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Zelensky fires prosecutor general Venediktova, security service chief Bakanov
Editor's note: On the next day after this story came out, the President's Office clarified that Iryna Venediktova and Ivan Bakanov are suspended but not yet fired.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has fired Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and the Head of the Security Service of Ukraine Ivan Bakanov.
According to a decree published by the President’s Office on July 17, Venediktova's deputy Oleksiy Symonenko was appointed acting prosecutor general. Bakanov’s replacement hasn’t been announced yet.
Venediktova, the first woman to hold the post of prosecutor general, was appointed in the spring of 2020. During her time in office, Venediktova came under heavy criticism from anti-corruption activists and the media, who pointed to her failure to prosecute high-profile cases and her office's role in sabotaging corruption investigations against people affiliated with Zelensky, including members of his party and administration.
Zelensky’s childhood friend and long-time employee Bakanov was appointed in August 2019. Before entering politics, Bakanov was a lawyer and a top manager at Zelensky’s entertainment company Kvartal 95.
Weeks prior to his dismissal, rumors circulated that Zelensky wanted to fire Bakanov for failing to adequately respond to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The decree said that Bakanov was dismissed for neglecting his duties, which led to human casualties or other serious consequences, according to the Disciplinary Statute of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“As of today, 651 criminal proceedings have been registered regarding high treason and collaborative activities of employees of prosecutors' offices, pre-trial investigative bodies, and other law enforcement agencies,” Zelensky said in an address on July 17, an hour after the announced dismissals.
More than 60 staff members of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Security Service remained on Russian-occupied territories and collaborated with Russians, Zelensky added.
“Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state and the connections that have been recorded between the employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia pose very serious questions about the relevant leaders,” Zelensky said.
Ivan Bakanov, 'childhood friend' of Zelensky
Bakanov was long seen as one of Zelensky’s closest allies. He and Zelensky have known each other since growing up in the same neighborhood in Kryvyi Rih, a city in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.
A lawyer by education, Bakanov worked for Zelensky’s TV production companies. In Ukrainian company registries, he was listed as their director. According to the Pandora Papers, published in October 2019, Bakanov was also the owner of offshore companies linked to Zelensky.
Bakanov was the legal head of Zelensky's Servant of the People Party.
When Zelensky became president in May 2019, he appointed Bakanov acting head of the Security Service of Ukraine, and when he won a majority in parliament later that year, he appointed Bakanov as the agency's chief.
However, his three-year reign as the head of one of Ukraine’s most powerful institutions was marred by controversy.
Ukrainian watchdogs and the country’s foreign donors have long demanded sweeping reforms of the Security Service, widely known by its Ukrainian acronym SBU. The secretive agency with vast powers is believed to be plagued by corruption.
Read also: Ukrainian kleptocrats use war to entrench corruption, with Western experts as facade (op-ed)
In March 2020, Zelensky submitted an SBU reform bill to Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. The first version, which was drafted under Bakanov’s supervision, was lambasted by civil society because it expanded the SBU’s powers instead of limiting them.
The reform eventually went nowhere.
Among the scandals that implicated both Bakanov's and Venediktova's agencies was their alleged sabotage of a bribery investigation against Oleh Tatarov, deputy head of Zelensky's office.
Venediktova blocked charges against Tatarov twice, replacing a group of prosecutors assigned to the case. She then took the case away from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, known as NABU, and gave it to Bakanov’s SBU, after which the case fell apart.
Read also: Is there any merit to Congresswoman Spartz' accusations against Zelensky's chief of staff? (explainer)
For Bakanov, the sky came crashing down soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
In April, Zelensky deranked two top generals of the Security Service – Andriy Naumov and Serhiy Kryvoruchko – because they "violated their oath and betrayed their homeland,” according to the president. Naumov was the former head of SBU domestic security, while Kryvoruchko headed the Security Service in Kherson Oblast, where the Russian invasion was particularly successful.
On July 16, the State Investigation Bureau said that a top-level Security Service official had been arrested for leaking intelligence and classified information to the Russian special services.
Although the Bureau did not specify the name of the official, the Ukrainska Pravda media outlet identified him as Oleh Kulinich, the former deputy head of the SBU in Crimea.
President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed Kulinich in October 2020 and fired him on March 2 of this year. Zelensky referenced the case of Kulinich, without identifying him by name, in his July 17 video address explaining the firing of Bakanov and Venediktova.
Iryna Venediktova, Zelensky's loyal top prosecutor
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Venediktova had positioned herself as the leader of investigations into Russian war crimes.
But even before the invasion, she had been accused of tanking cases against high-profile officials and lawmakers suspected of corruption, such as the head of the Kyiv District Administrative Court Pavlo Vovk, Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Tatarov, and members of parliament representing Zelensky's party.
In 2021, Venediktova put pressure on the Kyiv Post, a Ukrainian English-language newspaper, over critical stories it ran about her record as a prosecutor, according to the newspaper's former chief editor. Months into her pressure campaign, which Venediktova has denied conducting, the owner shut down the Kyiv Post and fired its entire staff.
The fired editorial staff of the Kyiv Post founded the Kyiv Independent in November 2021 to continue its mission of keeping the world informed about Ukraine.
Oleksiy Symonenko, Venediktova's replacement
Symonenko, appointed acting prosecutor general on July 17, has a controversial background.
In 2020, he used a Pechersk District Court of Kyiv ruling as a pretext to take a bribery case against Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff Oleh Tatarov away from the politically independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. The case was given to Bakanov’s Security Service of Ukraine, which buried it.
The NABU believes the transfer of the Tatarov case to be unlawful. Under Ukrainian law, the Tatarov bribery case falls squarely in its jurisdiction, according to NABU.
In 2021, Symonenko attended a birthday party held by Tatarov, according to an investigation by the Ukrainska Pravda news website.
Read also: Watchdogs say Ukraine’s judicial reform on brink of catastrophe
The dismissals coincided with Zelensky’s call for appointing the chief anti-corruption prosecutor.
The chief anti-corruption prosecutor oversees all cases pursued by the NABU.
The appointment of an independent prosecutor who is free from political influence has been one of the key requirements of Ukraine’s Western partners and donors. It is also a condition for Ukraine’s potential membership in the European Union.
The selection was almost over in 2021, but pro-government panel members repeatedly blocked the appointment of the competition winner, NABU detective Oleksandr Klymenko, who got the highest score. Klymenko is deemed to be independent.
The position of the chief anti-corruption prosecutor has been vacant since 2020, which has allowed Venediktova to carry out the anti-corruption prosecutor’s duties. As a result, she has blocked all major graft cases since then, according to anti-corruption activists.
Zelensky also said that the selection of a new head of the NABU should be sped up. The term of the bureau’s head Artem Sytnyk expired in April but the selection of his replacement has not been launched yet.