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Who is Oleksandr Klymenko, Ukraine's new top anti-corruption prosecutor?

by Oleg Sukhov July 29, 2022 4:26 PM 5 min read
Oleksandr Klymenko attends a meeting at the Prosecutor General's Office on July 28, in Kyiv, Ukraine. During the meeting, Klymenko was officially appointed as the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office. (Prosecutor General's Office)
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The new Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin began his reign with a long-awaited move, ending the seemingly never-ending saga of choosing the country's top anti-corruption prosecutor.

Oleksandr Klymenko, who won the job contest back in December, was formally named the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office (SAPO) on July 28.

The Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office has a key role in law enforcement as it oversees all cases pursued by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the main corruption fighting body in the country.

The SAPO had lacked a chief since August 2020, severely damaging its ability to fight corruption in Ukraine.

The appointment of an independent chief anti-corruption prosecutor who is free from political influence has been one of the key requirements put forward by the Western governments and international donors. It was also one of the primary conditions for Ukraine to begin potential membership talks with the European Union.

Read Also: European Commission recommends granting Ukraine candidate status, reforms must follow

Views on whether Klymenko will be independent and effective differ, as he has yet to prove his credentials.

The Kyiv Independent explains why his appointment matters and what the country could expect going forward.

Why did it take so long to appoint the anti-corruption prosecutor?

The previous chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, resigned in August 2020. A selection panel comprising both government-picked members and Western experts was tasked with choosing Kholodnytsky’s replacement.

However, anti-corruption activists argued that the pro-government panel members were reluctant to choose an independent head of the SAPO.

Andriy Kostin, then a lawmaker from President Volodymyr Zelensky's party, was seen as the presidential administration’s preferred candidate for the job of chief anti-corruption prosecutor. However, he was vetoed by Western experts for being seen as lacking political independence and not meeting integrity standards.

After the veto on Kostin, pro-government members on the selection panel were accused of blocking and sabotaging panel meetings for months by failing to attend.

Ukrainian panel members also vetoed most of the candidates who were deemed to be independent. As a result, two candidates – NABU detective Klymenko and prosecutor Andriy Syniuk – remained in the running.

Klymenko got a higher score and was supposed to be appointed in December 2021. However, the selection panel repeatedly failed to nominate him.

First pro-government panel members cited a ruling by a court that canceled the rules of procedure for the selection process. The court is headed by Ukraine’s most infamous judge Pavlo Vovk, a corruption suspect. The ruling has not come into effect as it is being appealed at a higher court.

Afterward, the panel’s head Kateryna Koval blocked the selection process by demanding that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and other state agencies conduct a second background check on Klymenko.

Klymenko – like all other candidates – had already passed a background check. The National Agency for Corruption Prevention and anti-corruption activists said that a second background check would be unlawful.

Read Also: Explainer: What’s behind Zelensky’s public ousting of top officials

The process appeared to have stalled indefinitely after Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, giving the panel members an excuse not to appoint Klymenko. However, pressure from the European Union eventually had an effect.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on June 17, during official remarks on granting Ukraine and Moldova EU candidate status, that Kyiv must swiftly appoint the head of the SAPO. A month later, Zelensky urged the panel to appoint the winner of the competition.

Two days after Zelensky's remarks, on July 19, the selection panel nominated Klymenko as the head of the SAPO.

Who is Klymenko?

Klymenko, 35, is an experienced NABU detective who led a number of high-profile probes.

After graduating with a law degree from the National Law Academy in Kharkiv, he worked as a police investigator from 2010 to 2016.

Specifically, he investigated embezzlement at state railway monopoly Ukrzaliznytsia and wrote a letter to its management asking them to stop the embezzlement scheme. According to Klymenko, he was reprimanded and pressured by the police leadership for his stance.

Klymenko began working as a NABU detective in 2016, being promoted to a department head the next year.

At the NABU, he investigated some of the most high-profile corruption cases, including those against ex-lawmaker Oleksandr Onyshchenko, ex-State Fiscal Service chief Roman Nasirov, and Oleh Hladkovsky, the ex-deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council.

Klymenko also spearheaded a bribery case against Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov.

Read Also: Explainer: Is there any merit to Congresswoman Spartz' accusations against Zelensky's chief of staff?

Tatarov was charged with bribery in 2020, but the Prosecutor General’s Office took the case away from the NABU and SAPO and transferred it to the allegedly politically subservient SBU. Eventually, the case was effectively destroyed by prosecutors and courts.

Klymenko said in a January interview that he would have done a better job with the Tatarov case if he had headed the SAPO in 2020.

However, it is not clear whether Klymenko will be willing to take on Tatarov and other Zelensky allies. He said in the same interview that currently there are no ways to reanimate the Tatarov case because it has already been transferred to the SBU.

Will Klymenko be independent and effective?

The civil society is split on whether Klymenko is the best person for the job, yet there are currently no reasons to believe that he is not independent.

Klymenko was not the frontrunner initially, but other candidates who got higher scores were vetoed by pro-government panel members, and Klymenko won by default.

A law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Kyiv Independent that Klymenko was not among the strongest candidates from the NABU, and it is not clear why the panel preferred him to others.

Lawyer Vitaly Tytych, an ex-head of civic watchdog Public Integrity Council, does not expect Klymenko to achieve a breakthrough because he believes the flawed selection procedure did not guarantee the appointment of the best candidate.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Corruption Action Center watchdog and other anti-corruption activists have praised Klymenko, describing him as an independent investigator who has shown his willingness to take on top-level corruption.

Previously even officials who were initially appointed through transparent selection procedures sometimes turned out to be disappointments.

The previous chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Kholodnytsky, was initially praised by activists. But in 2018 the NABU released audio recordings in which Kholodnytsky is heard pressuring prosecutors and courts to stall cases, urging a witness to give false testimony, and tipping off suspects about future searches.

Kholodnytsky confirmed that the tapes were authentic but said they had been taken out of context.

By the end of his tenure in 2020, Kholodnytsky had become of the most dubious officials in Ukraine. He was accused by the civil society of sabotaging high-profile corruption cases.

Meanwhile, there are also legal hurdles for Klymenko to show a result from the get go.

Technically, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor is a deputy of the prosecutor general. He has autonomy but not complete independence. In the past, prosecutor generals and courts have routinely sabotaged the work of the SAPO and NABU by taking cases away from them or straight out closing NABU cases.

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