Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency NABU drifting into the president’s orbit

Ukraine’s anti-corruption agency NABU drifting into the president’s orbit
NABU was set up to fight graft as an independent body, but under new leadership it is drifting into the orbit of the president's office. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews September 23, 2023

Under the leadership of Semen Kryvonos, the newly appointed head of Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), concerns are growing about the bureau's independence, as it appears to be falling under the influence of the president’s office.

The former NABU head, Artem Sytnyk, was seen as the “Eliot Ness” of Ukraine, the untouchable cop that went after wrongdoers no matter who they were. On the other hand, Uglava, his first deputy, sought not to close the channels of dialogue with influential representatives of the presidential administration as NABU tried to strike a delicate balance between working with and against the authorities.

“Sytnyk calculated that government representatives made 35 attempts to deprive the agency of its powers during his seven years of leadership, and the political pressure continued continuously,” NV reports. “Since he took over six months ago Kryvonos has had no complaints.”

In the end Sytnyk had little success in his anti-graft drive. His first attempt to arrest the first big fish Roman Nasirov, the government’s financial controller and former President Petro Poroshenko's right-hand man for stealing millions of dollars, ended in failure when Nasirov was bailed out by his wife and charges were eventually dropped. Nasirov even stood against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for president in the 2019 elections.

However, the balance between Sytnyk and Uglava collapsed when Kryvonos took over. Ukrainian magazine NV identified what it called several markets that indicate NABU is losing its independence from the president’s office in a long report published on September 18, including changes in the organisation's structure and the appointment of multiple deputy heads. The current developments within NABU have raised concerns about its future ability to fulfil its anti-corruption mandate independently, which will be absolutely crucial for Ukraine’s recovery, which will require tens of billions in reconstruction investment from the private sector after the war is over.

Kryvonos, along with his deputy Uglava, has been accused of aligning NABU with the President's Office, leading to allegations of political influence and threats against employees who oppose this shift.

The creation of NABU in 2015 was a crucial demand from international entities like the European Union, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States. Its mission was to combat corruption independently, without political interference. However, under Kryvonos' leadership the bureau's autonomy appears to be diminishing.

Uglava, a former Georgian prosecutor, has been identified as a significant influencer within NABU, despite not holding a public leadership position. He has reportedly had contact with influential individuals in the Ukrainian government, raising questions about his role in protecting government officials from corruption charges.

A source in the anti-corruption sector told NV that Uglava is in regular contact with Davyd Arakhamia, head of the ruling Servant of the People parliamentary party and suggested Uglava could warn the politician about imminent charges against top government officials, “for example, against former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, Kyrylo Shevchenko. Apparently, this allowed Shevchenko to leave the country in advance and avoid arrest,” NV reported.

Another high-profile case also raised red flags. NABU has been investigating oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky for years, but when Kolomoisky was arrested on September 2, he was arrested by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) which is wholly under the president’s direct control, not NABU. However, shortly afterwards more charges were brought against Kolomoisky of embezzling $250mn from his bank PrivatBank on September 8. Those charges were brought by NABU.

“NV learned from sources close to non-government organisations co-operating with NABU on anti-corruption, some presidential representatives turned to Kryvonos with a request to postpone the processing of charges against Kolomoisky for a week,” NV reported.

Furthermore, Polina Lysenko, who has a history of engagement with the government, was appointed as NABU's deputy head. NV reports that Lysenko is close to Andriy Yermak, the head of the president’s office and seen as an eminence grise behind Zelenskiy.

There have been reports of a significant number of employees leaving NABU following Kryvonos' appointment and the restructuring of the organisation. According to NV, staff that were not prepared to follow Kryvonos' lead in tighter ties with the president’s office were either pushed out or sacked. This has raised concerns about a potential loss of experienced detectives who played vital roles in high-profile corruption cases.

Kryvonos' decision to dismiss approximately three dozen employees in the name of "staff optimisation" has triggered speculation about the bureau's future direction as NV reports that the changes were a purge designed to promote loyalists and axe dissenters. Some fear that the reorganisation may have an impact on detective units and could result in the removal of key personnel, including Andriy Kaluzhynskyi, the head of all detective units.

NV spoke with a dozen former and current NABU employees as well as experts from anti-corruption organisations to find out what is happening with NABU, which has an annual budget of UAH1.2bn ($32.8mn) and considerable operational capabilities.