Published 31/01/2023 15:14 | Edited 1/31/2023 4:48 PM
Amid the devastation of war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tries to soften the image of corruption spread by his government. He announced a sweeping elimination of senior national and regional government officials and the appointment of a new supervisory board for state-owned natural gas giant Naftogaz. This is an attempt to reassure both the Ukrainian public and the country’s Western allies that it fights corruption despite the ongoing war with Russia.
The Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament – in which Zelensky’s Servant of the People party has a dominant majority – quickly followed the president’s lead by introducing a bill aimed at increasing transparency in defense purchases to avoid, for example, artificially inflated prices paid for troop “rations”. The most recent allegations of embezzlement involve mainly purchases of supplies for war.
Among the “purged” senior national government officials were the Deputy Attorney General, the Deputy Ministers of Community and Territorial Development, the Deputy Minister of Social Policy, and the Deputy Minister of Defense. Just last year, several other top officials were dismissed on suspicion of espionage and treason, including a personal friend of Zelensky.
In addition, the heads of four frontline regional administrations – Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – were dismissed. Among them, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentyn Reznichenko, has previously been implicated in a scandal surrounding the “Great Reconstruction” project, accused of donating $41m (£33m) of funds earmarked for rebuilding roads in his region – 65% of the total allocation – to a company owned by his girlfriend, Yana Khlanta.
Another important figure to lose his job is Oleksiy Symonenko, Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine. Symonenko was accused of spending a holiday in Spain at the end of December, which was partly funded by a prominent Ukrainian businessman.
Also dismissed was the leader of the Kyev capital region, Oleksii Kuleba. However, Kuleba was immediately appointed by Zelensky as deputy head of his presidential office. He replaces the most visible figure to step down, Kyryl Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko has been embroiled in public scandals over the past year, including over his personal use of a car donated by General Motors to Ukraine for humanitarian purposes.
This kind of personal abuse of power and position has long been endemic in Ukraine, and it did not suddenly end with the Russian invasion. But this has angered many ordinary Ukrainians, who live with 30% official unemployment and a 21% drop in real income.
Most people believe they have made extraordinary sacrifices in defense of their country, enduring increasing hardship over the last 11 months. In stark contrast is the so-called “Monaco battalion”. These are current and former high-ranking officials and businessmen who used their office to leave the country with their families. Many of these elites took significant assets with them to fund their new lives of luxury in resorts in France, Spain, Switzerland and Austria.
Zelensky’s response to the latest revelations reflects his admission that ordinary Ukrainians can be dissatisfied with their president. But so far the corruption scandals have not tarnished Zelensky himself, who continues to enjoy unprecedented levels of public trust – rising from 27% in December 2021 to 84% in December 2022, as reported by the International Institute of Sociology of Kiev (KIIS). The armed forces were considered in the same survey to have the highest trust of any institution in Ukraine at 96%, up from 72% in December 2021.
The “remodel” is less comprehensive than it sounds. Many of the dismissed national government officials, for example, were deputy ministers. These are people considered more “technical figures” within a minister’s team. Therefore, the basic composition of the current government is unlikely to change, nor the balance of power in the Ukrainian government. Key figures such as Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov remain in office.
There are no indications that any of them were involved in the current corruption scandals, but these episodes clearly happened under their watch – defense purchases, after all, are at the heart of current government business.
Coming across as fighting corruption will remain a key factor in the war – how and when it will end and what kind of Ukraine will emerge from it. Being able to demonstrate moves to ensure transparency will be key to the country’s progress towards EU membership. The Ukrainian president is clearly aware of this – he devoted much of his evening address to the nation on Jan. 24 (one year into the war) to the issue.
With information from The Conversation.