Henry St George

November 3, 2020

EU Reporter


Amidst a brewing constitutional crisis that has increasingly alarmed Kyiv’s partners in Washington and Brussels and put the country’s visa-free regime with the EU in jeopardy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doubling down on the bent for cracking down on graft which swept him to power. In particular, the comedian turned anti-corruption crusader is striking back against what he has described as an “attack” on Ukraine and its democratic values—a set of rulings by the country’s Constitutional Court that have frittered away anti-corruption legislation.

Zelensky has characterised his tussle with the Constitutional Court in stark terms, calling it a “fight for the soul and the future of our nation”—and has made it clear that he is ready to take dramatic steps to continue battling corruption and Russian influence, including attempting to replace the entire court. This bold initiative is a direct response to the court’s October 28th ruling to strip away— among other things— the compulsory and transparent asset register for public servants which was an essential part of the country’s anti-corruption architecture, painstakingly built after the Maidan.

Zelensky and anti-corruption activists see the Constitutional Court’s ruling as the last straw in its systematic attempts to attack Ukraine’s anti-graft institutions, a push that they suggest is “driven by pro-Russian politicians and lawmakers allied to powerful oligarchs who want to wreck Kyiv’s relations with the IMF and EU”. Indeed, while Zelensky and some of his closest allies, in particular security chief Ivan Bakanov, have distanced themselves from the oligarchic networks and Russian influence which long dominated Ukrainian politics, the constitutional court’s manoeuvring—which has brought thousands onto the streets of Kyiv in protest and which Zelensky has warned could lead to bloodshed if not swiftly resolved— is a reminder of the uphill battle they face to excise these corrupt remnants.

Security services a bright spot under Ivan Bakanov

If the special interests entrenched in Ukraine’s judiciary have slowed down the ambitious reforms which Zelensky pledged to carry out, progress in cleaning up some areas of the government, in particular the country’s security agency (SBU), offers a blueprint of how even institutions with deep Soviet roots can be overhauled and modernised. Specifically, the reform of the SBU highlights how fresh blood in the Ukrainian political and security landscape is vital to ensuring that Kyiv is a trusted international partner for its Western allies, despite continuous Russian pressure.

Before Zelensky’s administration, the SBU remained true to its KGB roots, a bloated body with little oversight and far too many cases of abuse of power. A 2018 assessment deemed it “the only agency in the country that has avoided any reform since 2014”, highlighting a cornucopia of scandals in which high-ranking SBU officials schemed to illicitly enrich themselves. The rot at the core of the security services went far beyond garden-variety graft, however; of particular concern were reports that top SBU cadres had close ties to Russia and that private businessmen with Russian connections exploited the SBU for their business interests.

Given Russia’s relentless aggression in Ukraine, reforming the SBU was a matter of national security— with significant implications for other European states, given the vital role which Kyiv plays in safeguarding the continent’s security due to its strategic location. Under SBU director Ivan Bakanov, in his post since August 2019, the agency has proven effective in rooting out corruption and Russian influence. Bakanov, by virtue of not himself being a product of the pre-reform SBU, has proven less susceptible to pressure from pro-Russian forces and corrupt actors than his predecessors.

Some 510 corruption cases have been opened so far in 2020, the SBU recently announced, with 143 government officials sacked over graft. In April, an SBU investigation uncovered “indisputable evidence” that Major General Valery Shaytanov was collecting information for Russian intelligence and had agreed to plan terrorist attacks on Ukrainian soil in exchange for $200,000 and a Russian passport. In early October, meanwhile, the SBU blocked several cybernetworks of pro-Russian agitators who were attempting to destabilise the country ahead of the local elections.

In a sign that the Ukrainian security services are earning the confidence of their Western counterparts, Zelensky and Bakanov recently had a meeting with MI6 chief Richard Moore, to discuss issues ranging from Russian aggression to the importance of promoting independent journalism in Ukraine, where a number of major media channels are still controlled by powerful oligarchs.

Pervasive influence remains in courts

An independent and trustworthy SBU is an invaluable partner for the EU as the bloc faces up to increasing Russian aggression and tries to reinforce the rule of law across the European continent. It’s particularly fortunate that Bakanov has led the SBU to turn over a new leaf, because he will likely play a key role in investigating the oligarchic networks which have played a role in the brewing constitutional crisis. It’s abundantly clear that Ukraine’s judicial system needs a major overhaul. Ukrainians’ trust in their court system is appallingly low—as little as 5% of the country’s citizens has confidence in the judiciary overall, while a mere 2.2% of citizens have full confidence in the Constitutional Court.

There’s good reason for their scepticism. One of the main elements of the controversial October 28th ruling was a severe curb on the National Agency for Preventing Corruption (NAZK). Four of the Constitutional Court judges who stripped the NAZK of a broad swath of powers—including the agency’s ability to verify public officials’ asset declarations and conduct anti-corruption inspections in government agencies—are themselves under investigation by the NAZK for failing to properly declare their own assets; the head of the court is under investigation for having secretly purchased property in Russian-occupied Crimea. The fact that these four judges refused to recuse themselves from the case naturally casts a further pall over the ruling, which the head of one NGO lambasted as an “indulgence” granted to corrupt officials.

The standoff between anti-corruption activists and the court shows no signs of abating—a number of other petitions from pro-Russian MPs are pending before the court and it seems increasingly likely to annul the creation of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Court, one of the main success stories in Kyiv’s fight against graft. The Constitutional Court judges’ gross conflicts of interest only emphasizes the need to systematically ferret out influence from Moscow and oligarchic networks. If an institution which once teemed with graft and Russian influence, like the SBU, can be reformed into a dependable European partner by placing it under the leadership of someone who’s not a “product of the system”, then there’s hope yet for Ukraine’s judiciary, no matter how deep the veins of profiteering and Russian ties run.