‘No return to the past’: the man leading Ukraine’s fightback against corruption

Ex-public prosecutor Oleksandr Novikov is on a mission to build a culture of integrity in the wartorn country

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 on corruption prevention in Kyiv.

“We have a munitions room – it has machine guns. We were ready to fight on these streets,” Novikov says, looking down from the window of his third-floor boardroom.

It is Novikov’s fourth and final year as head of Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency and while the Russians didn’t end up on his doorstep in Ukraine’s capital last February, the former public prosecutor’s appetite for battle against the odds has not been sated.

In 2021, Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the second most corrupt country in Europe, behind only Russia, a position Novikov set out to turn around, only to find his task made significantly harder by Covid and Vladimir Putin.

Under the cover of the pandemic, parliament lifted the need for political parties to provide financial reports to his agency, while the need to keep public officials in occupied parts of Ukraine safe from the attentions of Russian forces prompted the suspension of the public and mandatory register of their identities and incomes last year.

Novikov wants both back – and more. The value of the financial register has been evidenced, he says, by the imminent prosecution in absentia of Viktor Medvedchuk, godfather of Vladimir Putin’s daughter and a leading pro-Kremlin politician in Ukraine, over 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 how the aid is used. It is Novikov’s job to keep the cash safe. Yet, to add to his frustration, a 10 January deadline sailed past by which the government was supposed to adopt a three-year anti-corruption strategy that would put extra auditing requirements on recovery and rebuilding projects.

“I have all the tools that we need to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity in using this money – but not all of these tools are turned on,” he says.

Irritation seems to have been further piqued 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 collating a list of those to be hit by economic sanctions.

Smirnov, who explained away the delays as being due to the legal complexity, accused Novikov of “spreading gossip” and “self-admiration”. Novikov says he just wants things done and for the “Russian narrative” of Ukraine as a corrupt state to be swept away.

Some may think that the dramatic events of recent days would be of concern for a corruption tsar on a mission. Since Saturday, a host of deputy heads have rolled at a national level amid allegations of corruption, while a slew of regional governors have resigned without explanation. “There will be no return to what used to be in the past,” Zelenskiy pledged in one of his regular evening addresses.

The first domino fell when Ukraine’s deputy minister of infrastructure, Vasyl Lozinskyi, was dismissed from his post having been accused of inflating the price of winter equipment, including generators, and allegedly siphoning off $400,000. He is said to be under house arrest after about $38,000 in cash was reportedly found in his office. He has not commented.

One of the most senior and influential presidential aides, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, another deputy head of Zelenskiy’s office, then quit. He had been under investigation over his use of a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV donated by General Motors for humanitarian purposes, and there had been sightings of him driving a Porsche Taycan worth $100,000 that belonged to an acquaintance. Tymoshenko denies any wrongdoing.

Then, perhaps most damagingly of all, the ministry of defence was found flatfooted when a Ukrainian newspaper reported that its procurement department had been paying over the odds for soldiers’ rations, raising concerns about kickbacks.

Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, responded to the reports by calling in the secret services to investigate the leak while accusing his department’s detractors of seeking to “undermine confidence in the ministry of defence at a very crucial time”, only for the deputy defence minister, Vyacheslav Shapovalov, to then ask to be fired on Tuesday.

Novikov describes Reznikov’s response as “not proper”. The anti-corruption agency had discovered issues over procurement at the ministry three months ago after documents had been hidden from his agents, he reveals. Novikov had already issued an order to Ukraine’s prime minister for it to be addressed.

“I don’t understand why the minister did not report to the public that he is working right now on all these issues, and he’s fixing it. [On Monday] we sent an order to the minister for the resignation of the head of the department … I hope that the decision to give this answer to the public was not [Reznikov’s] decision, but it was a mistake of his communication team,” he says.

Yet, for Novikov, the flurry of resignations is not a cause for concern but a sign that Ukraine is turning a new leaf, as supported by recent polling from USAid.

“Ukrainians became more intolerant to corruption during the war. If before the war only 40% of Ukrainians were ready to report about corruption, today we have 84% of Ukrainians who are ready to report. If before the war we have 44% of Ukrainians intolerant of any corruption, today we have 64%. So, it’s a request from Ukrainians to build a culture of integrity. And the president gave an answer to this request.”

Zelenskiy, who championed fighting corruption during his campaign for office, certainly has more to do, Novikov argues. “I think he is completely onboard but the main thing on which he is working is weapons and diplomatic support and financial support for Ukraine. After the weapons and financial support is anti-corruption. Yeah, we think that it’s three pillars that we need to be able to get victory.”

There is resistance to change, he concedes. “As we can see with the decision of the president and the decision of the government last week and today, not everyone in the government and in the office of the president is onboard with the president.”

But Ukraine, with its application to join the EU already filed, has a chance to change. “We’ve seen that if everyone agrees with all the measures in a state corruption programme, it is not a real state anti-corruption programme.”

The expectation, Novikov says, is that Ukraine will soon bounce up the Transparency International corruption index. “Corruption is the result of Russia’s decades-long attempts to make us its ‘province’,” he says. He is fighting to set a different course.


Daniel Boffey in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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