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Top 10 political scandals of 2021 in Ukraine

December 28, 2021 10:58 pmby Oleg Sukhov
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President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with journalists during the press marathon on Nov. 26, 2021. (president.gov.ua)

This year has seen a lot of political strife and corruption scandals even by low Ukrainian standards. 

The Kyiv Independent lists the 10 most prominent events that defined the turbulent politics of 2021: 

Zelensky’s standoff with oligarchs

In November President Volodymyr Zelensky signed into law an “anti-oligarch” bill that seeks to create an official register of oligarchs.

Those defined as oligarchs will be banned from donating to political parties and participating in the privatization of state assets.

The passage of the anti-oligarch bill was followed by a standoff between Zelensky and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The tycoon’s media began to criticize Zelensky heavily after the bill was approved.

Following the wave of criticism, Zelensky claimed that there were audio recordings where Ukrainian and Russian representatives discuss Akhmetov’s alleged participation in a Kremlin-sponsored coup scheduled for Dec. 1. The coup has not materialized so far, and Akhmetov called it a lie. 

On Nov. 30, parliament also passed a so-called “anti-Akhmetov” bill — legislation that would increase taxes on iron ore makers, including Akhmetov’s companies.

Zelensky and his supporters present the anti-oligarch campaign as a genuine drive to make oligarchs obey the law. 

His critics are more skeptical. They view Zelensky’s de-oligarchization as an attempt to bring oligarchs under his political control.

Zelensky’s refusal to fire his allies charged or investigated for alleged corruption casts doubt on his claim to introduce the rule of law for oligarchs.

Moreover, Ukraine’s dysfunctional law enforcement system has so far failed to successfully prosecute any of the oligarchs.

The clause of the anti-oligarch law that defines oligarchs as businesspeople with considerable media influence has already prompted one of the oligarchs, ex-President Petro Poroshenko, to formally transfer his Pryamy and Channel 5 television channels to their editorial staff and fellow lawmakers. 

Zelensky’s harsh reaction to criticism by oligarch-owned media has also prompted speculation that one of the real aims of his de-oligarchization is to reduce such criticism.

Ex-President Petro Poroshenko (L) and President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Courtesy)

Cases against Poroshenko 

Zelensky was elected in 2019 with the slogan “Springtime — Jailtime,” implying that officials that ruled before him were corrupt and would be jailed.

Now he finds himself in a conundrum: his prosecutors’ failure to successfully prosecute them is seen by voters as a violation of election promises. And yet the recent attempts to bring charges against Poroshenko are often lambasted as politically motivated.

On Dec. 20, Poroshenko was charged with treason and accused of being involved in supplying coal from Russian-occupied areas in the coal-rich Donbas in 2014-2015. 

Prosecutors are seeking to arrest Poroshenko and have asked for bail of Hr 1 billion ($37 million), according to several media reports published on Dec. 24, citing sources in the Prosecutor General’s Office. Poroshenko, who has denied wrongdoing, is currently abroad. His representatives said he would return in mid-January. 

Given that Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova has saved top Zelensky allies from prosecution, the cases against Poroshenko have been lambasted as selective justice.

Another critique is that treason charges — as opposed to corruption cases — have more political overtones and often are harder to prove.

The alleged coal supplies scheme and other shady dealings are mentioned in tapes released in June by the Bihus.Info investigative journalism project. They shed light on alleged business and political negotiations between Poroshenko and pro-Kremlin lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, which have damaged the ex-president’s “patriotic” credentials.

In October, Medvedchuk was also charged with treason in the coal supplies case. 

Additionally, he was charged in May with colluding with the Russian government to extract natural resources in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Earlier in February, the National Security and Defense Council imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk and his ally Taras Kozak. 

Wagnergate 

The Bellingcat investigative project reported in November that Ukraine’s military intelligence conducted an unsuccessful sting operation to capture 33 Kremlin-backed Wagner Group mercenaries in July 2020. 

According to the investigation, the operation failed after Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak told intelligence officials to delay the mercenaries’ capture to prevent the disruption of a ceasefire deal with Russia. It prompted suspicions that someone in the administration leaked the information to sabotage the operation. 

Many of the mercenaries had fought against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

The initial plan was to lure the mercenaries to Belarus with a fake job offer, then intercept their plane on the way from Minsk to Istanbul. When the plane was delayed, Belarusian authorities arrested the mercenaries.

The presidential administration’s narrative about the Wagner operation has been inconsistent. First, they said Ukraine’s intelligence had never prepared such an operation. Later, Zelensky said he knew about the operation but disapproved of it.

Wagnergate has prompted thousands to protest against Zelensky and call for his resignation. The president’s critics accuse him and his administration of betraying Ukraine’s national interests to appease the Kremlin. 

Ukraine's Constitutional Court, a sole body of constitutional jurisdiction, has seen harsh public criticism in 2020-2021. (ccu.gov.ua)

Constitutional Court

Ukraine's discredited Constitutional Court has faced harsh public criticism since 2020, when it issued a ruling that effectively destroyed Ukraine’s asset declaration system for state officials and dealt other blows to anti-corruption reforms. 

In 2020, prosecutors charged Oleksandr Tupytsky, head of the Constitutional Court, with unlawfully influencing and bribing a witness to induce false testimony.

On Dec. 9, the U.S. Department of State imposed sanctions on Tupytsky for “involvement in significant corruption."  

Zelensky issued a decree to fire Tupytsky and another Constitutional Court judge in March and sought to replace them with his appointees. 

However, the president has no legal right to fire Constitutional Court judges. The Supreme Court has ruled that the dismissal was unlawful, and the Constitutional Court delayed swearing in the new judges until vacancies emerge legally.

Crackdown on media

This year has also seen a lot of controversies involving the freedom of speech. 

Zelensky started off in February by shutting down three television channels owned by pro-Kremlin lawmaker Kozak, an ally of Medvedchuk. The sanctions against NewsOne, ZIK and 112 Ukraine were initiated by the National Security and Defense Council.

In August, Zelensky also blocked the Strana.ua news site and the media outlet run by Anatoly Shariy, a fugitive pro-Kremlin Ukrainian blogger with a substantial following. Previously Shariy had also been charged with treason for his videos.  

The moves were hailed by much of Ukrainian society as a blow to Russian propaganda, since these media have allowed their speakers to voice pro-Kremlin opinions and often promoted the Kremlin’s narratives.

But the way the media were blocked set a dangerous precedent. There was no court ruling: They were closed by presidential decree without evidence being presented against them in an objective judicial process.

Pro-Kremlin media were not the only ones facing a crackdown.

The Kyiv Post, formerly Ukraine’s main English-language newspaper and one of the most anti-Kremlin media in the country, was shut down on Nov. 8 by its owner, real estate tycoon Adnan Kivan. All of its staff was fired immediately.

The Kyiv Post’s former chief editor Brian Bonner said that the newspaper had been pressured by the authorities, including Venediktova. Zelensky’s office and Venediktova denied the accusations. 

Other journalists – such as the UA Pershyi and Pryamy television channels and Savik Shuster’s popular talk show – have also complained about pressure by the President’s Office in recent months. Shuster’s show, however, runs on oligarch Akhmetov’s TV channel, and has aligned with the oligarch’s interests in his ongoing standoff with Zelensky.

Venediktova has also filed a Hr 150,000 ($5,500) libel lawsuit against online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda and the Anti-Corruption Action Center. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit on Dec. 8. 

Anti-corruption prosecutor 

Another major scandal has erupted over the selection of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, who oversees all cases pursued by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). 

The appointment of an independent professional who is free from political influence has been one of the key requirements of Ukraine’s Western partners and donors.

The seat has been vacant since 2020. Pro-government members of the selection panel have disrupted numerous panel meetings by refusing to attend.

Oleksandr Klymenko, a NABU detective, has passed all stages of the selection process and got the highest score. However, pro-government panel members refused to vote for his appointment on Dec. 21 and on Dec. 24.  

Anti-corruption activists have accused the President’s Office of sabotaging the selection process because it does not want an independent prosecutor. Zelensky denied the accusations. 

Zelensky’s offshore company

During the 2019 presidential election campaign, then-candidate Zelensky attacked his rival, Poroshenko, for using offshore schemes.

But Zelensky himself became the target of an offshore scandal in October 2021, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the Pandora Papers, a leak of offshore data.

These papers show that Zelensky and his friends set up offshore companies before they entered politics. 

When Zelensky was about to be elected president in 2019, he handed his share in an offshore firm to his aide Serhiy Shefir. According to the Pandora Papers, dividends would keep flowing to a company owned by Zelensky’s wife Olena. 

Zelensky, who denied the accusations of wrongdoing, has not declared the dividends. 

Legal experts have cast doubt on the legality of the dividend arrangement, and it is still unclear if the offshore firms were used for legal tax optimization or unlawful tax evasion. 

Pavlo Vovk, head of the Kyiv Administrative District Court.(adm.ki.court.gov.ua)

Saga of judge Vovk continues

Notorious judge, Pavlo Vovk, has become the ultimate symbol of the nation’s judicial corruption: Despite all the evidence of wrongdoing, he has not been suspended, fired or successfully prosecuted.

In audio recordings published by NABU in 2020 and 2021, the judge is heard discussing numerous corrupt deals, giving illegal orders and quipping that no one should doubt the court’s “political prostitution.” 

Vovk was charged by the NABU twice – in 2019 with obstruction of justice and in 2020 with corruption. The judge’s brother was arrested in April and charged with taking a $100,000 bribe, allegedly as an intermediary for Vovk.

The Vovk cases have also been effectively destroyed by law enforcement.

Venediktova, a Zelensky loyalist, has refused to authorize an arrest warrant for Vovk. 

In both Vovk cases, judges refused to extend the investigation, and prosecutors missed deadlines for sending them to trial. 

Judge Chaus resurfaces 

One of Ukraine's most scandalous judges, Mykola Chaus, has found himself in the spotlight again this year. 

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. He was largely forgotten until 2021, when he was allegedly captured in Moldova and brought to Ukraine.

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. It became a point of tension between the largely friendly administrations of Ukraine and Moldova. 

The fugitive judge re-emerged in Ukraine this July and was subsequently arrested. 

Top allies of Poroshenko were allegedly involved in Chaus’ escape from Ukraine in 2016, according to a document from Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court that referred to the Chaus investigation.  

Poroshenko is accused of helping Chaus to flee in 2016 to prevent the exposure of his alleged dealings with the judge, while Zelensky is accused of kidnapping Chaus in 2021 to make him testify against Poroshenko and his allies. 

Chaus has effectively become a pawn in political struggle. Although he’s believed to be in a hospital in Ukraine, his whereabouts are unknown.

To make it even stranger, Andriy Smyrnov, who is now a deputy chief of staff for Zelensky, was allegedly among the people who allegedly helped Chaus flee when he was a lawyer in 2016, the anti-corruption court document reads. Smyrnov denied the accusations. 

Poroshenko and Zelensky did not respond to requests for comment on the issue. 

President Volodymyr Zelensky's Deputy Chief of Staff Oleh Tatarov. (credence.com.ua)

Tolerating Tatarov 

Another scandal concerns Zelensky’s refusal to punish alleged corruption in his inner circle.

In 2020 the NABU charged Zelensky's Deputy Chief of Staff Oleh Tatarov with bribing a forensic expert in 2017 — before he joined the Zelensky administration. However, the case has been effectively buried by other law enforcement bodies.

In December 2020 Venediktova's deputy Oleksiy Symonenko used a Pechersk Court ruling as a pretext to take the case away from the NABU and give it to the politically pliable Security Service of Ukraine. Symonenko apparently has a conflict of interest — he attended Tatarov’s birthday party on Sept. 1, according to an investigation by the Ukrainska Pravda news website, signifying that he’s on friendly terms with the very subject of the investigation that he has stopped. 

He did not respond to a request for comment. 

In February, a court refused to extend the Tatarov investigation, and prosecutors effectively killed it by missing the deadline for sending it to trial.

Despite all the scandals, Zelensky has refused to fire or suspend Tatarov.

Oleg Sukhov
Author: Oleg Sukhov

Oleg Sukhov is a political reporter at the Kyiv Independent. He is a former editor and reporter at the Moscow Times. He has a master's degree in history from the Moscow State University. He moved to Ukraine in 2014 due to the crackdown on independent media in Russia and covered war, corruption, reforms and law enforcement for the Kyiv Post.

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