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On Dec. 9, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Oleksandr Tupytsky, head of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, and Andriy Portnov, ex-deputy chief of staff for pro-Kremlin ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.
Both stand accused of corruption and obstructing reforms.
That was surely a great push for Ukrainian reforms and a massive blow against the nation's kleptocracy. It adds to the list of dozens of Ukrainians sanctioned by the U.S., many of them over accusations of corruption.
But two important names are notably still missing from the U.S. sanctions list: Pavlo Vovk and Oleh Tatarov.
Both of them have done their best to block the selection of an independent anti-corruption prosecutor and obstruct judicial reform - key demands of the West and Ukraine’s civil society.
The first one is the ultimate symbol of the nation’s judicial corruption: Pavlo Vovk, head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court.
If you need a textbook example of kleptocracy, this is it: Vovk fits all the criteria.
He has been charged with corruption and obstruction of justice but the cases against him have been destroyed by Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, a staunch loyalist of President Volodymyr Zelensky. The president has also abandoned plans to liquidate Vovk's notoriously corrupt and lawless court.
In audio recordings published by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) in July 2019 and July 2020, the judge is heard discussing numerous corrupt deals, giving illegal orders and quipping that no one should doubt the court’s “political prostitution.” One of the judges of his court was recorded as saying that he supports “any lawlessness in the judiciary.”
“We are unique. We are the only court that has survived all of them for five years. Unliquidated, unreformed, unassessed,” Vovk quipped, according to the NABU tapes.
Vovk has built an enormous corrupt empire of bribery and influence peddling. He has been paid for court rulings and organized fake lawsuits and fake selection procedures for state jobs, according to the tapes.
The judge has used his corrupt shenanigans to influence and pressure the judiciary’s two main bodies – the High Council of Justice and the High Qualification Commission. He has also interfered with the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the State Investigation Bureau and the National Agency for Corruption Prevention.
In fact, all the tentacles of the monstrous octopus of Ukraine's kleptocracy appear to lead to Vovk.
Vovk has used his influence over the Constitutional Court to kill all illicit enrichment investigations, including the one against himself.
To make matters worse, the judge's brother was arrested in April and charged with taking a $100,000 bribe as an intermediary for Vovk.
The brazenness and impunity with which Vovk has flouted the law and committed crimes are mind-boggling. He has ignored and thrown away investigators’ summonses to be interrogated and attend court hearings.
Vovk is a relic of Yanukovych's corrupt reign: He used to be an aide to Serhiy Kivalov, an influential ally of Yanukovych, and was appointed as head of his court under Yanukovych.
Several judges of Vovk's court and accomplices in his corruption cases have been investigated over unlawfully trying protesters during the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which overthrew Yanukovych.
Zelensky's pet judge
If you wonder why Zelensky’s administration has not gotten rid of Vovk despite his extremely toxic reputation, there is an explanation.
Online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported in March, citing its sources, that in 2019 Vovk met Zelensky's ex-chief of staff Andriy Bohdan and Zelensky's former Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka. A law enforcement source told Ukrainska Pravda that Vovk had also met Zelensky in 2019 and persuaded him that he would work as part of the president’s team.
Immediately after Zelensky was elected president in 2019, Vovk tried to curry favor with him by publicly saying that the president has a right to dissolve parliament ahead of schedule, which is what Zelensky ended up doing.
Cooperation with Zelensky can explain why Vovk has gotten away with everything for so long.
Vovk’s venality and political prostitution are exactly why the Zelensky administration needs him so much.
The authorities need Vovk to pull his strings and use him to further their political aims.
For example, Vovk’s court on Dec. 20 issued a ruling to stop the appointment of an independent chief anti-corruption prosecutor. Vitaly Shabunin, a top executive of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, believes there is no way the ruling could be issued without the approval of the President’s Office.
The authorities can also ask Vovk’s corrupt court to cancel judicial reform.
The Kyiv District Administrative Court has the power to do that because its exclusive jurisdiction includes all national state institutions in Kyiv.
The Zelensky administration does not want an independent law enforcement system because it is afraid that its top members will be jailed.
Even the logic of the U.S. government statements entails that Vovk should be sanctioned.
The U.S. Treasury Department said that “in mid-2019, Portnov colluded with a high-ranking Ukrainian government official to shape the country's higher legal institutions to their advantage and influence Ukraine's Constitutional Court.”
The department also said that Portnov “took steps to control the Ukrainian judiciary, influence associated legislation, sought to place loyal officials in senior judiciary positions, and purchase court decisions” in 2019.
But it was Vovk who was behind these schemes along with Portnov.
Portnov, Vovk and Zelensky's ex-chief of staff Bohdan organized the dismissal of a Constitutional Court head in 2019, and Vovk also discussed influencing the judiciary with Portnov, according to the tapes published by the Slidstvo.info investigative journalism project.
Portnov and Vovk also allegedly worked with Zelensky's ex-prosecutor general Riaboshapka to organize the dismissal of a Council of Judges chief in 2019, according to the tapes.
Corrupt inner circle
The second official who should be sanctioned by the U.S. is Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov.
Tatarov became the symbol of Zelensky’s tolerance for corruption. He is the embodiment of the principle that the president values loyalty and spurns the rule of law.
Tatarov was charged with bribery in 2020 but Zelensky has obstinately refused to suspend or fire him. Zelensky's prosecutor general Venediktova has destroyed the corruption case against Tatarov, like she did with Vovk.
The only realistic explanation why Zelensky sided with Tatarov and paid a reputational price, is that he needs him – just like he needs Vovk – to run Ukraine’s corrupt law enforcement system in the interests of his administration.
Tatarov is Ukraine’s saboteur-in-chief of rule of law reforms.
Zelensky said in November that Tatarov is responsible for judicial reform. That implies that Tatarov has been behind numerous efforts to sabotage this reform since he was appointed in 2020.
Tatarov has also handpicked pro-government members of the selection panel for choosing the anti-corruption prosecutor, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s investigative program Schemes. These members have disrupted meetings of the selection panel since 2020 to prevent the selection of an independent chief anti-corruption prosecutor.
The President’s Office, including Tatarov, used Vovk to stop the appointment of a chief anti-corruption prosecutor on Dec. 20, according to the Anti-Corruption Action Center.
Like Vovk, Tatarov is also a remnant of Yanukovych’s corrupt era.
Zelensky blatantly broke the law by appointing Tatarov because he was a top police official under Yanukovych. The 2014 lustration law bans the appointment of top Yanukovych officials for 10 years.
Tatarov has also been investigated for persecuting EuroMaidan protesters and publicly lashed out at them while defending the police who beat them.
This means that, by appointing Tatarov, Zelensky not only violated the law but also disrespected the murdered EuroMaidan protesters while paying lip service to them.
Sanctions will help reforms
The utter lawlessness and impunity of Vovk and Tatarov show that nothing has changed fundamentally in terms of the rule of law since Kremlin puppet Yanukovych's corrupt era. Both are leftovers from that period, and Zelensky – like his predecessor Petro Poroshenko – is just an upgraded version of Yanukovych with a pro-Western facade.
Vovk and Tatarov have switched their allegiance easily from president to president and will undoubtedly betray Zelensky too when the right time comes.
Given that they served pro-Kremlin President Yanukovych, it is easy to imagine both of them pledging loyalty to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin right at the time when a Russian invasion is looming. They would sell Ukraine to the highest bidder, whether it is the Kremlin or not.
But even without selling out to Putin, officials like Vovk and Tatarov are helping him by destroying the Ukrainian state from within, corrupting government institutions and killing reforms.
This is why the U.S., Ukraine's most powerful and effective partner in reforming the nation, should impose sweeping sanctions against Vovk and Tatarov.
Besides them, Ukraine has other officials and their associates who may be sanctioned.
Possible candidates include members of the corrupt High Council of Justice, the judiciary's highest governing body; Zelensky's chief of staff Andriy Yermak’s brother Denys, who has been investigated over a video in which he allegedly sells state jobs on the chief of staff's behalf, and Yermak's deputy Andriy Smyrnov, who has been investigated for allegedly helping a corrupt judge flee Ukraine.
If the selection of the anti-corruption prosecutor and judicial reform are not completed in the near future, there is a case for sanctioning Yermak himself. The Anti-Corruption Action Center believes that it is Zelensky and Yermak who are ultimately responsible for the fiasco with the anti-corruption prosecutor.
Other possible candidates for sanctions include ex-President Petro Poroshenko and ex-Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who have been accused of corruption in numerous journalist and criminal investigations.
But sanctions against Vovk and Tatarov would be a good start: They would send a strong signal to all corrupt individuals that the U.S. stands with the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and the rule of law – just like it did during the EuroMaidan Revolution, when Vovk and Tatarov served Yanukovych's murderous regime.