Five threats Ukraine’s anti-graft agency faces – NV analysis

After the emergence of new people in the NABU leadership - Director Semen Kryvonos (left) and his deputy Polina Lysenko - there was an outflow of top detectives from the Bureau. The most influential person in the NABU is the first deputy director, Gizo Uglava (foreground).
After the emergence of new people in the NABU leadership - Director Semen Kryvonos (left) and his deputy Polina Lysenko - there was an outflow of top detectives from the Bureau. The most influential person in the NABU is the first deputy director, Gizo Uglava (foreground).

Under the new head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), Semen Kryvonos, and his first deputy, Gizo Uglava, the bureau is drifting into the orbit of the President’s Office.

Employees who don’t agree with such a turn are subject to official investigations and layoffs, or simply leave the agency.

The creation of an independent anti-graft agency in 2015 was a key demand from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the United States. The EU refused to implement a visa-free travel regime with Ukraine without this requirement. The first iteration of NABU’s management found a difficult balance between the fight against corruption and the possibility of dialogue with the authorities, particularly with the President’s Office.

Artem Sytnyk, the former NABU head, was a “bad policeman” who sought to put pressure on the ruling elite’s sensitive areas. On the other hand, Uglava, his first deputy, tried not to close the channels of dialogue with influential representatives of the presidential administration.

This balance collapsed after Kryvonos was elected as the new head. According to several NV sources in NABU among former employees and anti-corruption public structures, he’s not an independent leader but relies entirely on two deputies in making decisions.

Those would be Uglava and Polina Lysenko, who have their own history of contacts with the government and their views on NABU’s independence.

Read also: NABU seizes $18 million on accounts of Kolomoisky-related firm

NV spoke with a dozen former and current NABU employees, as well as experts from anti-corruption organizations to find out what is happening with NABU, which has an annual budget of UAH 1.2 billion ($32.8 million) and considerable operational capabilities.

The information obtained can be boiled down to five threats, which could turn NABU from an independent body into an arm of the executive, and the fight against corruption into a presidential political monopoly.

Informal head

Uglava worked in the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office for almost 20 years and held the post of deputy chief prosecutor (2009-2012). After arriving in Ukraine in 2014, together with former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team, he started working on improving the legislation related to NABU duties. In the same year, he obtained Ukrainian citizenship, and a year later he took his current post as NABU’s first deputy head.

Uglava chose to remain a non-public NABU official. He doesn’t give extensive interviews and, apparently, had no ambition to lead the agency himself.

“Uglava believes a Ukrainian should lead NABU; that’s why he didn’t apply for the competition [for NABU head],” one of his subordinates told NV.

Instead, Uglava made considerable efforts to increase Kryvonos’ chances of passing the competitive selection process, according to several NV sources who followed the competition.

At the same time, they don’t want to voice these facts on their own behalf to avoid conflict with NABU.

However, NABU itself doesn’t seem to see a problem in the fact that the most influential figure in the organization is an official who is not subject to the principles of rotation and competitive selection. One of the agency’s top representatives, commenting on Uglava’s turning into NABU’s informal head, said: “What’s the problem that he [Uglava] is helping [Kryvonos]?”

David Arakhamia, political influence of the President’s Office, and Polina Lysenko – “GR [government relations] in NABU”

Former NABU head Sytnyk calculated that government representatives had made 35 attempts to deprive the agency of its powers during his seven years of leadership, and the political pressure continued continuously. In turn, incumbent NABU head Kryvonos has had no complaints about the authorities for six months.

What has changed? Do top officials and pro-government oligarchs agree themselves to become participants in NABU investigations? Or are the authorities and NABU leadership consulting about who will be charged with corruption?

NV learned of at least two examples that may indicate, so to speak, in-depth communication between the ruling party and NABU.

The first episode concerns the alleged communication between Arakhamia, head of the ruling Servant of the People parliamentary party, with NABU leadership.

A source in the anti-corruption sector told NV that Uglava is in regular contact with Arakhamia. According to his data, Uglava could warn the politician about the drafting of 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.

Read also: Court sets new bail for Kolomoisky at $103 million

In response to NV’s request to comment on his contacts with NABU first deputy head, Arakhamia said that he was familiar with Uglava even before entering politics, but never discussed anti-corruption investigations with him. In a comment to NV, Uglava denied any communication with the authorities regarding the agency’s procedural actions and rejected contacts with Arakhamia regarding charges against Shevchenko.

The second episode concerned charges against Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. NABU detectives have been investigating his involvement in the seizure of PrivatBank funds for several years. Finally, on Sept. 7, Kolomoisky and other accomplices were charged with illegally withdrawing over UAH 9 billion ($246.1 million) from the now-nationalized bank.

However, Kolomoisky, who supported President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the past, has not yet fallen into NABU’s hands. The agency was bypassed by another special service, completely controlled by the President’s Office — the SBU security service. How did that happen?

As NV learned from sources close to non-government organizations cooperating with NABU on anti-corruption, some presidential representatives could turn to Kryvonos with a request to postpone the processing of charges against Kolomoisky for a week.

Meanwhile, the SBU and the Economic Security Bureau of Ukraine (ESB), which are controlled by the president, have themselves charged Kolomoisky. The oligarch is currently in an SBU detention center.

“I and my deputies didn’t receive any instructions or hints regarding the postponement of charges against the specified person,” Kryvonos told NV.

But there is another sign of “increased interaction” between NABU and the President’s Office.

In late April, Lysenko returned to NABU. She immediately took the top post of deputy head. Lysenko already worked in NABU for four years (2015−2019) but held a low-level administrative position. Half a year before her career jump at NABU (in November 2022), Lysenko appeared at meetings in the President’s Office dedicated to bringing Ukraine closer to membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Working Group on Bribery. These meetings were chaired by Andriy Yermak, the head of the President’s Office. He called on the group’s members to speed up the bureaucratic processes for joining the OECD. Lysenko then reported to Yermak about drafting the necessary documents.

Read also: Oligarch Kolomoisky faces new fraud charges in PrivatBank case

“If you talk to Lysenko in private, you can notice that the name Andriy Borysovych [Yermak] is always on her lips,” another source said.

Lysenko’s appointment to NABU seemed to be synchronized with the President’s Office, because a few days before, Zelenskyy signed a decree to dismiss her from the Center for Countering Disinformation at the National Security and Defense Council, where she worked for several months before going on maternity leave.

“Lysenko is experienced in departmental intrigues,” a source told NV.

“Sytnyk, when he found out in 2019 that she encouraged detectives to file disciplinary proceedings against chief detective [Andriy] Kaluzhynskyi, was so crossed that he asked Uglava to fire her immediately.”

In a comment to NV, Lysenko told a different version of why she had left NABU for the first time.

“I was transferred to the Prosecutor General’s Office to the position of head of the international cooperation and asset recovery department, which was a significant promotion for me. I was invited to work by [former Prosecutor General Ruslan] Ryaboshapka and [Vitaliy] Kasko, his first deputy,” she said.

Read also: NABU's new director faces questions of independence amid ties to government

According to several sources among former NABU employees and now close to it, Lysenko has a destructive influence on the NABU’s staff: she favors some employees over others. This leads to tension in the agency and resentment towards the new leadership.

Lysenko’s style of business communication was publicly criticized in an interview with NV by Olha Komarova, a former employee of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who won the competition for the position of deputy head of the NABU’s external communications department.

She described her conversation with the deputy head as follows: “She immediately started talking in a very patronizing tone. It was the talk of a person who wants to show her power. It wasn’t a direct request to give up, but I take it as pressure to give up. She said that I won’t work in NABU, and there are two options how it will happen. Either the head simply won’t sign the appointment, or I will be appointed and fired a day later because this position will be removed due to reorganization.” The conflict ended with the position being removed.

Read also: Former anti-graft agency chief on Ukraine’s anti-corruption system – interview

Even before her official appointment as NABU deputy head, Lysenko probably regularly visited the agency during non-working hours and could influence its activities, a former NABU employee told NV.

However, in a comment to NV, Lysenko emphasized that according to her duties at NABU, she is engaged in “cooperation with international partners, communication and GR.”

“I don’t have access to procedural information, about the proceedings,” she said, adding that all communication with representatives of the President’s Office takes place exclusively within the OECD Working Group, which includes government representatives, namely the head of the Verkhovna Rada Anti-Corruption Committee Anastasia Radina and the head of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO), Oleksandr Klymenko.

“I have been involved in this project since last year, moreover, I’m one of those who are driving this topic. I believe that the topic of combating international bribery is important for the country, especially in the context of future recovery. We’re working on a wide range of tasks, and the main one is the synchronization of our legislation with the standards of the OECD Working Group.”

Displacing those disobedient under the guise of optimization

A former NABU employee told NV that after taking office, Kryvonos promised the NABU’s staff in personal conversations not to change the organization’s structure until the audit by international partners was completed. The mission of a trio of auditors hired by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has been going on at NABU for several months. The agency’s updated development strategy should be adopted based on this assessment.

Read also: NABU candidate Komarova shares details of hiring scandal at anti-corruption body

NABU told NV that the audit is being carried out at its own request, while the results are expected in late September. However, the agency did not specify whether the results will be published.

Without waiting for the completion of the audit, Kryvonos decided to fire about three dozen employees. He called it “staff optimization.”

“We reduced the number of administrative positions and freed about 20 vacancies for departments involved in the investigation of crimes, created a detective department, which will be based in the city of Dnipro,” Kryvonos told the Ukrinform news agency.

NABU’s response to NV’s request states: 35 people have left NABU since March 2023, while 34 employees have been appointed to NABU under the new leadership, including analysts, technical specialists, employees of the internal control service and the press service. Eight new detectives appeared in NABU, but the competition for these positions was announced even before Kryvonos.

The exodus of experienced detectives

Eleven detectives were among several dozen former employees who left NABU after the change in management. NABU explained that five detectives had left the agency “due to retirement age or health problems,” while four were appointed to other law enforcement agencies. One person resigned after winning the competition for the post of SAPO prosecutor, and another one left by mutual agreement.

It is Olena Krolovetska, former head of the Second Division of Detectives, who left NABU “by agreement of the parties” in May. Ruslan Gabrielyan, Krolovetska’s subordinate, is the winner of the competition in SAPO. They dealt with the most high-profile cases in NABU, including the most influential representatives of the power vertical, such as judge Pavlo Vovk, deputy head of the President’s Office Oleh Tatarov, etc.

Read also: NABU charges ruling party MP over accepting a bribe

How did it happen that, freeing up places for detectives, the new management lost about a dozen specialists, including top-level ones?

Krolovetska and Gabrielyan didn’t respond to NV’s request for details of their dismissal. According to Kryvonos, Krolovetska left for personal reasons. Currently, she has resumed work at Kucheruk and Partners, a law firm of her friend Yuriy Kucheruk.

Although Gabrielyan won the competition in SAPO, he wouldn’t be able to take this position as he had mobilized in the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Later, he returned to work as a detective during business trips. However, now he apparently has no desire to return to NABU on any terms.

According to the unofficial version, which several sources told NV, several detectives left NABU due to a conflict with the new management.

What started this conflict? The most likely reason is the official investigation launched in April against five top NABU detectives, including Kaluzhynskyi, Krolovetska, Gabrielyan, and two more of their colleagues.

Further “optimization” and the threat of Kaluzhynskyi’s dismissal

Olena Shcherban from the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) watchdog in a comment to NV said that she’s receiving signals about NABU’s plans for further reorganization of the structure. She emphasized that AntAC was closely monitoring these processes and would like the reorganization models to be discussed with civil society, especially with those who were involved in NABU’s creation and the selection of the first waves of detectives.

Read also: NABU freezes Kolomoisky’s assets

“Practice has shown that public support, which is possible only under conditions of transparency and openness, is the basis of NABU’s capabilities and independence. These traditions must not change,” the expert said.

At the same time, NABU detectives themselves indicate informally that the possible reorganization may directly affect detective units. The most threatening thing in this context is that Kaluzhynskyi, as the head of all detective units, may not find a place in the new structure. After all, his position will turn out to be an extra link between the detectives and Uglava.

In response to NV’s question regarding further reorganization, NABU noted they don’t have such plans, adding that Kaluzhynskyi is already directly subordinate to Uglava under order No. 34 of March 7, 2023.

Mark Savchuk, the head of the Public Council under NABU, told NV that Kryvonos still needs to earn the team’s trust. This can be achieved by two things. First, by making political decisions: to demonstrate to the team that he’s interested in “rooting out the biggest corruption.” And thereby signaling to the detectives that NABU remains on its previous positions. Secondly, it concerns the agency’s inner workings: the head must show resolve and stop “frankly fabricated internal investigation cases produced by the internal control department.”

Currently, NABU has almost 40 vacancies for detectives and their managers. Competitions are underway.

Immediately after the completion of his seven-year term, Sytnyk advised the public to follow two markers that would indicate that NABU is losing its independence in its activities.

Read also: Defense overhaul continues in Ukraine under new minister Umerov as government ousts deputy team

The first is an attempt to destroy the personnel backbone by changing the agency’s structure. This is already happening.

The appointment of more than two NABU deputy heads can be the second marker, Sytnyk believes. Currently, there are already three of them: Uglava, Lysenko, and Tetiana Varvarska.

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