For the first two months of the war in Ukraine, Oleksandr Novikov, 40, lived with a coterie of his staff in the basement of the austere offices of the national agency for the prevention of corruption in Kyiv.
“We have an ammunition room – it has machine guns. We were ready to fight in these streets,” Novikov said, looking out his third-floor conference room window.
It’s Novikov’s fourth and final year as head of Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency and although the Russians didn’t end up on his doorstep in the Ukrainian capital last February, the appetite of the former prosecutor for the battle against all odds has not been satisfied.
In 2021, Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the second most corrupt country in Europe, behind only Russia, a position Novikov decided to reverse, only to find his task made much more difficult by Covid and Vladimir Putin.
Under the guise of the pandemic, Parliament waived the need for political parties to provide financial reports to its agency, while the need to protect public officials in occupied regions of Ukraine from the attentions of Russian forces led to the suspension from the public and mandatory register. of their identity and income last year.
Novikov wants both – and more – back. The value of the financial record has been highlighted, he says, by the impending prosecution in absentia of Viktor Medvedchuk, godfather to Vladimir Putin’s daughter and a prominent pro-Kremlin politician in Ukraine, for his alleged failure to declare assets held in Cyprus. He was jailed and swapped for Russian prisoners last year on other charges and has not commented.
Then there are the billions of US dollars and euros in Western aid that have poured into the country. Some Republicans in the US Congress have called for an audit of aid use. It’s Novikov’s job to keep the money safe. Yet to add to his frustration, the January 10 deadline has passed, by which time the government was supposed to adopt a three-year anti-corruption strategy that would impose additional audit requirements on recovery and reconstruction projects. .
“I have all the tools we need to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity in the use of this money – but not all of those tools are activated,” he says.
The irritation seems to have been further stoked by the government’s apparent initial lethargy in targeting Russian individuals and entities operating in the Ukrainian economy.
Tensions erupted in public last year after Novikov suggested that Andriy Smirnov, the deputy head of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office, had been behind the slow progress in compiling a list of those who would be hit by economic sanctions.
Smirnov, who explained the delays as being due to legal complexity, accused Novikov of “spreading gossip” and “self-admiration”. Novikov says he just wants things done and the “Russian narrative” of Ukraine as a corrupt state swept away.
Some may think that the dramatic events of the past few days would be worrying for a corruption czar on a mission. Since Saturday, a host of deputy chiefs have rolled nationally amid corruption allegations, while scores of regional governors have resigned without explanation. “There will be no going back to what was in the past,” Zelenskiy promised in one of his usual evening addresses.
The first domino fell when Ukraine’s Deputy Infrastructure Minister Vasyl Lozinskyi was removed from office after being accused of inflating the price of winter equipment, including generators, and siphoning off 400 000 dollars. He would be under house arrest after approximately $38,000 in cash was found in his office. He did not comment.
One of the most important and influential presidential aides, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, another deputy head of Zelenskiy’s office, then resigned. He had been investigated for his use of a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV donated by General Motors for humanitarian purposes, and he had been seen driving a $100,000 Porsche Taycan belonging to knowledge. Tymoshenko denies any wrongdoing.
Then, and perhaps most damaging of all, the Ministry of Defense was caught off guard when a Ukrainian newspaper reported that its procurement department had overpaid for soldiers’ rations, raising concerns about bribes.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov responded to the reports by calling on the Secret Service to investigate the leak while accusing his department’s critics of seeking to ‘undermine confidence in the Defense Ministry at a very crucial time. “, only for the Deputy Minister of Defense. , Vyacheslav Shapovalov, only to ask to be fired on Tuesday.
Novikov describes Reznikov’s response as “not appropriate”. The anti-corruption agency had discovered supply problems at the ministry three months ago after documents were withheld from its agents, he reveals. Novikov had already given an order to the Ukrainian Prime Minister to be dealt with.
“I don’t understand why the minister hasn’t made it public that he’s working on all these issues right now, and that he’s fixing it. [On Monday] we sent an order to the minister for the resignation of the head of the department…I hope the decision to give this answer to the public was not [Reznikov’s] decision, but it was a mistake by his communications team,” he said.
However, for Novikov, the wave of resignations is not a cause for concern but a sign that Ukraine is turning a new page, as confirmed by a recent USAid poll.
“Ukrainians have become more intolerant of corruption during the war. If before the war, only 40% of Ukrainians were ready to denounce corruption, today we have 84% of Ukrainians who are ready to denounce. If before the war we had 44% of Ukrainians who were intolerant of all corruption, today we have 64%. It is therefore a request from Ukrainians to build a culture of integrity. And the president gave an answer to this request.
Zelenskiy, who championed the fight against corruption during his election campaign, certainly has more to do, argues Novikov. “I think he’s completely on board, but the main thing he’s working on is arms, diplomatic support and financial support for Ukraine. After arms and financial support, it’s the fight against corruption. Yes, we believe that these are three pillars that we need to be able to achieve victory.
There is resistance to change, he concedes. “As we can see with the president’s decision and the government’s decision last week and today, everyone in the government and in the president’s office disagrees with the president.”
But Ukraine, with its application for EU membership already filed, has a chance to change. “We have seen that if everyone agrees with all the measures of a state anti-corruption program, it is not a real state anti-corruption program.”
According to Novikov, Ukraine is expected to rebound soon on Transparency International’s corruption index. “The corruption is the result of decades of attempts by Russia to make us its ‘province’,” he says. He is fighting to set another course.