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Volodymyr Zelensky dismisses several ministers in crackdown on war-time graft

Zelensky has been under pressure from Western governments to demonstrate progress on graft - Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
Zelensky has been under pressure from Western governments to demonstrate progress on graft - Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday dismissed several ministers and banned top officials from travelling abroad in a dramatic crackdown on allegations of war-time graft.

Almost a dozen ministers and administration officials lost their jobs in the biggest government shake up since the start of the war, which followed a series of public scandals involving figures at the defence ministry and prominent members of Mr Zelensky’s team.

Ukraine has been under pressure from Western governments to demonstrate progress on graft as a condition of extensive foreign financial and military aid.

In a nightly address to the nation, Mr Zelensky said civil servants would no longer be allowed to circumvent a ban on travel for military age men.

Men of military age are barred from leaving the country under martial law but senior officials have previously been allowed to procure exemptions for official work.

“There are also personnel decisions,” he said, promising that “Ukraine will not show weakness. The state will not show weakness.”

The government said six cabinet ministers and five regional governors had left their jobs by the end of the day.

They included Oleksiy Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor general whose winter holiday in Spain prompted the ban on official travel.

Oleksiy Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor general
Oleksiy Symonenko, the deputy prosecutor general

The most prominent head to roll was that of Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Mr Zelensky’s presidential office, who said on Tuesday morning that he had tendered his resignation but did not give a reason.

A charismatic and prominent member of Mr Zelensky’s team, he has built up a considerable social media following since the war began and had been responsible for rebuilding infrastructure destroyed in Russia’s winter bombing campaign.

But he had faced allegations of misusing foreign aid, after a Ukrainian media outlet reported in October that he was driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that had been donated by General Motors for use in humanitarian evacuations.

He admitted using the vehicle for work trips, and said he had asked the domestic security service to transfer it to frontline regions for its intended use.

The National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption said last month it had opened another investigation after it was reported Mr Tymoshenko was using a $100,000 Porsche.

Viacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy defence minister also left, days after Ukrainian media published a procurement contract showing his office was paying two to three times market price for basic foods for the army.

Viacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy defence minister, has also left Zelensky's government
Viacheslav Shapovalov, a deputy defence minister, has also left Zelensky's government

The report published on Saturday alleged that the contract proved individuals in the ministry were scheming with food suppliers to defraud the army of millions of dollars.

Oleksiy Reznikov, the defence minister, said in a social media post that the allegations against Mr Shapovalov were “unfounded and baseless” but welcomed his resignation as “a demonstration that the interests of defence are higher than any cabinet position”.

Ukraine's ruling party drew up a bill on Tuesday aiming to boost transparency in defence procurement.

Anastasia Radina, the head of the parliamentary committee for anti-corruption matters, said the bill would make it obligatory for prices paid for products and services for the army to be made public on the state procurement website.

Ms Radina, a member of Mr Zelensky's Servant of the People party, said the requirement would not be introduced for arms purchases.

"We are obliged to ensure a level of transparency in procurement for the army, under which such scandals simply will not arise. Can it be done in a way that does not expose customers and suppliers to additional risks? Yes," she said.

The legislation has been sent to parliament for discussion and would need to be approved in three votes in that chamber before being signed into law by the president.

On Sunday, a deputy minister at the infrastructure ministry, Vasyl Lozynsky, was dismissed after he was arrested in a sting by the National Anti Corruption Bureau. He is accused of accepting a $400,000 bribe for fixing an inflated procurement contract for generators.

A recent flurry of corruption allegations comes at a sensitive time for Mr Zelensky.

Domestic implications

His government is heavily dependent on Western financial and military aid. Ukrainian diplomats often admit they worry about public opinion in donor countries fading.

Russian propaganda has frequently tried to argue that such support goes to waste.

Mr Zelensky’s crackdown on alleged graft also has domestic implications. He came to power in 2019 on a largely anti-establishment and anti-corruption platform.

The European Union cited progress on corruption as a justification for granting Ukraine candidate status last year.

Oleksandr Novikov, the head of the agency investigating Mr Tymoshenko’s taste in cars, told local media last month that the probe was partly prompted by Western demands for transparency in exchange for aid.

“The partners need to explain to their voters why this assistance is provided. That is why it is necessary to submit declarations, submit reports of political parties, to see that no one is profiting from human suffering,” he said at the time.