The election of President Volodymyr Zelensky on 21 April and a parliament dominated by his party on 21 July is seen by many as an electoral revolution.
The electorate said it loud and clear: the old kleptocracy that has dominated Ukraine for three decades must be sent to the ash heap of history, once and for all.
Unfortunately, Zelensky did not hear the vox populi – the voice of the Ukrainian people.
The most striking example is Zelensky’s decision to re-appoint one of the symbols of Ukrainian corruption, Arsen Avakov, as interior minister on 29 August.
Avakov has been sitting on his “Iron Throne” as an unelected police czar since February 2014, surviving one acting president, Alexander Turchynov, and two real ones – Petro Poroshenko and Zelensky.
The omnipotent kingmaker has used his control over the police, the National Guard, volunteer battalions and nationalist street thugs to cement his power and bully both top officials and the Ukrainian people into submission.
Avakov has indeed become the capo di tutti cappi of the Ukrainian law enforcement mafia.
After a brief alliance with Poroshenko, he soon turned into his nemesis and prevented him from rigging the presidential election and being re-elected Kremlin-style in April.
Zelensky thanked Avakov for his help during the election by re-appointing him as interior minister.
The newly-elected president preferred political expediency and horse-trading to the rule of law and the demands of his own electorate, which voted for getting rid of all old corrupt politicians.
The costs of this bargain will be disastrous for Ukraine.
Symbol of corruption
In 2017 Avakov’s son, Alexander, and Avakov’s ex-deputy Sergey Chebotar were charged by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine with embezzling 510,000 euros by supplying overpriced backpacks to the Interior Ministry. They deny the accusations.
In 2018, Chief Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky’s office closed the case as part of a political bargain with Avakov. To cosy up to the minister, Kholodnytsky ignored bullet-proof evidence, including video footage of the backpack deal negotiations.
Other videos recorded by the Security Service of Ukraine feature negotiations over corrupt schemes between several other Avakov allies, who implicate the minister himself. One of the allies, Vasyl Petrivsky, has already pled guilty and been convicted for corruption. Avakov denies the accusations of wrongdoing.
In any civilised European country, a minister would have been fired over such evidence a long time ago and could face corruption charges. But in Ukraine, corruption is rewarded, not punished.
Avakov has also buried Ukraine’s still-born police reform by protecting corrupt police officers from dismissal.
Avakov has actively sabotaged cases into the murder of more than a hundred protesters during the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, and other crimes against protesters, according to Sergey Gorbatuk, the top investigator in charge of EuroMaidan cases. He said that Avakov had protected police officers suspected of the crimes and kept them on their jobs.
Avakov’s police have also failed to investigate about a hundred attacks on activists and journalists since 2014, including at least 12 murders.
The most high-profile murder is that of journalist Pavel Sheremet in a car explosion in Kyiv on 20 July 2016. Not a single suspect in the murder has been identified so far.
Several hours before Sheremet’s murder, he met several veterans of Ukraine’s far-right Azov Regiment, which is close to Avakov. One of them, Sergei Korotkikh, used to be a self-proclaimed national socialist in both Belarus and Russia and studied at the academy of Russia’s FSB, the successor agency of the Soviet Union’s feared KGB.
Sheremet was the common-law husband of the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper’s owner Olena Pritula and the newspaper’s executive director. Avakov has clashed repeatedly with businessman Kostyantyn Grigorishin, who is close to Ukrainska Pravda’s leadership.
Zelensky whitewashed Avakov on 23 July and claimed that there had been major progress in the Sheremet case, saying that news about it would be revealed soon. Since then, nothing has happened, and the case is still dead.
Avakov’s police have also sabotaged the case into the murder of Kateryna Gandziuk in the city of Kherson in 2018. She was the victim of an acid attack that took place in July 2018 and later died from her injuries while in hospital less than four months later.
The police initially tried to bury the case by classifying it as “hooliganism.” Moreover, the police initially arrested a scapegoat despite a clear alibi and had to release him later.
The police’s reluctance to investigate the murder led to speculation on the police’s possible involvement in the attack, and the case was transferred to the Security Service of Ukraine. The prosecutors even said that the assault was ordered by “law enforcement and state officials, with the help of separatist organizations.”
One of the suspected organizers of the murder, Sergey Torbin, is a former police officer. He has pled guilty and has already been sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
Gandziuk had also lambasted top police official Artem Antonshchuk and Kirill Stermousov, an ally of Ilya Kyva, an ex-aide to Avakov and currently head of the Interior Ministry’s labour union.
If Europe is serious about fighting corruption in Ukraine, it must send a clear signal to Zelensky – financial aid should be restricted until Avakov and Kholodnytzky are fired and until there is progress in the Sheremet and Gandziuk cases.
European politicians turned a blind eye to Poroshenko’s wrongdoings and should not allow Zelensky to turn into a second Poroshenko.
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