Artem Sytnyk, head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), was appointed in 2015 to achieve a breakthrough in Ukraine’s long fight against elite corruption.
Sytnyk’s term expires in April 2022, which means that the time has come to assess the achievements of his tenure.
The Kyiv Independent conducted an exclusive interview with the NABU head at the “Seven Years of Anti-Corruption Reforms” conference in Kyiv, discussing the most significant cases of his six years in the job.
While the bureau is often praised by civil society organizations and Ukraine’s Western partners, it has thus far failed to bring high-profile suspects to justice.
The NABU has charged many top and mid-level officials, and some lower-level officials have been convicted for corruption. The bureau also appears to have more independence than any other law enforcement agency.
The NABU’s work has been constantly obstructed by other law enforcement bodies, and the authorities have made many attempts to eliminate its independence.
But Sytnyk has also been criticized for being reluctant to go to the very top and take on presidents and their influential allies.
About 1,000 people have been charged in NABU cases. The most highest-ranking are one minister, five deputy ministers, 11 state agency heads, 20 members of parliament, 67 judges and 78 state-owned company executives.
Almost none of the high-ranking officials have been convicted so far. Only two ex-members of parliament have been sentenced to suspended prison terms.
The High Anti-Corruption Court, set up in 2019, has convicted 55 people, of whom 33 were sentenced to jail. Almost all of them are low-ranking officials and judges.
Compared with more spectacular international successes in fighting corruption, the NABU’s record is bleak.
In South Korea, four presidents have been imprisoned for corruption and other crimes, while one more committed suicide after being charged with graft.
In Romania, thousands of officials have been convicted since 2010. These include the leader of a ruling party, a prime minister, at least 18 ministers and many members of parliament.
Sytnyk argued, however, that South Korea and Romania had had more time to deliver results.
“How much time did they need for that?” he said. “Pretty often they cite the example of anti-corruption agencies that started jailing people during the 12th or 13th year of their existence.”
One of the NABU cases involved Ukraine’s de facto second-in-command: Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak.
In March 2020, Geo Leros, who was then a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, published videos that showed Yermak’s brother Denys discussing the sale of government jobs.
The Yermak brothers did not deny the authenticity of the videos, but Denys Yermak claimed they were taken out of context. Andriy Yermak also dismissed the accusations.
In April, the NABU opened a corruption case based on the videos, but the then-Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, immediately transferred the case to the politically subservient Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), prompting Leros to accuse him of burying the case.
In June 2020, a court ordered the NABU to open another graft case based on the Yermak videos, and the bureau complied. The case has seen no progress since then, and the investigation is now effectively dead because the deadline for sending it to trial expired on Dec. 9.
Sytnyk’s critics argue that he has been reluctant to go after high-ranking presidential allies for political reasons.
Sytnyk responded that one of the problems with the Yermak case was the inadmissibility of the tapes as evidence due to their unclear origin and impossibility of determining whether they were tampered with.
He admitted that the NABU could have proceeded with the case by questioning witnesses and suspects. But he said no one was willing to talk.
“There are two people who are featured in the tapes, and they are silent,” Sytnyk said. “How are we supposed to prove (the suspects’ guilt)?”
This statement is at odds with a 2020 interview that Serhii Shumsky and Dmytro Shtanko, Denys Yermak’s alleged partners in the graft schemes, gave to the Bihus.info investigative journalism project.
They claimed that the chief of staff’s brother had received payments from candidates for state jobs and that the whole corruption scheme had been initiated by Andriy Yermak.
Another top Zelensky ally, his deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov, was charged by the NABU in 2020 with bribing a forensic expert.
Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, a Zelensky protégé, blocked the charges against Tatarov by replacing the group of prosecutors leading the case.
“In this case we faced an absolutely new form of pressure and interference in the work of anti-corruption agencies,” Sytnyk said. “For the first time in six years prosecutors were replaced at night. There have been different prosecutors general but something like this has never happened before.”
Then Kyiv’s Pechersk Court ordered Venediktova to take the case away from the NABU, and one of Venediktova’s deputies used it as a pretext to give the case to the SBU.
Under Ukrainian law, the Tatarov bribery case falls squarely into the NABU’s jurisdiction, and jurisdictional disputes can only be considered by the High Anti-Corruption Court.
“The Pechersk Court issued absolutely unlawful decisions that are null and void from the standpoint of the law,” said Sytnyk. The court did not respond to a request for comment.
In February, a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation, and Venediktova’s prosecutors effectively killed it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.
Despite her previous actions to stall the case, Sytnyk told the Kyiv Independent that he has had a constructive relationship with Venediktova over the past several months.
Chaus and Smyrnov
One more crucial case involving a top incumbent official is that against fugitive judge Mykola Chaus.
Chaus was caught by the NABU receiving a $150,000 bribe in 2016, after which he fled to Moldova. He denied all accusations of wrongdoing.
According to Moldova’s then-Prosecutor General Alexandru Stoianoglo, Chaus was kidnapped in Moldova by Ukrainian authorities in April 2021 and transported back to Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities denied the accusations.
The fugitive judge re-emerged in Ukraine this July, handing himself in at a Vinnytsia Oblast village hall in bizarre circumstances, and subsequently being detained by the SBU.
Top allies of ex-President Petro Poroshenko, including ex-lawmaker Oleksandr Hranovsky, were allegedly involved in Chaus’ escape from Ukraine in 2016, according to a leaked 2020 document from Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC) that referred to the Chaus investigation. Hranovsky did not respond to requests for comment.
Andriy Smyrnov, who is now a deputy chief of staff for Zelensky responsible for judicial affairs, was also among the people who allegedly helped Chaus flee when Smyrnov was a lawyer in 2016, the document reads. According to the document, Smyrnov drove Chaus to his hiding place in the Alpine Residential Complex in Kyiv. Smyrnov denied the accusations.
Sytnyk said that Smyrnov has been questioned in the Chaus case but no direct evidence of him having committed a crime has been found.
A law enforcement source told the Kyiv Independent that Smyrnov could have taken part in organizing Chaus’ kidnapping in April and was “heavily involved” in the Chaus saga. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Sytnyk said that the NABU investigators found evidence of other suspects’ participation in Chaus’ escape, likely a veiled reference to Poroshenko’s allies.
“We saw prospects (for charging these suspects) and were moving towards a certain decision,” he added.
However, the NABU was prevented from charging these suspects when the case into Chaus’ escape from Ukraine was transferred to the SBU in July.
Kononenko and Hranovsky
Top Poroshenko associates have also escaped punishment.
In March 2020, the NABU charged Olga Tkachenko, a Hranovsky associate, in an embezzlement case involving the state-owned Odesa Portside Plant, one of Ukraine's largest fertilizer factories. A year later, Sytnyk hinted that the bureau had drafted charges in the same case for Hranovsky and ex-lawmaker Ihor Kononenko, another top Poroshenko ally.
However, the draft charges have not been approved by anti-corruption prosecutors.
When asked about Hranovsky’s and Kononenko’s charges, Sytnyk said that the NABU had prepared charges for “other persons” in the case, but didn’t name them.
“(NABU) detectives have not yet persuaded prosecutors (to approve the charges),” Sytnyk said.
Ukraine’s most prominent judicial corruption investigation – that against notorious judge Pavlo Vovk, head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court – has also gone nowhere.
Vovk was charged by prosecutors twice – with obstruction of justice in 2019 and with corruption in 2020.
The 2020 case is being pursued by the NABU. The 2019 case has been transferred to the SBU and prosecutors have refused to give it to the NABU.
The High Council of Justice, the judiciary’s highest governing body, refused to suspend Vovk from his job both in 2019 and 2020. In wiretapped conversations released by the NABU, Vovk mentioned the involvement of High Council of Justice members in his alleged corruption schemes. They did not respond to requests for comment.
“The High Council of Justice has brutally interfered in the investigation and usurped the functions of a court,” Sytnyk said. “Judicial reform should start with the High Council of Justice, which has become the symbol of covering up for corrupt schemes in the judicial system.”
Venediktova has refused to authorize an arrest warrant for Vovk, fired her deputy when he approved the corruption charges against the judge and rejected motions to search and wiretap him. She denied accusations of sabotage.
In both Vovk cases, judges refused to extend the investigation, and prosecutors missed a five-day deadline for sending them to trial set by the Criminal Procedure Code.
Sytnyk defended the prosecutors’ decisions not to send them to court within the deadline, arguing that the law allows the prosecutor’s office to submit cases after that.
His statement is at odds with a decision by Kyiv’s Pechersk Court, which ruled in June that the 2019 Vovk case must be closed because of the missed deadline. In September, the Supreme Court used the same argument in a similar case, effectively setting an example for all lower courts.
According to lawyer Vitaliy Tytych, the Criminal Procedure Code is clear on the five-day deadline.
In March, the NABU formally completed the 2020 investigation despite the missed deadline. The involved parties are currently supposed to be studying the case materials, but according to Sytnyk, Vovk’s team are not taking the proceedings seriously.
“De facto they are not studying the investigation materials,” Sytnyk said. “Vovk is completely ignoring this process.”
Vovk’s obstruction may continue indefinitely since the current High Council of Justice would not allow his arrest or suspension, Sytnyk said. The NABU head argued that this could change if the council is reformed.
The investigations against Vovk and other major suspects have also been thwarted by the absence of a chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Sytnyk argued.
“The lack of a chief anti-corruption prosecutor is a destructive factor for the work of the entire anti-corruption infrastructure,” he said.
The chief anti-corruption prosecutor oversees all cases pursued by the NABU. The job became vacant when its previous holder, Kholodnytsky, resigned in August 2020.
Venediktova has decided the fate of all NABU cases because she is effectively carrying out the duties of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor until a new one is selected.
Many meetings of the panel for choosing the chief anti-corruption prosecutor have been disrupted by pro-government members since 2020.
“The selection process has been going on for a year and a half,” Sytnyk said. “This is causing damage already. Selection panel members were appointed (by parliament) despite (civil society’s) concerns. This was done to bring the selection process under (the authorities’) control.”
He added that certain power brokers may be interested in keeping Vovk in his job to influence the selection process.
“Maybe someone is interested in preserving this format,” he said. “I don’t rule out that (Vovk’s) Kyiv District Administrative Court will interfere in the selection of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor.”
Sytnyk said that the same sabotage may happen with the selection of a new NABU chief to replace him. The relevant amendments on the NABU were signed into law on Nov. 8 but the selection process has not yet started, he added.
“When this job is inconvenient for the authorities, all these never-ending processes begin.”