January 27, 2023 | Policy Brief

Ukraine Must Build on Anti-Corruption Firings With Further Reform

January 27, 2023 | Policy Brief

Ukraine Must Build on Anti-Corruption Firings With Further Reform

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fired a spate of senior Ukrainian officials this week after promising to crack down on corruption amid public anger over graft scandals. With these purges, Zelenskyy seeks to demonstrate to both domestic and foreign audiences his commitment to fighting corruption.

The highest-profile firings occurred at the Ministry of Defense, which has faced intense criticism following Ukrainian media and law enforcement accusations of corruption involving contracts for military food supplies. Under pressure, the deputy defense minister responsible for rear support resigned. The ministry’s chief procurement official, whom journalists had separately accused of embezzlement back in August, was also dismissed.

In addition, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an influential deputy head of Zelenskyy’s presidential office who was responsible for regional policy and reconstruction, resigned. Ukrainian journalists had accused him of driving several luxury sports cars as well as a Chevy Tahoe donated for humanitarian purposes.

Zelenskyy also fired the heads of four regions. At least one was under investigation for corruption, and several were said to be aligned with Tymoshenko. Ukraine’s prosecutor general likewise dismissed five regions’ chief prosecutors as well as his own deputy, Oleksiy Symonenko, who came under scrutiny after vacationing in Spain using a Mercedes owned by a Ukrainian businessman.

Other senior officials also lost their jobs, including two deputy ministers from Ukraine’s Ministry of Communities, Territories and Infrastructure Development. They resigned days after the arrest of a fellow deputy minister who allegedly took kickbacks for facilitating procurement of electricity generators at inflated prices. The head of Zelenskyy’s ruling party also said his deputy would be fired following corruption allegations.

Zelenskyy campaigned for the presidency on an anti-corruption platform in 2019 but has achieved mixed results. By February 2022, progress had essentially stalled. However, the war spurred Kyiv to redouble its efforts, while helping neutralize powerful oligarchs who opposed reform. On Sunday, Zelenskyy promised “there will be no return” to the corruption of the past.

Fighting corruption is critical to Ukraine’s security, economic future, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, as Zelenskyy noted following the purges. Not only has Russia long used corrupt dealings to wield influence within Ukraine, but Western critics now point to corruption to argue against aid for the embattled democracy. In June, the European Commission listed seven anti-corruption and other reforms Ukraine must complete to unlock EU accession negotiations. Kyiv also needs to demonstrate progress to secure additional financial aid and convince Western partners to spend billions to help rebuild the country.

On Tuesday, the United States and European Union welcomed Ukraine’s anti-corruption push. The State Department spokesman said that Washington is “not aware that any U.S. assistance” was misappropriated in the corruption scandals.

This week’s purges follow several other anti-corruption milestones. In July, Kyiv took the long-overdue step of appointing an independent chief of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Ukraine later liquidated the notorious Kyiv District Administrative Court, headed by a judge whom Washington sanctioned for corruption days earlier. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Congress of Judges appointed eight new, independently vetted members to the country’s High Council of Justice, which had previously undermined reform.

Despite this progress, more is needed. In December, Kyiv enacted a law reforming the procedure for selecting Constitutional Court judges, an issue topping the European Commission’s list of recommendations. But as currently written, the law could enable political interference in the selection process.

The United States should push Ukraine to advance key reforms, including by amending that law as recommended by the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe. Washington should also press Kyiv to continue purging corrupt officials, including those still serving in the president’s office.

Addressing corruption cannot wait until the war ends, as the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate. Transparency and anti-corruption must remain top priorities if Ukraine is to achieve the future for which its soldiers are currently fighting.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Elaine Dezenski is senior director and head of FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from the authors, the Russia Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineDezenski. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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