A Bellwether Case For Ukraine’s Reform Movement
Ukraine’s fledgling independent anti-corruption agency will get its first day in court.
Ukraine may have won its first big battle in its fight against corruption.
Roman Nasirov, a government official, was sentenced Tuesday to 60 days of pretrial detention for his involvement in a case of fraud and embezzlement of roughly $100 million. He will be granted house arrest only if he posts bail of $3.7 million, in which case he must wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. He spent Sunday night hiding out in the courthouse, which was surrounded by anti-corruption protesters.
Nasirov, who heads the politically important fiscal service, is the highest-ranking government official to face the real prospect of jail time over corruption charges — a symbolic victory for a system of government characterized by corruption and influenced by oligarchs.
His case comes amid rising public disillusionment over the extent to which reform is possible in Ukraine. It will be a make-or-break test for the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), the fledgling independent agency created after the Maidan revolution to investigate major corruption cases free from political interference. The outcome will also say a great deal about Ukraine’s progress in fighting corruption and developing a stronger legal system more broadly.
For Dmytro Shymkiv, the deputy head of the presidential administration in Ukraine, the Nasirov case is an encouraging sign in what has been a three year effort to clean up the country’s dirty political system and a welcome indicator that change is indeed taking root — albeit at a slower pace than desired.
“The fact that this is happening, the fact that this is transparent, the fact that this is taking place — it’s a good thing,” Shymkiv told Foreign Policy during an interview in Washington. NABU is now up and running, and an arrest was made after the collection of evidence by that independent institution. That, per Shymkiv, is how the system is supposed to work.
Following the ouster of corrupt former President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, a wave of euphoria fueled a reform effort among Ukrainian lawmakers. In October 2014, the country’s parliament passed a major reform package, but many of the initiatives have faced resistance from lawmakers, causing the anti-corruption measures to be delayed or watered down before being implemented. Still, Ukraine’s anti-corruption movement — fueled by an increasingly active civil society and NABU — have won some hard-fought gains. Most notably, in October 2016, a new online declaration system that mandates that officials publicly disclose all assets in their name, as well as those in the name of their family members has shone a light on the wealth of the country’s political elite. Publicizing officials’ wealth opens them not only to scrutiny but also potentially to criminal prosecution for a false disclosure.
Against this backdrop of progress, NABU launched its case against Nasirov, in what is likely to be a drawn out, high-stakes legal battle. Proving Nasirov’s guilt in court requires navigating Ukraine’s judicial system, which has historically been an instrument for settling political scores.
The quality of the evidence will be crucial, Shymkiv argued. “In cases like this, where we’re talking about senior officials, it’s very important to have bulletproof evidence because usually they hire very bulletproof lawyers,” he said.
“It’s really not really a victory, it’s a tactical win,” Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FP. “The real test is to see how the judiciary handles this. If it can, that would be a victory.”
NABU’s ability to continue its work hinges on how this case goes and how the agency weathers “the internal push and pull of different power brokers and ministries and information brokers within the Ukrainian system,” Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, told FP.
That push and pull could, of course, lead to accusations or allegations that arrests are being made for political purposes, as arrests are routinely suspected to be in Russia and have been in Ukraine in the past. Thoburn acknowledged that anti-corruption cases are inherently political, not because they’re politically motivated, but because corruption and politics are so entwined in Ukraine.
Shymkiv, too, recognizes people could say they’re the target of anti-corruption efforts and could claim to be political victims. “If you’re talking about politicians, they immediately jump and say, ‘Why me? I’m innocent. I’m good,’” he said. “For us, it’s important that NABU continues to demonstrate independence, and anti-corruption prosecutors demonstrate their position, and I think that’s the key.”
Photo credit: Danil Shamkin/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan