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9 February

Will Zelensky’s anti-corruption drive help Ukraine join the EU?

Public opinion and Kyiv’s international partners are demanding action on graft in the country.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Volodymyr Zelensky’s ongoing anti-corruption push has brought down more politicians in Ukraine. After senior officials in the ministry of defence a few days ago resigned following a scandal involving overpriced food, this week a lawmaker in the ruling party claimed that Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov would be the next figure forced out.

Investigative journalists have accused corrupt defence ministry officials of overpaying by between two and three times for food contracts, sparking public anger. Two of Reznikov’s former deputies, Vyacheslav Shapovalov and Bohdan Khmelnytsky, have been forced to resign following revelations that they were overseeing the purchase of rations and military equipment at inflated prices.

Reznikov seems to have avoided resignation himself, however. The defence minister is one of the better-known faces of the Ukrainian war effort, and has been instrumental in securing Western military aid. Zelensky may judge that removing him from his post could harm the Ukrainian war effort. At a press conference on Sunday 4 February, Reznikov admitted shortcomings though denied personal guilt: “This is a loss of reputation today, it must be recognised and learned from.”

He is the most high-profile figure to be caught up in Zelensky’s escalating attempt to root out officials accused of corruption. Among the many political casualties are Vasyl Lozynsky, a former deputy minister of infrastructure accused of embezzling $400,000, and Oleksandr Mironyuk, a deputy defence minister. A search of Mironyuk’s home allegedly turned up $1m in cash hidden in a sofa.

The anti-corruption push seems to indicate a new strategy from Zelensky, whose government had until recently been focused almost exclusively on the nearly year-long war. But faced with growing domestic and international pressure, Zelensky – who is himself reported to have been close to the influential oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky – had no choice but to show that he was committed to taking on Ukraine’s infamously entrenched corruption. Before the war, Ukraine was widely perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Ukraine the third-most corrupt country in Europe in 2022, behind only Russia and Azerbaijan.

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The recent anti-corruption push is driven by two main factors, Tetiana Shevchuk, a lawyer at the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Centre, told me. The first is pressure from Ukraine’s international partners to ensure that plentiful international military and financial aid is not being siphoned off by corrupt officials. The EU, which has promised membership to Ukraine, also insists on anti-corruption reforms as one of the main conditions to be fulfilled by aspiring member states.

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The US, Ukraine’s most important military backer, has also been demanding reform. Joe Biden’s administration has emphasised the need to continue fighting corruption even during wartime, while the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has signalled that it will be more critical of US aid to Ukraine. Matt Gaetz, a far-right congressman, opposes aid to what he calls “a historically corrupt country who is begging for more than the hundred billion dollars that the Congress is already set to send them”.

Zelensky has realised that the continuation of Western military and financial aid depends in part on showing Kyiv’s allies that it is not being embezzled, Mark Galeotti, a prominent commentator on the war, told me. “These most recent moves are in part simply about reassuring the West that this money is not going to be stolen,” Galeotti said.

The second factor driving the anti-corruption push is Ukrainian public opinion. Before the war, Shevchuk said, Ukrainians consistently ranked corruption as the second-most important problem facing their country, behind only relations with Russia. But the latter’s full-scale invasion transformed what was perceived as “a governance problem” into “an emotional problem”. Now, graft is viewed as “looting and marauding in times of war, because [Ukrainians] understand that money stolen is stolen from our war budget”, Shevchuk added.

The theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars stings all the more because of the collapse of the economy last year. Ukraine’s GDP is estimated to have fallen by around a third in 2022 as millions left the country and everything was reorientated towards the war effort.

Zelensky may also be using the impetus of the war to implement the anti-corruption campaign promises he made in the 2019 election, Galeotti said. “This foreign pressure has empowered Zelensky to do something that he probably wanted to do anyway.” In Servant of the People, the TV show in which Zelensky plays a schoolteacher who becomes president, Zelensky’s character rises to fame because of a rant against corruption that goes viral.

Still, the extent to which the anti-corruption drive involves genuinely substantive institutional change – rather than a few demonstrative scalps of high-profile figures – is not yet clear. Eradicating corruption “is easier said than done because it is a complicated institutional process on many levels”, Shevchuk said. “This show is not enough. It is a good public step to show that we are working on the problem, but we need to see in a few weeks or months whether it is achieving real results.”

[See also: Why the West underestimated Ukraine]