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Associated Press

Ukraine corruption scandal ousts top officials amid war

Wed, Jan 25
Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Viacheslav Shapovalov.

Several senior Ukrainian officials, including five front-line governors, lost their jobs Tuesday (local time) in a corruption scandal plaguing President Volodymyr Zelensky's government as it grapples with the nearly 11-month-old Russian invasion.


Ukraine's biggest government shake-up since the war began came as Poland formally requested permission from Germany to transfer a modest number of its Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine. Germany builds the high-tech armour, and Warsaw needs Berlin's permission to send them to a non-NATO country.

Zelensky was elected in 2019 on an anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft, and the new allegations come as Western allies are channelling billions of dollars to help Kyiv fight against Moscow.

Officials in several countries, including the United States, have demanded more accountability for the aid, given Ukraine's rampant corruption. While Zelensky and his aides portray the resignations and firings as proof of their efforts to crack down on graft, the wartime scandal could play into Moscow's political attacks on the leadership in Kyiv.

The shake-up even touched Zelensky's office. Its deputy head, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, prominent for his frequent battlefield updates, quit as the president pledged to address allegations of graft — including some related to military spending — that embarrassed authorities and could slow Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union and NATO.

Tymoshenko asked to be relieved of his duties, according to an online decree signed by Zelensky and Tymoshenko’s own social media posts. Neither cited a reason for the resignation.

Deputy Defence Minister Viacheslav Shapovalov also resigned, local media reported, alleging his departure was linked to a scandal involving the purchase of food for Ukraine's armed forces. Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko also quit.

In all, four deputy ministers and five governors of provinces on the war's front line were set to leave their posts, the country’s cabinet secretary said on the Telegram messaging app.

Authorities did not announce any criminal charges against the outgoing officials. There was no immediate explanation.

The departures thinned government ranks already diminished by the deaths of Ukraine's interior minister, who oversaw Ukraine’s police and emergency services, and others in the ministry’s leadership in a helicopter crash last week.

Tymoshenko joined the presidential office in 2019, after working on Zelensky’s media and creative content strategy during his presidential campaign.

He was under investigation in connection with his personal use of luxury cars and was among officials a National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine investigator linked in September to the embezzlement of humanitarian aid worth more than $7 million earmarked for the southern Zaporizhzhia region. He has denied all the allegations.

On Sunday, a deputy minister at the infrastructure ministry, Vasyl Lozynsky, was fired for alleged participation in a network embezzling budget funds. Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency detained him while he was receiving a $400,000 bribe for helping to fix contracts for restoring facilities battered by Russian missile strikes, according to Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov.

In his nightly video address Sunday, Zelensky said Ukraine’s focus on the Russian invasion would not stop his government from tackling corruption.

“I want to be clear: There will be no return to what used to be in the past,” Zelensky said.

Analysts say his message was that corruption won’t be tolerated.

Zelensky “really does a lot in order to get the support from Western countries,” said Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine, a nonprofit organisation that fights corruption.

“And it’s very hard to save the country when there’s a lot of corruption,” he told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AP the shake-up was “intended to remind officials of the entire (power) vertical that the authorities plan to continue to fight corruption in Ukraine, especially during the war, when literally everything in the country is in short supply.”

Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Centre independent think tank, said Ukrainian authorities and Western officials couldn’t simply “turn a blind eye on latest scandals.”

He said the corruption involved supplies for the army so the shake-up was "intended to calm Western partners and show Brussels and Washington that their aid is being used effectively”.

Transparency International, in its 2021 report on worldwide corruption, ranked Ukraine 122 out of 180 countries, with 180 representing the most corrupt. Russia ranked 136.

Entrenched corruption long has made foreign investors and governments wary of doing business with Ukraine. Allegations by Ukraine’s journalists and nonprofits about corruption at high levels of government, in courts and in business have lingered under Zelensky, despite a proliferation of anti-corruption panels and measures, according to a US State Department 2020 country report.

A major corruption scandal could endanger the tens of billions of dollars the US and its allies are pouring into Ukraine to keep Ukraine’s fighters armed, civil servants paid and the lights on. It could risk sinking what so far has been bipartisan popular and political support for Ukraine from the United States.

Last June, the EU agreed to put Ukraine on a path toward membership in the bloc. In order to join, countries must meet economic and political conditions, including a commitment to the rule of law and other democratic principles.

Ukraine has applied to join NATO, too, but the military alliance is not about to offer an invitation, because of the country’s contested borders, defence establishment shortcomings and, in part, its corruption issues.

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