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Politics and Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Push

This article was originally published by Fair Observer.

By Nathan Dabrowski

In the early morning darkness of Oct. 31, Gennady Korban opened his door to find a group of imposing men in black balaclavas staring down at him. A state special investigator emerged from the group with a binder and proceeded to read out the charges. Korban, a controversial millionaire businessman and political operator, was being arrested on orders from Ukraine’s prosecutor general, and the extra muscle—courtesy of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)—were there to ensure that happened.

According to the prosecutor general’s office, Korban’s arrest comes as part of a more general drive against organized crime in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third largest city. As deputy governor of the city in 2014-15, under the infamous Ihor Kolomoisky—a long-time political ally and business partner who has been at odds with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko since the latter forced him to resign from his governorship last March—Korban stands accused of embezzling $1.7 million from the Defense State Fund (which finances the Ukrainian armed services) and of kidnapping City Council Director Oleksandr Velychko.

A Checkered Past

The charges are contested by some. One of Korban’s colleagues at the governor’s office in Dnipropetrovsk, Svyatoslav Oliynyk, claims that it is absurd to accuse him of embezzling funds when Korban himself was “the biggest donor” to the Defense State Fund.

But there is little doubt that Korban has a checkered past. As the Kyiv Post details in a searing profile, Korban has long been one of Ukraine’s most notorious corporate raiders. As the Kyiv Post details in a searing profile, Korban has long been one of Ukraine’s most notorious corporate raiders. Seemingly unconcerned with denying this label, Korban has at times referred to his questionable business techniques vaguely as “solving conflicts” or “redistributing the wealth of some to others.”

One might think that a Robin Hood who steals from the rich to give to the richer would fail to garner significant electoral support, but the party that Korban and Kolomoisky mounted ahead of Ukraine’s local elections in October has been surprisingly successful, demonstrating the power that the country’s oligarchs continue to hold over politics. The Ukrainian Association of Patriots, or UKROP, won 8 percent of the nationwide vote and their mayoral candidate for Dnipropetrovsk, Borys Filatov, will continue into the second round.

These budding electoral achievements have led a surprising coalition of Ukrainian politicians to cry foul over Korban’s arrest. For UKROP, the accusations are politically motivated. In a statement, Korban’s lawyer, Oleksiy Shevchuk, declared: “Judging by the materials I have seen, this is open political pressure on the person in question.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, however, the arrest has raised concerns that President Poroshenko is playing politics with the justice system. Anatoliy Hrytsenko, former minister of defense and leader of the West-leaning Civil Position party, argued that Poroshenko is showing “selectivity” in ordering the prosecutor general to go after Korban, while other corrupt and criminal allies of the government enjoy impunity. “[Does] Poroshenko … understand that when they apply the Criminal Code in their sole discretion, there will be no sense of justice or trust in their government in the society?” Hrytsenko asked in a Facebook post.

Mixing Politics and Justice

The fact is that the Korban case would be much less controversial had Poroshenko not already undermined many of his counterparts’ trust in previous high-profile judicial pursuits. In 2014, for example, the Ukrainian government passed a lustration law attempting to “purge” the civil service of corruption that Human Rights Watch (HRW) called a violation of judicial independence. “[The law] is overly broad, tainted with political bias, and violates the independence of the judiciary, which can only deepen mistrust in an already fractured society,” HRW said in a statement.

On a similar note, Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption organization, released a report stating that the “highest officials of Ukraine” have attempted “to establish through Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin personal control over the key anti-corruption bodies to make them function in their own interests.”

Moreover, the Ukrainian state has showed the troubling tendency to not only conflate the judicial and the political, but to use outside institutions to legitimize such actions. Following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s government and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the European Union (EU) placed 18 Ukrainians on its sanctions list, mostly individuals affiliated with the ancien régime. The basis for many of these sanctions was that the Ukrainians were being investigated for crimes by Ukrainian prosecutors, not that they were convicted of any wrongdoing thus far.

As time went on, however, cases against some of those sanctioned fell apart when some charges were not held up in Ukrainian courts of law. In the case against Andriy Portnov, an advisor to the deposed President Yanukovych, accused of being involved in the killings of Maidan activists in Kiev and misappropriating land and buildings, the charges were dropped less than one year after the first hearing. Nevertheless, the damage to Portnov’s political career was done, and appears to be permanent.

Oleksandr Klymenko, another Yanukovych-era bureaucrat, also found himself on the sanctions list following the Maidan Revolution and was forced to flee to Russia, where he now resides. In a recent interview with Politico Europe, Klymenko spoke to the EU’s worst fears, claiming that its governments are “lending a hand to the political-cleansing of Ukraine by the current administration.” Klymenko is currently appealing the sanctions against him and has even undertaken a curious multimedia campaign to showcase what he sees as political purges masquerading as justice.

The real tragedy is that Ukraine does have a serious problem with corruption, as Korban’s case, and indeed many others, demonstrate. No serious political analyst doubts the need to ruthlessly tackle corruption in Ukraine’s public and private sectors. The tragedy is that a government elected by the people to do that would politicize the process, further alienating those who suffer the consequences of corruption most of all.

All hope is not lost—as long as the populace maintains its anti-corruption fervor—although for true transparency to take effect, western Ukrainian citizens must be as tough on “their” parties as they are on those formerly allied with Yanukovych and the country’s east.

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Nathan Dabrowski is an Eastern Europe Correspondent based in Krakow for an American economic intelligence firm.

[Photo courtesy of Drop of Light/Shutterstock.com]

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