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Anatomy of a scandal: why Zelenskyy launched a corruption crackdown in Ukraine

When Ukrainian investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist Yuriy Nikolov was informed of an overpriced food contract for the Defense Ministry, he knew the story could get him into trouble.

By publishing it, Nikolov not only broke the taboo against criticizing the Ukrainian government in wartime. He knew it could also cast a shadow over his stricken country and tarnish the reputation of one of the war’s most prominent figures: Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov.

Nikolov applied to the ministry but was refused, he told the Financial Times. On Monday, he released his findings, which showed the ministry had signed a $350 million deal with a catering company to pay grossly inflated prices for food destined for Ukrainian troops.

The story of inflated prices for eggs and gherkins was a wake-up call for Ukrainians, who, according to the country’s Central Bank, donated about $500 million to the army from their own funds. Many have recognized this as a classic scheme used by powerful officials to line their pockets. That it was money meant to feed their protectors made it all the more scandalous.

The army food scandal erupted as Ukraine pleaded with its Western partners for tanks and other critical weapons to fight Russia’s invading forces. The country’s bid for EU membership will depend on robust rule of law and anti-corruption reforms.

It was the first domino in a cascade of stories that led to the resignations and firings of high-ranking government officials, as well as the biggest government reshuffle since the start of a full-scale Russian invasion.

In a few days, one of the deputy heads of presidential administration Volodymyr Zelensky, five governors of front-line regions, four deputy ministers and two members of the president’s ruling Servant of the People party in parliament will resign or be fired due to scandalous or allegedly corrupt behavior.

Soldiers of the territorial defense of Ukraine have lunch

Ukrainian military sit down for a meal. The army food scandal had a domino effect © Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Corruption is a minus in any case, but in our conditions, with our level of development of our democracy and the fight against Russia, the price is very high, people are dying every day,” said deputy Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, first deputy head of parliament. committee on anti-corruption policy.

The Ukrainians are aiming to defeat Russia, Nikolov said, “but it turned out that in reality [Ukrainians] I don’t like corruption very much and I also want justice.”

“Soldiers in the trenches,” he added, were among the many readers who wrote him a letter thanking him for exposing the deal and stopping it before payment was made.

Reznikov denied any wrongdoing in a fiery Facebook post and shifted the blame to his deputy, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, who oversaw procurement and quit when the scandal erupted.

Ukraine’s top military commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, called for a thorough investigation into allegations of corruption, adding that the military has “totally intolerant of corruption.”

Yurchyshyn, who sits on a parliamentary committee dealing with anti-corruption policy, told the FT that the shake-up proved that ongoing anti-corruption reforms are working. “We created NABU, an anti-corruption court, a special anti-corruption prosecutor’s office and ProZorro,” a digital procurement system to increase transparency and competition, Yurchyshyn said.

“It’s fair, it’s necessary for our defense and it helps our rapprochement with European institutions,” Zelenskiy said of the reshuffle in his government on Tuesday. “We need a strong state, and Ukraine will be just that.”

Ana Pisonero, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said leaders in Brussels, who say Ukraine’s potential future entry into the 27-member bloc depends on its removal of corruption, were pleased with Zelenskiy’s response and “welcomed the fact that the Ukrainian authorities are treating these issues Seriously”. But further progress on reforms is still needed, she added.

In particular, the EU wants to see a reform of Ukraine’s historically problematic Constitutional Court and a judge selection process.

Zelenskiy came to power in 2019 largely on a promise to end the war with Russia and fight bribery. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, published shortly before Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24 last year, Ukraine ranked 122 out of 180 countries, a slight improvement from the previous year, but no significant improvement from 2018, when Ukraine ranked 120th place. corrupt state.

Tetyana Shevchuk, legal adviser for the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Center, a leading watchdog, told the FT that Zelenskiy’s shake-up and crackdown showed he was trying to keep his promise. Its measures also include a travel ban for government employees after some officials were caught on a luxury holiday, while male civilians between the ages of 16 and 80 are not allowed to leave the country.

“Zelensky did this to show his allies that he was serious, but this also applies to his domestic audience,” she said, adding that some of the scandals have been known for months.

“There was a lot of tension in the country,” she said. But civil society was wary of causing a public outcry, fearing that they would inadvertently harm their country by fueling Russian propaganda or creating an image of Ukraine as a corrupt place in the eyes of Western supporters.

For example, Ukrainian investigative reporters have repeatedly photographed Zelenskiy’s deputy chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, driving a luxurious new $100,000 Porsche Taycan and an SUV donated by General Motors to deliver humanitarian aid last fall.

But Tymoshenko only resigned on Tuesday, after public outrage and Zelenskiy’s promise that heads would roll.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Zelensky’s former deputy chief of staff © Evgen Kotenko/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Shevchuk said that prior to this, the anti-corruption activists were operating under a “tacit agreement” with the government. “It was like this: we don’t criticize you as long as you do the right thing. If you do something wrong, you have time to correct your mistakes.”

But setting up a scheme to steal money from Ukraine’s vital war chest, she added, “crossed a red line.”

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