Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 4 September 2023


Kyiv’s internal battle against cor­rup­tion

Zelenskyy aims to sig­nal at home and abroad that he is ser­i­ous about tack­ling graft

Since Rus­sia’s full-scale inva­sion 18 months ago, Ukraine has been waging wars on two fronts. One is the exist­en­tial fight against an external aggressor. The other is the con­tinu­ing internal struggle against the cor­rup­tion that sapped Ukraine’s inde­pend­ent state­hood even before Krem­lin tanks rolled over its bor­ders. Just as Kyiv’s coun­ter­of­fens­ive shows tent­at­ive signs of mak­ing gains, fraud charges against a Ukrain­ian olig­arch and the replace­ment of its defence min­is­ter sig­nal a determ­in­a­tion by Pres­id­ent Volodymyr Zelenskyy to advance in the domestic struggle, too. He should keep it up.

Fir­ing a defence min­is­ter respec­ted by his peers, in the middle of a war, may baffle those unfa­mil­iar with Kyiv’s ser­pent­ine polit­ics. Indeed, Oleksiy Reznikov ful­filled his most com­pel­ling task — help­ing to cajole Ukraine’s often foot-drag­ging west­ern allies to provide bil­lions of dol­lars of mil­it­ary assist­ance — with suc­cess. He has not faced alleg­a­tions of per­sonal graft, and may yet be slot­ted into Kyiv’s ambas­sad­or­ship to Lon­don. Since the gen­eral staff, not the defence min­istry, co-ordin­ates strategy and com­bat oper­a­tions, his resig­na­tion will not redraw battle plans.

But act­iv­ists and media have lev­elled alleg­a­tions against Kyiv’s defence min­istry, includ­ing that it paid inflated prices for eggs and for mil­it­ary jack­ets for the army. Such claims are espe­cially cor­ros­ive since they sug­gest indi­vidu­als may be prof­it­eer­ing from the war and leav­ing front­line forces under­sup­plied. Reznikov — however busy with his inter­na­tional role — was cri­ti­cised for fail­ing to bring more account­ab­il­ity to his depart­ment. His ini­tial response was to present the claims as a treach­er­ous breach of mil­it­ary secrecy.

Zelenskyy’s nom­in­a­tion of Rustem Umerov to bring “new approaches” as defence min­is­ter fol­lows other recent steps to clamp down on mil­it­ary graft. The pres­id­ent last week decried cor­rup­tion in med­ical exemp­tion cer­ti­fic­ates to avoid mil­it­ary ser­vice. Last month, he dis­missed all the heads of Ukraine’s regional army recruit­ment centres.

Also last week­end, a court issued a deten­tion order for Igor Kolomoisky after the tycoon was named a sus­pect in an unspe­cified fraud and money laun­der­ing case. Zelenskyy declared in his nightly address that post­war Ukraine would have “dif­fer­ent rules”.

Attempts to bring Kolomoisky — who has con­sist­ently denied wrong­do­ing — to trial for alleged large-scale fraud at Privat­Bank, Ukraine’s biggest lender which he pre­vi­ously co-owned, have not so far borne fruit. But the pres­id­ent’s read­i­ness to dis­tance him­self from the mogul who backed his 2019 pres­id­en­tial bid sug­gests Zelenskyy is intent on send­ing a mes­sage at home and abroad.

This is over­due. Though Ukrain­ian forces claim to have broken through the first line of Rus­sian defences in the south­ern Zapor­izhzhia region, the pain­ful pro­gress of the coun­ter­of­fens­ive sug­gests the con­flict will be drawn out. West­ern part­ners must be ready to provide sup­port for the long haul. Any per­cep­tion that Kyiv is flag­ging in its domestic reforms will make it harder to main­tain US and European resolve. Ukraine also has formal con­di­tions to meet if it is to begin EU acces­sion talks.

All this adds to the extraordin­ary pres­sures on the Ukrain­ian leader. He must achieve more con­sist­ent pro­gress in curb­ing graft and rein­ing in over­mighty olig­archs while guard­ing against appear­ances of arbit­rary or select­ive justice, in a state still oper­at­ing under mar­tial law. He must give free rein to inde­pend­ent insti­tu­tions of which he some­times seems sus­pi­cious. Yet only then can he deliver, even if Kyiv wins the mil­it­ary struggle, the “dif­fer­ent” Ukraine he has prom­ised his people.

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