Ukraine’s President Said He’d Fight Corruption. Resistance Is Fierce.
KYIV, Ukraine — Kateryna Rozhkova, the first deputy governor of Ukraine’s central bank, had just about learned to live with the hundreds of protesters banging metal rods and drums outside her office when they started gathering every morning outside her house.
If that wasn’t enough, just before Christmas, a brass ensemble showed up at her home blaring funeral music in accompaniment of a horse-drawn hearse and men dressed like the grim reaper.
The protesters presented themselves as part of a grass roots effort opposing official corruption, but Ms. Rozhkova says they were anything but. She says they were sent by a billionaire accused of defrauding the government of $5 billion and who is now locked in a fierce battle with the Ukrainian central bank.
“If there is this kind of reaction,” Ms. Rozhkova said of the lawlessness she says Ukraine’s anti-corruption forces are up against, “it means that there is a fight.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian, sitcom star and political neophyte, catapulted to the presidency of Ukraine last spring on a promise of sweeping away the country’s shadowy web of money and influence.
Now, as Mr. Zelensky faces pressure to deliver on his promises, he is finding that actually bringing the corrupt officials and oligarchs to heel is a lot harder than satirizing them on his former TV show, “Servant of the People.”
Previous Ukrainian presidents came to power pledging to tackle corruption, but usually with the intent of using that pose as cover for their own corrupt deals, activists say. Whether Mr. Zelensky can show that he is different from past leaders will be a decisive litmus test for his presidency — and for Ukraine’s viability as a country moving closer to the West.
Further complicating an already daunting task, Mr. Zelensky has been forced to deal with the fallout from the Trump administration’s pressure campaign in Ukraine and the impeachment trial in Washington that sprang from it.
In the past, Ukraine enjoyed the steadfast support of the United States in fighting both corruption and a war against Russian-backed separatists. Now, Ukrainians say Washington’s message has grown muddled, in part because Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and his Ukrainian allies see the Western-backed camp of Ukrainian anticorruption reformers as their enemies.
“Giuliani flying in — rather than fighting corruption, he was supporting and meeting with all of the past corrupt people,” said Valeria Gontareva, the former head of Ukraine’s central bank. “As a result, it’s very hard to say what the message is that we now hear from America.”
Nevertheless, anticorruption activists say they see signs of progress.
Mr. Zelensky’s new prosecutor general is modernizing his corruption-plagued office and firing hundreds of prosecutors. A flurry of laws passed by Mr. Zelensky’s months-old parliamentary majority seeks to overhaul the justice system and criminalize illicit enrichment by public officials. The president has even signed legislation establishing a procedure for his own impeachment.
When it comes to enforcing the law, however, Mr. Zelensky’s tests are just beginning. Ukraine’s mafia, for example, is trying to bribe and threaten members of Mr. Zelensky’s ruling bloc in Parliament to derail legislation to crack down on organized crime, said a senior lawmaker, David Arakhamia.
“They meet them by their house and say, ‘We know where your parents live,’” said Mr. Arakhamia, the floor leader of Mr. Zelensky’s party in Parliament.
And just this week Mr. Zelensky’s handpicked prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, offered his resignation after the leak of what he said was a doctored recording on which he is heard to say the president has a “primitive” understanding of economics. Mr. Honcharuk blamed the leak on forces trying to undermine the anticorruption drive. Mr. Zelensky refused his resignation.
Perhaps Mr. Zelensky’s biggest challenge lies with his erstwhile patron, Ihor Kolomoisky, one of the oligarchs that Mr. Giuliani and his associates courted and the man Ms. Rozhkova believes is responsible for trying to intimidate her and her colleagues.
Mr. Kolomoisky advanced Mr. Zelensky’s career by putting “Servant of the People” on his TV channel. Now, having returned from self-imposed exile in Israel and Switzerland, he is hoping to regain control of a bank that the government seized from him, alleging that he and his business partner siphoned billions of dollars out of it.
“Even more than getting it back, I want to punish the guilty” responsible for seizing the bank, Mr. Kolomoisky told The New York Times in November. “The guilty must be put on the spike and the death penalty brought back for them.”
In a recent phone interview, Mr. Kolomoisky denied having anything to do with the protests against the central bank, which have been covered extensively on the television channel he owns and populated by people transported in buses bearing the logo of one of his businesses. He called Mr. Giuliani an “honorable person.”
Ms. Gontareva, who nationalized Mr. Kolomoisky’s bank, PrivatBank, in 2016, says she got a sample of the oligarch’s methods last year. First, she was hit by a car while in London, where she was living at the time. Then her house in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and her son’s car were hit by arson attacks. She decided to remain in London in self-imposed exile.
Mr. Kolomoisky dismissed Ms. Gontareva’s allegations, saying she “has to be sent to the insane asylum.”
Mr. Zelensky needs to demonstrate to Ukraine’s Western creditors that he is serious about prosecuting large-scale fraud in order to secure billions of dollars in sorely needed loans from the International Monetary Fund.
In the impeachment proceedings in Washington, Ukraine has been tarnished by corruption accusations by Republicans and Democrats alike — feeding worries that Kyiv now faces a long-term challenge in winning bipartisan support even as its conflict with neighboring Russia continues.
In America, “politicians are an extension of the electorate, and the electorate has already concluded that Ukraine is a corrupt country,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, who resigned as Mr. Zelensky’s national security adviser in September. “In practice, I expect the support of the United States to be minimal in the next year.”
The new prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, this fall allowed a longstanding case to proceed against a different business tycoon, Oleg Bakhmatyuk, who is also accused of siphoning money from his bank. But the Ukrainian authorities have not brought such charges against Mr. Kolomoisky.
That has led to accusations that Mr. Zelensky is giving his media ally and former business partner special treatment — charges that both men deny.
But high-profile corruption cases “won’t be credible until there’s action taken against Kolomoisky,” said Mr. Danylyuk, the former Zelensky adviser. “Bakhmatyuk won’t cut it.”
Mr. Kolomoisky denies any wrongdoing in the PrivatBank matter. Mr. Bakhmatyuk also denies wrongdoing.
Ukraine’s problems extend beyond Mr. Kolomoisky, however. The powerful S.B.U. intelligence agency remains in dire need of changes to stop it from intervening “in all areas of social life and business,” says the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a watchdog group. Rather than functioning as a Western intelligence service, the S.B.U. is able to take advantage of its wide-ranging powers to extract bribes and exert undue influence across Ukraine, its critics say.
“Right now, corrupt elites from various agencies are trying to understand how to operate under the new political realities in Ukraine,” said the center’s executive director, Daria Kaleniuk. “They’re looking for whom to bribe, who to negotiate with.”
A representative of Andriy Bohdan, Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff whom Mr. Bakhmatyuk blamed for his plight, did not respond to a request for comment.
Dmytro Sologub, a deputy governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, said post-Soviet Ukraine was particularly vulnerable to corruption even compared to some other post-Communist European countries. Caught between warring European powers for centuries, the country has little legacy of its own trusted institutions.
“The system we’re trying to change now was created and modified in the course of 25 years,” Mr. Sologub said. “That raises the question of how much time will be necessary to change it.”
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