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Analysis | Ukrainian journalists expose Ukrainian corruption

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For a top Ukrainian official, the downfall stemmed from a fatal weakness: A striking interest in luxury cars.

In October, Ukrainian news outlet Bihus.info shared photos of Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe SUV donated for humanitarian aid. Two months later, news website Ukrainska Pravda reported that Tymoshenko had been filmed multiple times driving a 2021 Porsche Taycan, worth about $100,000, through Kiev earlier this year.

Tymoshenko dismissed the allegations, suggesting that the Chevrolet was being used for official business and that he had merely borrowed the Porsche. But with much of the country economically devastated, the gaudy means of transportation chosen by a senior Zelensky adviser caused a stir.

“Can the representatives of power in this country, a quarter of its territory already in ruins, live luxuriously?” wrote Mykhailo Tkach, the Ukrainska Pravda journalist who told the Porsche story.

This week, Kiev saw a series of layoffs or firings, many of which appeared to be linked to bribery allegations. Tymoshenko was among the most prominent to leave office, but there were also Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko, as well as five governors of front-line provinces.

The headlines are very uncomfortable for the Ukrainian government. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Zelensky has become an international icon, praised for his resilience and steady hand. But reports of corruption are likely to alarm many in Western capitals, who have sent huge sums of money to Ukraine to offset the economic catastrophe of the war.

But it is important to remember who exposed the allegations of Ukrainian corruption: Ukrainian journalists and anti-corruption campaigners.

Top Ukrainian officials sacked in anti-corruption campaign

It is hardly news that Ukraine has a corruption problem. It has been called the most corrupt country in Europe. Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country 122nd out of 180 countries.

But while this reputation for bribery is known around the world – former President Donald Trump called Ukraine the “third most corrupt country” – perhaps less recognition is given to how many people in Ukraine oppose corruption. For investigative journalists looking to investigate corruption, Ukraine has indeed provided rich material.

Bihus.info was founded by Denis Bigus, an investigative journalist who hosted the television show ‘Our Money’. Bigus first became known internationally for helping to set up YanukovychLeaks, a website that helped expose the finances of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – the pro-Moscow leader who was ousted in 2014 and left a mansion with a private zoo and a collection of luxury cars.

Bihus has also worked at Ukrainska Pravda, an online news organization that was first founded in 2000 and has received significant attention for its investigative work. This outlet also spearheaded the coverage leading up to Symonenko’s resignation this week, with Tkach reporting earlier this month that Ukraine’s deputy attorney general had traveled to Marbella, Spain over the New Year and was seen driving a Mercedes owned by a controversial businessman .

Yuriy Nikolov, another well-known Ukrainian journalist from the Mirror of the Week publication, made the revelations that forced Shapovalov out of office this week, reporting that a recent $350 million procurement contract included staple food items at highly inflated prices.

This is just scratches on the surface. Ukrainian journalists working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s investigative unit, “Skhemy” or “schedules” in English, have also uncovered numerous allegations of official corruption in Ukraine, forcing a judge in Ukraine’s Supreme Court to resign last year. for holding a Russian passport.

And it’s not just journalists who expose corruption. Ukrainian nonprofits, such as the well-known Anti-Corruption Action Center, have led their own investigations and called for reform. Meanwhile, after the overthrow of Yanukovych in 2014 and the subsequent discovery of large-scale corruption, Kiev established the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.

This body is mandated to investigate and prepare cases against people suspected of bribery – as evidenced this weekend when it oversaw a sting operation in which Deputy Infrastructure Minister Vasily Lozinskiy was arrested for allegedly accepting a $100 bribe. 400,000 for the purchase of equipment.

Long before his war in Ukraine, Putin waged war against Russian journalists

Fighting corruption is a risky business. One of the founders of Ukrainska Pravda, Georgiy Gongadze, was murdered after investigating government corruption. Only 31 years old, his body was found in a forest, decapitated and covered in acid.

“Gongadze was trying to be a normal reporter, he wasn’t trying to be a hero,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian journalist who later edited Ukrainska Pravda, told the BBC in 2004. “But in Ukraine it is a courageous occupation to be a journalist. .

Leshchenko now works in Zelensky’s office, but the dangers he described remain. Last year, Tkach of Ukrainska Pravda described harassment related to their reporting, while the editors of Bihus.info reported that unknown people were posing as their reporters. Journalists have complained that the war media in Ukraine has become even more difficult to report on corruption.

For Ukraine itself there is a major reputational risk. Corruption investigations could tarnish the country’s international reputation just as it most needs global aid. Meanwhile, with huge sums of money pouring into Ukraine, the graft may be worse than ever. It could present some uncomfortable questions for Zelensky’s government (the Ukrainian president himself was named in the Panama Papers, a leaked series of files from the offshore banking haven).

In many ways, the fight against corruption in Ukraine is intertwined with the war — so much so that Bihus himself left journalism last year to volunteer to fight Russia and now pilots drones on the southern front.

Russia is one of the countries that score lower on the Corruption Perceptions Index, where it was 136 last year. And while there are many excellent Russian investigative journalists who expose corruption, their revelations are often followed by a shrug and silence rather than resignation and resignation.

Fighting corruption is a prerequisite for European Union membership, so if Ukraine can really tame the problem, it could mean a real geopolitical shift away from Russia. If that happens, it will be anti-corruption journalists and campaigners who will decide the fate of the country.

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