There’s no question that Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka has a tough job.
There’s also no question that the bar for success has been set very low by his predecessors. Collectively and individually, the parade of top prosecutors who went before him created an institution that is detested and distrusted because it is – or at least was — highly corrupt and politicized.
Whatever else it has done, the General Prosecutor’s Office has not done the job it is supposed to do for society.
No one of any consequence has been successfully prosecuted in the 28-year history of independent Ukraine, where corruption remains endemic. In fact, the highest-profile convictions for Ukraine-related crimes came in U.S. courts – those of ex-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s consultant Paul Manafort; additionally, exiled billionaire oligarch Dmytro Firtash has been charged in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
More frequently, instead, Ukrainian prosecutors – several of whom have a reputation for luxurious lifestyles far beyond their official salaries — have shielded powerful lawbreakers from being held to account. It was, quite simply, perhaps Ukraine’s largest bribe factory, and even worse: Often court verdicts lined up precisely with the state prosecutor’s position.
But change is happening, courtesy of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appointment to the powerful post.
In a Nov. 13 interview with the Kyiv Post, Riaboshapka gave a progress report on his first three months in office, outlined the scope of the challenges ahead and how he plans to continue the house cleaning of an institution that now numbers about 11,000 prosecutors under his command across the nation.
The interview, held in his office of the imposing headquarters near Klovska metro station in the Pechersk neighborhood, touched on a wide range of people and issues.
His predecessor Yuriy Lutsenko, billionaire oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky and Firtash, Odesa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov are among the names that came up in the discussion. The issues ranged from high-profile unsolved murders, including journalists Georgiy Gongadze and Pavlo Sheremet, to multibillion-dollar bank fraud.
Riaboshapka is facing pushback already from criminal suspects who have had cases opened against them – or who fear that cases will be opened against them. He also faces resistance from within.
“Definitely we have a lot of enemies, but that means we are doing the right things,” Riaboshapka said. “We will have a lot of enemies, a lot of powerful enemies.”
One key reason why he faces criticism and black PR is his principle that anybody who commits a serious crime for which there is sufficient evidence of guilt will be prosecuted under his watch.
“There are not any untouchable persons in this country,” Riaboshapka said, even repeating “no untouchables” later in the interview. “We have very good support from the president and from the parliament. I enjoy the right to prosecute anybody who is guilty, even Kolomoisky, even Akhmetov, and any other oligarch. Anybody can be prosecuted if they committed a crime and there’s evidence to show it.”
Read more here from Feb. 18, 2016: Kasko explains why he quit prosecution service
But his critics attack him as just as politicized as his predecessors. And his case for prosecutorial independence wasn’t helped when Zelensky, who appointed him, told U.S. President Donald J. Trump that Riaboshapka is “100 percent my man.”
Yanukovych’s former deputy chief of staff Andriy Portnov, who is facing three criminal investigations, lashed out at Riaboshapka in October for resuming an embezzlement case against Yanukovych’s Justice Minister Olena Lukash. He called on Riaboshapka to resign.
At the same time, Oleksandr Dubinsky, a lawmaker from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and a friend of Portnov, started collecting lawmakers’ signatures for Riaboshapka’s ouster. He accused him of closing a criminal case against a detective who allegedly sabotaged a corruption case against Oleh Hladkovsky, an ex-deputy secretary of the National Defense and Security Council and ally of ex-President Petro Poroshenko.
Political will strong, capabilities weaker
Riaboshapka says he ignores the criticism and black PR against him as much as possible. But he cautions against expecting miracles – or indictments against the rich and powerful anytime soon.
The political will “is there, absolutely” to solve the greatest crimes, Riaboshapka said, but “the second part is the capability to prosecute someone who is extremely powerful. Sometimes the state is not capable enough to prosecute such persons. They are controlling economic sectors and media. They can counteract quite effectively against the state. We are building our capacities, but know the level of trust with the prosecutor’s office is extremely low.”
So should the public expect only prosecutions against second-tier suspects for second-tier crimes, and give up hope that Kolomoisky or someone of his ilk will be prosecuted for alleged bank fraud that cost taxpayers $5.5 billion in a bailout of the oligarch’s former PrivatBank, which now belongs to the state?
“This is like an evolution. I cannot move very fast in a revolutionary way to fight directly against the most powerful man in the country,” Riaboshapka said. “Somehow we have to build our capacity and become stronger and stronger, then urge these people to be in line with legislation and law.”
Sabotage from within
In this reclamation process, Riaboshapka has battles to win from within against “extremely clever” prosecutors who “are on the dark side of this fight against crime.” These are prosecutors, he said, who are acting in the interest of specific businesspeople, oligarchs or politicians rather than the public interests.
“We have to find them all and root them out,” he said.
Among those who will be rooted out is prosecutor Kostiantyn Kulyk, who is notorious for politically motivated investigations and seen by critics as a living symbol of a corrupt prosecutorial service. He will be fired, Riaboshapka said, as soon as Kulyk returns from sick leave and turns over the files of the numerous cases that he has been investigating.
“He refused to participate in the re-evaluation process and the law doesn’t provide any other answers. He didn’t show up. He should be fired,” he said. “The new office, starting Jan. 1, will have no more Kulyks, perhaps even earlier.”
Exaggerating for emphasis, he joked: “He must transfer criminal investigations against half of the population of Ukraine and some Americans. I wouldn’t be surprised if you are in these criminal cases as well. He has huge numbers of cases and lots of volumes in these cases. He has to transfer the evidence and the materials.”
Praise and criticism
Riaboshapka has won praise for installing three top deputies who are widely respected and considered highly competent and honest – Viktor Trepak, Vitaly Kasko and Viktor Chumak.
He is forcing prosecutors to take tests and interviews to prove they are qualified. His fired critics say the exams are arbitrary and don’t measure effectiveness and professionalism. The third phase of his mandatory re-evaluation of subordinates, Riaboshapka, said is an “integrity test,” under way with the help of an internal inspector general who will be on the hunt for signs of corruption or dishonesty.
Among the loudest of his critics is Serhiy Horbatyuk, who has been fired as a prosecutor after leading investigations in the murders of more than 100 demonstrators during the EuroMaidan Revolution that sent Yanukovych fleeing to his Moscow patrons on Feb. 22, 2014.
Others in the office claim that Riaboshapka will bury cases involving the crimes of the EuroMaidan Revolution, as well as the $40 billion allegedly looted from Ukraine during the Yanukovych era and also end long-running investigations against Manafort.
Riaboshapka denied the charges. “We are not going to bury all these cases.” He noted that, before he came, prosecutors investigated these matters for five years, but delivered “no results.” He said the inconclusiveness of thousands of open cases reflected prosecutors who either were ineffective or had no sense of priorities or both.
“They were interested in investigating these cases as long as possible to safeguard their careers. We spent 170 million hryvnias ($7 million) just for salaries of prosecutors on these cases,” Riaboshapka said. “They thought they needed another 20 to 25 years to investigate all these cases and get a result.”
He’s particularly disturbed about the lack of results in solving the murders of more than 100 demonstrators by riot police near the climax of the 100-day EuroMaidan Revolution.
“The murders are the most important cases,” Riaboshapka said. “It’s a pity for me that we have not even reached the medium level of those who are linked to these murders, only an absolutely low level. A lot of suspects are from the militia and police forces, some people are connected from the Maidan, some suspects were deputy ministers or ministers. But we did not reach them. Many of them are abroad.”
The EuroMaidan crimes are among the cases that are part of a vast audit that Riaboshapka is undertaking. He hopes to have the first progress report to the public by early next year.
Riaboshapka is also reviewing the work of his immediate predecessor, Lutsenko, a non-lawyer with an abysmal track record for successful prosecutions despite three years in office under Poroshenko, and others who held the post.
“There are many, many cases which were buried by my predecessors,” he said. Among them are financial crimes in which two Yanukovych-era allies — ex-lawmaker Yuriy Ivanushchenko and ex-ecology minister Mykola Zlochevsky – are suspects.
With the U.S. House impeachment hearings under way involving U.S. President Donald J. Trump, Riaboshapka has also pledged to review his predecessors’ closing of a criminal investigation of Zlochevsky’s Burisma energy company.
The focus of the House inquiry is whether Trump abused his powers by pressuring President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his Democratic rival Joseph Biden and whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
But Republicans have tried to turn the tables on the Democrats by highlighting Zlochevsky and Burisma, which hired Hunter Biden as a member of the board of directors, for $50,000 a month in 2014 while his father took the lead on Ukraine policy under President Barack Obama. Hunter Biden only left the board in April 2019.
Riaboshapka says he will steer clear of U.S. politics.“My position is that Ukraine should stay aside of the intra-American fighting. That is their own deal.”
But the disposition of the Burisma case continues to harm the General Prosecutor’s Office to this day. Zlochevsky, as ecology minister, granted his company gas exploration licenses in what appears to be a textbook case of corruption that robbed Ukrainians.
United Kingdom prosecutors had even frozen $23 million in suspected illegal money in Burisma accounts, only to release the hold on the money after prosecutors under Vitaly Yarema, the then-prosecutor general, certified in December 2014, that there are no criminal investigations under way. Despite demands from the United States and other Western partners supporting legal reform in Ukraine, neither Yarema’s successor, Viktor Shokin, nor Lutsenko, investigated why the case was closed.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified that he believes prosecutors were bribed to close the case against Zlochevsky, who has spent lavishly on an influential board of directors and through donations – such as spending nearly $500,000 on the Atlantic Council think tank – in an apparent bid to buy influence.
One of the relevant issues today is whether Riaboshapka can undo the damage that Burisma and other similar cases have done to Ukraine’s international law enforcement partners, whose cooperation is needed to track cross-border illicit money flows. Some nations reportedly stopped cooperating with Ukraine because of a lack of trust in the nation’s prosecutors.
Asked if he has been able to repair the damage, Riaboshapka replied that “it takes time. It was harmful. There were a lot of harmful stories for the image of Ukraine in terms of international cooperation.”
But he says he’s put one of his best deputies, Kasko, on the issue. “He has very good contacts with law enforcement bodies internationally and credibility.”
Riaboshapka said the audit will also look at what happened to criminal investigations of Yanukovych and his associations, as well as old cases, such as the murder of Gongadze, the Ukrainska Pravda founder kidnapped and killed by police officers on Sept. 16, 2000. Four officers, including former police general Oleksiy Pukach, have been convicted and sentenced to prison. Their ultimate supervisor, Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, died from two gunshot wounds to the head on March 4, 2005, the day he was scheduled to give testimony. It was ruled a suicide. The trail of evidence leads to ex-President Leonid Kuchma, who denies any involvement.
Riaboshapka said that given the lapse of time, evidence has been lost and witnesses have died, making it more likely that crimes such as the Gongadze murder will never be solved.
But he believes the public deserves an accounting of what happened. After he’s finished with the audit, he will report findings to the public to explain the status of the cases and, if no charges are possible, what are the reasons.
“Society has the right to know the results of the investigation,” Riaboshapka said. “We should finalize our analysis of the results of this case. We need to represent a brief report: what has been done, what are the perspectives and, if we can’t do anything more, we have to answer to society that it’s impossible to get the highest person.”
Sometime early next year, starting with the EuroMaidan crimes, Riaboshkapka says also he plans to give a status report to the public on major cases connected to the revolution.
3 top priorities
Riaboshapka said three priorities will guide his decisions on which cases to pursue: high-profile murders that society cares greatly about solving, major financial crimes and other serious involving state-owned enterprises, particularly fraud in the defense and security sector, on which Ukraine now spends 5 percent of its gross domestic product. Much of the defense spending has been shrouded in secrecy, raising suspicions that this sector has become a new black hole for corrupt spending.
On complicated economic crimes, such as the bank fraud that has cost taxpayers $20 billion in the last five years, he said he’s put his best prosecutors on the cases.
VAB & Bakhmatyuk
He said that the recent arrest of Alexander Pisaruk, the CEO of Raiffaisen Bank Aval and former deputy governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, is a sign of progress. Pisaruk was arrested along with six others suspected of embezzling a $49 million loan to VAB Bank, owned by agricultural tycoon Oleg Bakhmatyuk. Among the seven were current and former central bank employees, VAB Bank staff and representatives of private companies linked to the owner of VAB Bank. Authorities believe that Bakhmatyuk conspired with Pisaruk, then-deputy head of the National Bank, to get the loan illegally.
Critics, including Bakhmatyuk and former central bank governor Valeria Gontareva, have accused law enforcement of political persecution, but Riaboshapka said that the description of the evidence “looks convincing to me. We will see.” At the least, “the case of VAB bank shows we can get results. It was opened in 2014. Since 2016, nothing happened in this case. One month ago, we renewed the investigation and now the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has shown very good progress. Sometimes it’s possible.”
Bakhmatyuk, who owns the Ukrlandfarming agricultural holding, owed the National Bank Hr 10.6 billion in the loans received by his two now-bankrupt banks, VAB and Financial Initiative, the central bank said in 2016. According to Bakhmatyuk, his debt to the National Bank now stands at Hr 8 billion, or $327 million.
Nov. 20 an important date
But not everything in the pursuit of justice depends on prosecutors and, after Nov. 20, even less will.
On that date, prosecutors will no longer be investigating cases. After the change, investigative functions will be shared among six entities: the State Investigative Bureau headed by Roman Truba, the Interior Ministry’s National Police led by Avakov, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine led by Artem Sytnyk, the Security Service of Ukraine led by Ivan Bakanov, and the State Fiscal Service headed by Denys Hutenko.
But prosecutors, who had almost complete dominance over how the criminal justice system worked, will still retain significant powers.
“The prosecutor will have the final say. The prosecutor identifies the investigation and is responsible for all the key decisions in all criminal cases. The prosecutor prioritizes which cases to investigate, how to distribute the resources, how to build the criminal case. The investigator is working for the prosecutor.”
He acknowledged the investigative agencies “could obstruct us and they do,” but such problems are “common in every country.”
The multiple agencies and differing responsibilities require coordination and trust. He said that he regularly communicates with other agencies on “all the priority cases and what we have to do and who does what to achieve better results.”
In the end, however, the most solid cases put together by police and prosecutors could all be lost through corrupt courts. So far, Riaboshapka is choosing to take an optimistic outlook.
“After three months, since I came into this office, the law enforcement system starts to work effectively,” he said. “It depends not only on us, but also on the Anti-Corruption Court. For the time being, we believe the judges of Anti-Corruption Court have high standards of integrity and good knowledge, good expertise.”
But the retention of Nazar Kholodnytsky as head of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and Avakov as interior minister have fueled skepticism about the prospects of establishing an effective and honest law enforcement system.
Kholodnytsky was secretly recorded by the NABU, in a sting operation, allegedly coaching suspects and obstructing investigations. He has denied the accusations, but the call for his firing has come from many Ukrainians and foreign partners, including American and German ambassadors.
“Nazar is another tricky issue,” Riaboshapka acknowledged. “He is now showing progress, cooperating very well with the NABU. If we start this (firing) process, it takes a lot of time. The cooperation between NABU and SAPO won’t be so effective. It’s going to be another war between the NABU, SAPO and the PGO.”
As for Avakov, Riaboshapka sees him mostly as “a political figure” with whom prosecutors don’t communicate as frequently as they do the National Police, which is part of the Interior Ministry. “Right now we have very good cooperation with National Police forces,” he said.
But he acknowledged that “if one element is corrupted” among police, prosecutors and courts, “the whole system becomes much less effective.”
‘Crime capital’ of Odesa
The Prosecutor General’s Office is a hierarchical organization. It puts Riaboshapka in charge of regional prosecutors across the nation. Perhaps no bigger test of his ability to establish law and order outside of the capital will be in Odesa, dubbed by Avakov as the “crime capital” of Ukraine.
On Sept. 30, he appointed Maksym Vykhor as Odesa Oblast prosecutor. Vykhor used to work in the Security Service of Ukraine in the Black Sea port city of 1 million people, located 475 kilometers south of Kyiv.
“He is a very decent guy,” Riaboshapka said of his appointee. “We prioritized his actions. First of all, he should change the leadership of the prosecutor’s office in Odesa, then he should establish good cooperation with the SBU and National Police.”
The biggest challenge, however, will be what prosecutors do with Odesa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov, a Russian national who denies decades of links to organized crime, as do his associates Vladimir Galanternik and Alexander Angert.
“I cannot say they are criminals,” Riaboshapka said.
But he said prosecutors are keenly aware of allegations and evidence of massive fraud in land sales and municipal property.
He notes that a Trukhanov case, alleging that the mayor got a kickback in the $7.6 million municipal purchase of a private land plot of a site known as the Kraian plant, is still alive. It is being considered by the High Anti-Corruption Court, after an Odesa lower court dismissed the case against him.
He also said that Galanternik is facing an investigation over a suspicious transfer of a land plot in Odesa. He also said prosecutors are trying to get valuable land returned to municipal ownership that had been sold to insiders “for a couple of dollars, a symbolic price.”
He vowed action and predicted that the state will have results “in the near future” in high-profile Odesa cases.
‘I am not afraid’
Riaboshapka said that “personally, no, I am not afraid” of taking on powerful lawbreakers, but he said that some of his subordinates are fearful, underscoring the need “create a culture of respect for law enforcement” in society, a task made all the more difficult by public distrust of law enforcers.
In rule-of-law societies with strong institutions, most criminal cases don’t go to trial. They are settled in pre-trial plea bargains, in which the defendant pleads guilty for a lesser prison sentence or in exchange for evidence against higher-level suspects.
“It’s an extremely important instrument,” he said of the use of plea bargains. “It’s being used by NABU more actively, but other agencies are not as active as I would wish. It’s a very new instrument in Ukrainian legislation. Frankly, what we are doing now is developing guidelines for prosecutors in criminal cases.”
Riaboshapka said that he’s approaching his job with a great sense of urgency.
“There are no possibilities to plan a strategy for a long period of time,” he said. “The situation is changing very quickly. We don’t know what will happen in a couple of months. We have to be very fast in our reforms and do what we planned.”
And Ukraine, meanwhile, waits impatiently for the first “big fish” to be convicted of a crime following a process seen as transparent and fair.
July 26, 2018: Ruslan Riaboshapka says he will focus Ukraine’s prosecutors on biggest crimes
Nov. 13, 2016: Lutsenko feels heat as society demands justice
April 18, 2013: The Grand Inquisitor Speaks
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter