KYIV — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s move to equate wartime corruption with treason is triggering a backlash from officials and watchdogs, who warn the plan could hobble Ukraine’s main anti-graft forces.
Two senior officials following the proposal, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly, say concerns are growing within Ukraine’s anti-graft agencies that Zelenskyy’s plan will take top corruption cases away from their oversight and pass them to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which falls under the president’s command.
The SBU could, potentially, have the power to bury corruption cases involving top officials. The move, the officials say, could put Ukraine’s anti-corruption infrastructure under threat, and anti-corruption watchdogs are sounding the alarm.
By equating corruption to treason, Zelenskyy’s office is manipulating the public’s desire for justice, said Vitaly Shabunin, head of the Anti-Corruption Action Center (Antac), a Ukrainian nongovernmental organization that monitors graft. In reality, Shabunin added, Zelenskyy’s office is pursuing other goals: to protect high-level officials from corruption charges and obtain tools to destroy opponents.
“SBU will investigate the same cases as NABU [the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine], which means that evidence in ‘sensitive’ cases for the president’s office will be destroyed. After [President’s Office Deputy Head Oleg] Tatarov’s case was transferred from NABU to the SBU — it was buried there … Now the office wants to make that into practice,” Shabunin warned.
As journalists and anti-graft organs start to uncover more alleged corruption schemes during the first months of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion which began in February 2022, Zelenskyy thinks those days were so tough that officials should be cut some slack.
“February and March 2022 — it was a fight for the existence of Ukraine. If I see the corruption cases dated that time, I demand solid evidence. If there is one [evidence], the guilty must be punished by court, not public opinion,” Zelenskyy said in a televised interview. “As for my idea of equating corruption to state treason during wartime, I think it will be a very serious instrument to make them not even think about it [corruption].”
In practice, it will mean the collapse of the anti-corruption system, Antac said in a statement.
“According to the sources of the Anti-Corruption Center, the draft law will give the right to investigate top corruption to the SBU — a security service, controlled by the president’s office,” Antac said in a statement. Current and former senior officials in the SBU have been named by Ukrainian media as being close to Zelenskyy’s office — an accusation that was brushed off by Zelenskyy’s right-hand man Andriy Yermak as “conspiracy theories.”
Zelenskyy acted to begin the process of changing the law after another case of wartime corruption was uncovered last week, in which two high-ranking Ukrainian officials were named as suspects in an embezzlement scheme involving the procurement of humanitarian aid.
“I don’t know whether Ukrainian MPs will support my idea, but I will definitely propose it … We have to implement systemic changes. This is the way to fight corruption,” Zelenskyy said.
He added that his office will submit the bill to Ukraine’s parliament within a week.
“I have set a task, and the legislators of Ukraine will be offered my proposals on equating corruption with high treason during wartime,” Zelenskyy said Sunday evening. “I understand that such a weapon cannot operate constantly in society, but during wartime, I think it will help.”
Corruption scandals in Zelenskyy’s administration have drawn increased attention at the same time as the country is pushing to start membership talks with the European Union.
The deadline for Ukraine’s seven-step progress is approaching in October and the country, so far, has fulfilled only two steps, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Olha Stefanishyna said during a conference in Kyiv earlier this month. Still, Stefanishyna said, partners acknowledged tremendous progress Ukraine made during the war and she still hopes accession talks will start in December.
Though Zelenskyy personally has not been implicated in scandal, some 77 percent of Ukrainians think he is responsible for ongoing corruption in the government and local military administrations, according to a poll by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation think tank published at the beginning of August.
Zelenskyy’s allies hit back at any suggestion he is to blame, amid repeated scandals that have rocked the government in 2023 in the humanitarian aid, and military recruitment and procurement sectors. And they support the president’s move to put wartime corruption on par with treason.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of Zelenskyy’s office, told POLITICO the president’s initiatives will strengthen anti-corruption infrastructure and its effectiveness.
“The president is starting this discussion to put a clear ‘equal’ sign in the mass consciousness between wartime corruption and treason. Strengthening the punishment for corruption crimes and removing the possibility of release on bail for those accused of corruption is a demonstration of the seriousness of his intentions,” Podolyak said.