Ukrainian journalists are uncovering Ukrainian corruption
Jan. 26, 2023 Updated Thu., Jan. 26, 2023 at 12:53 p.m.
For a top Ukrainian official, the downfall came from a fatal weakness: A conspicuous interest in luxury cars.
In October, Ukrainian news outlet Bihus.info shared photos of Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that had been donated for humanitarian aid. Two months later, the news website Ukrainska Pravda reported that Tymoshenko had been filmed multiple times driving a 2021 Porsche Taycan, worth around $100,000, through Kyiv earlier in the year.
Tymoshenko dismissed the insinuations, suggesting the Chevrolet was used for official business and that he had only been borrowing the Porsche. But with so much of the country suffering economic devastation, the ostentatious modes of transport chosen by a senior Zelensky adviser made waves.
“Can the representatives of power in this country, a quarter territory lies already in ruins, live luxuriously?” wrote Mykhailo Tkach, the Ukrainska Pravda journalist who broke the story on the Porsche.
This week, Kyiv saw a series of resignations or dismissals, many of which appeared to be related to allegations of graft. Tymoshenko was among the most prominent to leave office, but there was also Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko, as well as five governors of front-line provinces.
The headlines are deeply uncomfortable for the Ukrainian government. Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, Zelensky has become an international icon, praised for his resilience and steady hand. But reports of corruption are likely to alarm many in Western capitals, which have sent huge sums of money to Ukraine to balance the economic catastrophe of the war.
But it’s important to remember who uncovered the allegations of Ukrainian corruption: Ukrainian journalists and anti-corruption campaigners.
That Ukraine has a corruption problem is hardly news. It’s been dubbed the most corrupt country in Europe. In the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, the country was ranked 122 worst out of 180 countries.
But while this reputation for graft is known around the world - former president Donald Trump called Ukraine the “third-most corrupt country” - perhaps less acknowledged is how many in Ukraine push back against corruption. Indeed, for investigative journalists willing to probe into corruption, Ukraine has provided rich material.
Bihus.info was founded by Denis Bigus, an investigative journalist who hosted the television show “Our Money.” Bigus first became known internationally for helping to set up YanukovychLeaks, a website that helped uncover the finances of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych - the pro-Moscow leader ousted in 2014 who left behind a mansion with a private zoo and luxury car collection.
Bihus has also worked at Ukrainska Pravda, an online news organization first founded in 2000 that garnered widespread attention for its investigative work. This outlet also led the reporting that led to Symonenko’s resignation this week, with Tkach reporting earlier this month that Ukraine’s Deputy Prosecutor General had traveled to Marbella, Spain, over the New Year and was seen driving in a controversial businessman’s Mercedes.
Yuriy Nikolov, another well-known Ukrainian journalist with the publication Mirror of the Week, provided the revelations that forced Shapovalov from office this week, reporting that a recent $350 million procurement contract had included basic food items at heavily inflated prices.
This is just scratching the surface. Ukrainian journalists working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s investigative unit, “Skhemy,” or “schemes” in English, have also uncovered numerous allegations of official corruption in Ukraine, last year forcing the resignation of a judge in Ukraine’s Supreme Court for holding a Russian passport.
And it isn’t just journalists uncovering corruption. Ukrainian nonprofit groups, such as the well-known Anti-Corruption Action Center, have led their own investigations and calls for reform. Meanwhile, after the 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych and the subsequent discovery of large-scale corruption, Kyiv set up the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
This body has the mandate of investigating and preparing cases against people suspected of graft - as shown this weekend when it oversaw a sting operation that saw Deputy Infrastructure Minister Vasily Lozinskiy arrested for allegedly taking a bribe of $400,000 on an equipment purchase.
Fighting corruption is a risky business. One of the founding editors of Ukrainska Pravda, Georgiy Gongadze, was murdered after investigating government corruption. Just 31 years old, his body was found in a forest, decapitated and covered in acid.
“Gongadze tried to be like a normal reporter, he didn’t try to be a hero,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian journalist who later edited Ukrainska Pravda, told the BBC in 2004. “But in Ukraine it’s a brave activity being a journalist.
Leshchenko now works in Zelensky’s office, but the dangers he described still persist. Last year, Ukrainska Pravda’s Tkach described harassment linked to their reporting, while the editors of Bihus.info reported that unknown people were impersonating their reporters. Journalists have complained that under Ukraine’s wartime media, it has become even harder to report on corruption.
For Ukraine itself, there’s a large reputational risk. Investigations into corruption can tarnish the country’s international reputation, just as it needs global help the most. Meanwhile, with huge sums of money flowing into Ukraine, the graft may well be worse than ever. It could create some uncomfortable questions for Zelensky’s government (the Ukrainian president himself was named in the Panama Papers, a leaked set of files from the offshore banking haven).
In many ways, the battle against corruption in Ukraine is intertwined with the war - so much so that Bihus himself left journalism to volunteer in the fight against Russia last year and is now operating drones on the southern front.
Russia is one of the countries that rank lower on the Corruption Perceptions Index, where it was 136 last year. And while there are many excellent Russian investigative journalists uncovering corruption, their exposes are often followed by shrugs and silence rather than resignations and dismissals.
Fighting corruption is one condition for European Union membership, so if Ukraine is really able to tame the problem, it could mark a real geopolitical shift away from Russia. If that happens, it will be anti-corruption journalists and campaigners who decided the country’s fate.
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