For the first two months of the war in Ukraine, Oleksandr Novikov, 40, lived with a clique of his staff in the basement of the austere offices of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau in Kiev.
“We have an ammunition room – it has machine guns. We were ready to fight in these streets,” says Novikov, looking down from his third-floor boardroom window.
It is Novikov’s fourth and final year as head of Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency, and while the Russians failed to arrive on his doorstep in Ukraine’s capital last February, the former prosecutor’s hunger for a fight against the odds has not yet been satisfied.
In 2021, Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the second most corrupt country in Europe, behind only Russia, a position Novikov sought to reverse, only to find his task made significantly more difficult by Covid and Vladimir Putin.
Under the cover of the pandemic, parliament lifted the need for political parties to provide financial reports to its bureau, while the need to protect officials in occupied parts of Ukraine from the attention of Russian troops led to the suspension of public and mandatory register of their identity and income last year.
Novikov wants both back – and more. The value of the financial register, he says, has been proven by the imminent prosecution in absentia of Viktor Medvedchuk, godfather of Vladimir Putin’s daughter and a leading pro-Kremlin politician in Ukraine, for his alleged failure to register assets in Cyprus. to give. He was jailed last year and traded for Russian prisoners 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 aid is being used. Novikov’s job is to keep the money safe. But adding to his frustration was that a January 10 deadline had passed for the government to adopt a three-year anti-corruption strategy that would place additional scrutiny requirements on recovery and reconstruction projects.
“I have all the tools we need to ensure transparency, accountability and integrity when using this money – but not all of those tools are enabled,” he says.
Irritation appears to have been further fueled by the government’s apparent initial lethargy in targeting Russian individuals and entities active in the Ukrainian economy.
Tensions erupted publicly last year after Novikov suggested Andriy Smirnov, the deputy head of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office, was behind the slow progress in drawing up a list of those who would be affected by economic sanctions.
Smirnov, who dismissed the delays as due to the legal complexities, 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 wiped out.
Some may think that the dramatic events of the past few days would be a worrying czar on a mission. Since Saturday, a host of deputies at the national level have rolled amid allegations of corruption, while a slew of regional governors have resigned without explanation. “There will be no return to what used to be,” Zelensky promised in one of his regular evening speeches.
The first domino fell when Ukraine’s deputy infrastructure minister Vasyl Lozinskyi was dismissed from his position after being accused of driving up the price of winter equipment, including generators, and allegedly siphoning off $400,000. He was reportedly under house arrest after approximately $38,000 in cash was reportedly found in his office. He has not commented.
One of the most prominent and influential presidential aides, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, another deputy head of Zelenskiy’s office, then resigned. He was under investigation for his use of a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV donated by General Motors for humanitarian purposes, and was reported to be driving a $100,000 Porsche Taycan that belonged to an acquaintance. Tymoshenko denies any allegations.
Then, perhaps most damaging of all, the defense ministry was trampled underfoot when a Ukrainian newspaper reported that its procurement department had overpaid for soldiers’ rations, sparking concerns about bribes.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov responded to the reports by calling in the secret services to investigate the leak, while accusing opponents of his department of “undermining 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 “inappropriate.” The anti-corruption agency discovered procurement problems at the ministry three months ago after documents were hidden from its agents, he reveals. Novikov had already issued an order to the Prime Minister of Ukraine to deal with it.
“I don’t understand why the minister has not reported to the public that he is now working on all these issues and that he is resolving them. [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 says.
Still, for Novikov, the wave of layoffs is not a cause for concern, but a sign that Ukraine is on a new path, as recent USAid polls show.
“Ukrainians became more intolerant of corruption during the war. If before the war only 40% of Ukrainians were ready to report on corruption, today we have 84% of Ukrainians ready to report. If before the war 44% of Ukrainians were intolerant of any kind of corruption, today we have 64%. So it is a request from Ukrainians to build a culture of integrity. And the president responded to this request.”
Zelenskiy, who championed anti-corruption during his election campaign, certainly has more to do, Novikov believes. “I think he is fully on board, but the main thing he is working on is weapons and diplomatic support and financial support for Ukraine. After the weapons and financial support comes the fight against corruption. Yes, we think it’s three pillars we need to get the win.”
There is resistance to change, he admits. “As we can see from the president’s decision and the administration’s decision last week and today, not everyone in the administration and in the president’s office is on board with the president.”
But Ukraine, with its application to join the EU already submitted, has a chance to change. “We’ve seen that if everyone agrees with all the measures in a state corruption program, it’s not a true state anti-corruption program.”
The expectation, says Novikov, is that Ukraine will soon rise on Transparency International’s corruption index. “Corruption is the result of Russia’s decades-long attempts to make us its ‘province,'” he says. He fights to take a different course.