KYIV – Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rode into office this year on a pledge to tackle the corruption that was rife under his two most recent predecessors. Analysts and activists have given him strong marks so far, which is why the recent descriptions in Washington of Ukraine as a graft-ridden country are especially stinging for officials in Kyiv.
In the first months of his administration, Zelenskiy has managed to win quick passage of anti-corruption legislation to identify illegal wealth held by officials, calling for up to 10 years in prison for those who cannot satisfactorily explain income of more than $250,000.
In addition, a special anti-corruption court that the West had for years urged be established finally began working in September. That same month, Zelenskiy announced the creation of a hotline for whistleblowers to report wrongdoing.
Vadim Karasev, head of a Kyiv-based independent think tank, said remarks by President Donald Trump and his defenders that Ukraine remains mired in corruption have belittled Zelenskiy’s actions.
“Trump sees it as expedient to brand Ukraine as the most corrupt country, preferring not to notice Kyiv’s efforts to combat that,” said Karasev, chief of the Center of Global Strategies.
Ukraine has taken center stage in U.S. political life after an impeachment inquiry of Trump was triggered by a July 25 telephone call in which he pushed Zelenskiy to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Trump has argued that in holding up nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, he was seeking to root out corruption. But Congress had already approved the aid and there has been no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the Bidens.
Analysts say the 41-year-old Zelenskiy still faces massive challenges to try to end decades of graft, cronyism and disregard for the rule of law that helped bring down Ukraine’s two previous leaders.
Before his election, he was a sitcom star whose only political experience consisted of portraying a high school teacher who is propelled to the presidency after a recording of his tirade against graft goes viral.
Now he is battling it in real life.
“Zelenskiy has completed the formation of a vertical structure to combat corruption,” said Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent activist who heads a Ukrainian group called the Anti-Corruption Action Center. “The anti-corruption court, the prosecutors and the anti-corruption bureau have broad powers and freedom of action.”
Trump’s critics, backed by a wealth of testimony on Capitol Hill, contend the president wasn’t genuinely concerned about corruption and was just trying to damage Biden politically. They argue, too, that his maneuvering actually undermined efforts to attack graft in the Eastern European country.
In 2014, Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from power in an uprising fueled by anger over corruption, and his administration was accused of looting billions of dollars from the state.
Graft continued to run amok under his successor, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire known as "the Chocolate King” because he made the bulk of his fortune in the candy business.
Taras Chmut, a leading independent military analyst, said corruption has been particularly rampant in the military even as Ukraine has remained locked in conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east. The fighting erupted in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Chmut cited a scandal in 2015 over the procurement of rucksacks at inflated prices for Interior Ministry forces fighting the separatist rebels. The gear was purchased from a company controlled by the son of Ukraine’s interior minister, but the case was closed, and the minister has kept his job to this day.
A military embezzlement scheme allegedly involving top Poroshenko associates and a factory controlled by the president badly dented his popularity just before the election and contributed to his bruising loss to Zelenskiy.
Despite Zelenskiy’s latest efforts, corruption continues to plague the country, with businesses paying bribes to win government contracts or settle tax disputes, doctors seeking under-the-table payments before performing surgery and students having to pay their way into free higher education.
“There is no independent judiciary, bribes are everywhere, top officials dodge punishment with payoffs,” said Anton Fursenko, a 42-year-old businessman who was among those who rallied on Kyiv’s main square last week, demanding stronger action against corruption.
A department chief in Zelenskiy’s office was arrested recently on charges of accepting a $150,000 bribe to get someone appointed to a top position in Ukraine’s state gas company.
Prosecutors also opened a probe of 11 lawmakers from Zelenskiy’s party accused of taking bribes of $30,000 each to support legislation that would benefit companies of another member of parliament.
Zelenskiy insisted last week that his government and his Servant of the People Party will get rid of anyone suspected of graft.
“We always said that we are ready to clean our ranks,” he said.
There are fears, however, that billionaire tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, whose assets include a TV station that broadcast Zelenskiy’s sitcom, could use his connections to the president to try to reclaim control of the nation’s biggest lender, PrivatBank, which was taken from him and placed in state hands in 2016.
Zelenskiy has sought to distance himself from the tycoon, and government officials have vowed that PrivatBank will remain under state control.
Despite that, Kolomoisky has continued working behind the scenes to expand his clout, said Kaleniuk, the anti-corruption activist. She alleged the tycoon has been able to recruit several dozen legislators to support his agenda and put pressure on Zelenskiy.