal charges, after what seemed like a promising development in February: The charging of three former top bank executives with embezzlement and forgery.
The oligarchs are fighting civil cases in the UK, Switzerland, U.S. and Ukraine, while a criminal investigation against Kolomoisky has been opened in Israel.
Pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Medvedchuk, co-leader of the 44-member Opposition Platform — For Life party, is a notable exception in prosecutors’ failure to go after heavyweights.
In May, Venediktova announced that Medvedchuk and his ally Taras Kozak had been charged with committing high treason by transferring a natural gas field off the Crimean coast from a Ukrainian firm to a Russian company.
It remains to be seen whether the charges will result in a court verdict or eventually collapse, like most high-profile cases in Ukraine. Lawyer Vitaly Tytych argues that the legal basis for the charges is flimsy and Medvedchuk could have been charged for something much more substantial.
Venediktova argued on TV channel Ukraina in May that “the lawfulness of the charges has been confirmed by a court.”
She also denied any political motives for the Medvedchuk case, although his Kremlin ties make him a popular target in Ukraine. In February, Zelensky imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk and Kozak and shut down Kozak’s three television channels.
The investigation of crimes committed during the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych have shown limited progress under Venediktova.
In April, parliament passed a law to make it easier to try EuroMaidan cases in absentia.
However, Ukraine’s treatment of people charged in absentia violates international standards. Tytych and Sergii Gorbatuk, the former chief investigator for EuroMaidan cases, believe that the new law does not resolve this problem and future verdicts may still be canceled by the European Court of Human Rights.
Another obstacle is that the bill targets people who fled to Russia and Russian-occupied territories, which makes it difficult to try fugitives who fled to other countries, Gorbatuk said.
“Formally they unblocked (in absentia trials) but in fact they made the situation worse,” he added.
Venediktova defended the bill in an op-ed for the Kyiv Post in May, saying that it is a revolutionary step that it “will help to move these cases out of a deadlock.”
“This year could be a year of breakthrough in Maidan cases, because indeed many of these cases may finally receive sentences, and in some pre-trial investigations indictments may be sent to court and their trial may begin,” she said.
The reform of the Prosecutor General’s Office under Venediktova has also faced criticism.
Under her predecessor Riaboshapka, 55.5% of prosecutors were fired from the office’s central branch to remove tainted and unprofessional employees. Under Venediktova, the percentage of those fired decreased substantially, which her critics see as an effort to save corrupt cadres from dismissal. Eventually, 26% were fired from regional prosecutor’s offices, and 23% were dismissed from local and military prosecutor’s offices.
Courts are also reinstating fired prosecutors en masse. But this is partly the fault of Riaboshapka’s flawed vetting procedure: procedural violations, non-transparency, the elimination of vetting materials and the office’s failure to state motives for dismissal.
About 2,044 prosecutors have filed lawsuits to be reinstated. First-instance courts have upheld 676 lawsuits filed by fired prosecutors and rejected 334 lawsuits.
At least 170 prosecutors have won appeals to be reinstated at the Prosecutor General’s Office, and seven prosecutors have obtained final rulings in their favor by the Supreme Court.
Venediktova is praised for some actions. In January, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine applauded her creation of the Office for the Protection of Investor’s Rights within the Prosecutor General’s Office.
“We value the establishment of the Office for the Protection of Investor’s Rights, headed by Oleksiy Boniuk, with strong professionals within its ranks, including Iryna Didenko, acting head of the Investment Protection Division,” the chamber said. “We appreciate the ongoing dialogue, strong cooperation, and high professionalism established by Mr. Boniuk with the business community, and the leadership demonstrated by Iryna Venediktova, Prosecutor General, in support of protecting investor rights. As of today, fair justice and the safeguarding of investor rights have been established in four matters and progress has been made with, we hope near-term results, for a number of other cases under way.”
Nonetheless, investors, business associations and foreign embassies say that prosecutors have a long way to go in protecting investors’ rights and private property, ending harassment investigations and raider attacks.
While Zelensky was swift to fire Riaboshapka in March 2020 after only six months on the job, he’s slow to confront Venediktova over her lack of progress, adopting a “wait and see” approach.
“If she doesn’t show results, there will be a third prosecutor general.” That was in April 2020.
Later that year, in October 2020, Zelensky also said that Venediktova must show results by the end of the year.
But she’s stayed on even though top crimes go unsolved and powerful suspects escape punishment as before.
Anti-corruption activists hold Zelensky personally responsible. The President’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Zelensky is helping Tatarov to escape punishment for corruption, proving that he is tolerant towards corruption,” Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, said on Facebook on July 8. “Apart from Tatarov, Zelensky is helping other top corrupt officials through the prosecutor general in the cases of Rotterdam+, VAB Bank, the Kyiv District Administrative Court etc.”
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