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What to Know About the Corruption Scandals Sweeping Ukraine’s Government

The Ukrainian government unveiled a major shake-up of government leadership this week, in an apparent effort to root out corruption at the highest level.

Following several prominent corruption scandals, including two major investigations involving the embezzlement of funds, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced “personnel decisions” across different government ministries and within Ukrainian law enforcement, which he said will continue into Wednesday. Zelensky also announced that state officials would be banned from traveling internationally for non-government purposes following a report that a now-former top prosecutor vacationed in Spain despite a martial law that bans Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country without permission.

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While the effort appears to be in response to the recent reports of embezzlement—including accusations of stolen money intended for troops—fighting corruption has been a major focus of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency. Corruption also plagued Ukrainian society long before the war; according to a 2016 report by watchdog group Transparency International, between 38% to 42% of Ukrainian households reported paying a bribe to access basic public services.

Here’s what to know:

What are the greater implications for Ukraine?

In the midst of the Russian invasion, fighting corruption—and the appearance of corruption—has taken on new resonance for Ukraine. As the country urges its allies to provide money and equipment to aid its defense, the government must prove that the funds won’t go to waste.

Fighting corruption is also crucial to Ukraine’s efforts to build an alliance with Europe as it seeks E.U. membership. In June, the European Commission recommended that Ukraine “further strengthen the fight against corruption, in particular at high level, through proactive and efficient investigations, and a credible track record of prosecutions and convictions.”

Who has resigned so far?

Anti-corruption officials announced on Jan. 22 that an investigation had found an “organized criminal group” embezzled funds that were intended “to restore critical infrastructure facilities and provide the population in the winter with light, heat and water” by arranging overpriced contracts. Oleksandr Kubrakov, the minister of infrastructure, announced the same day that deputy minister Vasyl Lozynsky was released from his post and had been arrested after receiving a $400,000 bribe. Kubrakov said he ordered his team to conduct an audit of ministry projects.

Zelensky did not name Lozynsky, but acknowledged that a cabinet minister had been let go in a Jan. 22 statement. “I want this to be our signal to all those whose actions or behavior violate the principle of justice,” he said. “Of course, now the main focus is on defense, foreign policy, and war. But this does not mean that I do not see or hear what is being said in society at different levels.”

Separately, after a report in Ukrainian publication the Weekly Mirror accused the Ministry of Defense of over-paying for food intended for soldiers, the ministry announced on Jan. 24 that it had accepted the resignation of deputy minister Viacheslav Shapovalov. The ministry said in a statement the accusations are “baseless,” but called Shapovalov’s decision to resign a “worthy act in the traditions of European and democratic politics.”

Additionally, the deputy head of Zelensky’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, announced his resignation on Jan. 24 following reports that he had improperly used an SUV donated for humanitarian missions.

What is the history of corruption in Ukraine?

Ukraine inherited widespread corruption following the fall of the Soviet Union, including within its judiciary, health care, and education systems. Since its independence 30 years ago, corruption has posed a major threat to the country’s efforts to free itself from the influence of Russian oligarchs and establish a democratic political system.

In recent years, the Ukrainian government has implemented a number of reform efforts, most notably in the aftermath of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, in which major protests led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose extravagant mansion became a symbol of embezzlement at the highest levels of power in Ukraine. These reforms included the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which investigates corruption cases and prepares them for prosecution.

Zelensky named “victory over corruption” as a cornerstone of his presidency upon election in 2019 and implemented reforms prior to the Russian invasion. However, political analysts say that his efforts have had mixed results, with some questioning Zelensky’s commitment to reform.

Zelensky’s efforts have seen highs, such as the passage of a law stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution, and lows, including a battle with Ukraine’s constitutional court over the validity of NABU. The existence of corruption in Ukraine has been used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify the war, accusing the government of subverting the interests of the Ukrainian people in a televised address three days before the invasion.

Controversy surrounding Zelensky’s approach to corruption has continued through the past year. In late 2022, for instance, Ukraine’s parliament garnered praise for liquidating a notoriously corrupt district court, while the same day it was criticized for implementing a reform that could enable political interference in its constitutional court.

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