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New top anti-corruption investigator has mixed record of graft allegations, reformist credentials

by Oleg Sukhov March 7, 2023 1:21 AM 6 min read
Semen Kryvonos (L), who currently serves as the head of the State Inspection of Architecture and Urban Planning, was appointed as the new head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau by the Cabinet of Ministers on March 6, 2023. (Semen Kryvonos/Facebook)
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Semen Kryvonos, the newly-appointed head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), has previously held jobs associated with anti-corruption reforms.

Kryvonos was appointed as head of the NABU by the Cabinet of Ministers on March 6 after being selected from a shortlist of three people chosen by a commission including foreign experts.

However, he has faced corruption accusations himself, with journalists and activists questioning whether his assets are compatible with his official income.

Moreover, evidence has emerged that he has links to officials of the President’s Office, which raises questions about Kryvonos’ political independence. Under the law, the head of the NABU must be politically neutral and independent from the government.

Kryvonos did not respond to a request for comment sent via Facebook.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s spokesman Serhiy Nikiforov told the Kyiv Independent that all questions about Kryvonos should be addressed to the selection commission that chose him. The commission and the Cabinet of Ministers did not respond to requests for comment.

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Kryvonos’ career

Kryvonos was a lawyer at a little-known agricultural company called Kolos in 2009-2011.

Later he headed the Justice Ministry’s real estate registration department in Kyiv Oblast’s Obukhiv District in 2011-2014 and was an official at the Kyiv Oblast real estate registration department in 2014-2015.

Obukhiv District has the most expensive land in Ukraine, and Koncha Zaspa, a suburb where the wealthiest Ukrainians live, is located in the district.

When he was in charge of registering high-end land plots, Kryvonos declared income worth a mere Hr 20,736 ($1,728) in 2014, while his wife earned Hr 19,351 ($1,612).

However, his assets did not match his minuscule income, according to an investigation by the Slidstvo.Info investigative journalism agency published in 2016.

Specifically, he declared an apartment with an area of 72.8 square meters and a house with an area of 263.5 square meters, Slidstvo.Info reported.

Kryvonos also declared 7.5 hectares of land, including two hectares in Obukhiv District, where he worked as a state official.

He also failed to declare an 80-square-meter apartment that was worth Hr 3 million ($110,000) in 2016, according to Slidtsvo.Info. Kryvonos said he had not declared it because he had given it as a gift to his mother and no longer owned it.

Kryvonos told Slidstvo.Info that he had used the income earned during his 2.5-year private practice as a lawyer, as well as the earnings of his parents, to buy all his assets.

“Based on this information, there are great doubts about his integrity,” Artem Krykun-Trush, a former NABU detective who is currently a lawyer, told the Kyiv Independent.

In 2014 Kryvonos was investigated for allegedly extorting a $120,000 bribe from a businessman in exchange for giving him a state-owned land plot for free, according to several journalist investigations and video footage of the selection panel’s meetings. However, he was not officially charged, and the case was later closed.

Kryvonos has denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

He argued that the case had been used to discredit him. He also presented himself as a whistleblower, saying that he had reported on a person who tried to give him a bribe at the State Inspection Service for Architecture and Urban Planning.

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Reformist credentials

In 2016 Kryvonos won a contest for the job of the head of the NABU branch in Odesa. However, he decided not to take the job after the corruption scandal investigated by Slidtsvo.info erupted.

In the same period, Kryvonos joined the team of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who became governor of Odesa Oblast and carried out anti-corruption reforms in the region.

In 2015-2016, Kryvonos was a deputy of Yulia Marushevska, who headed the Odesa customs office under Saakashvili and launched a campaign to root out corruption there.

He was also a member of Saakashvili's Movement of New Forces party in 2017-2018 and headed Saakashvili’s Office for Simple Solutions in 2020-2021.

In 2021 Kryvonos was appointed as head of the State Inspection Service for Architecture and Urban Planning. He argued that he had launched a major anti-corruption reform at the service.

Krykun-Trush said that Kryvonos has the reputation of a reformer among some people.

“For me, he’s a dark horse,” Krykun-Trush said. “I’m constantly hearing that he’s a candidate backed by the President’s Office, and there are questions about (his integrity). But there is also positive feedback.”

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Alleged links to President’s Office

Kryvonos has faced accusations that he is linked to officials from the President’s Office and was appointed as the NABU chief due to their protection. He denied the accusations, arguing that he is politically independent.

In 2021, Saakashvili wrote explicitly about alleged support by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak for Kryvonos. Yermak did not respond to a request for comment on Whatsapp.

“Thanks a lot to Regional Development Minister Oleksiy Chernyshov and Andriy Yermak, who supported (Kryvonos’) candidacy (for the head of the State Inspection Service for Architecture and Urban Planning),” Saakashvili said on Facebook. “All attempts to remove his candidacy were stopped thanks to Chernyshov and Yermak, although there were attempts to do it – including through the SBU. After he won in the contest, which was very objective, Yermak met him and promised all possible help in anti-corruption efforts from himself and from the president.”

Kryvonos has also admitted having been acquainted with Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleksiy Kuleba for eight years. Kuleba was the first deputy head of the Kyiv city administration in 2021-2022 and governor of Kyiv Oblast in 2022-2023.

Kryvonos’ wife was a top official of the Kyiv city administration subordinate to Kuleba when he worked there.

Timur Tkachenko, a former business partner of Kuleba, indicated in his asset declaration for 2018 that he was using the apartment of Kryvonos’ wife in Kyiv. Kryvonos has also indicated in his asset declarations that he was using an Audi car owned by Tkachenko’s wife.

Saakashvili and his team, of which Kryvonos was a member, were allied with Zelensky after he restored Saakashvili’s Ukrainian citizenship in 2019 and appointed the ex-president as head of an advisory reform council in 2020.

Krykun-Trush said that he doubted that Kryvonos will be able to go after presidential allies if there are corruption cases against them.

But he argued that most likely Kryvonos will not be very different from ex-NABU chief Artem Sytnyk, who also faced the accusations of corruption and taking orders from the presidential administration. Sytnyk denied the accusations.

Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s executive board, is also skeptical about Kryvonos’ appointment.

“The Cabinet chose a person with zero experience in corruption investigations and links to a deputy head of the President’s Office,” he wrote on Facebook. “Does this mean that Kryvonos is 100% controlled by the President’s Office? I think it doesn’t but it gives rise to justified suspicions about this.”

“For us at the Anti-Corruption Action Center it means we will continue to closely monitor the work of the NABU,” Shabunin added.

Oleg Sukhov is a staff writer at the Kyiv Independent. He has been covering judicial corruption and rule of law reforms in Ukraine since 2014.

Note from the author:

Hello! My name is Oleg Sukhov, the guy who wrote this piece for you.

I was born in Russia and moved to Ukraine in 2014 because I couldn't stand the suffocating atmosphere of that totalitarian country. I used to think it might be possible to transform Russia into a liberal Western-oriented country. Now it's clear that it's a lost cause.

But at least I can atone for the crimes of my homeland by exposing its barbaric aggression against Ukraine and providing objective and independent coverage of what is going on there. I'm also trying to contribute to Ukraine's transformation into a full-fledged Western liberal democracy strong enough to defeat Russia.

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