The office of President Volodymyr Zelensky was hit by its first major corruption scandal on March 30, when leaked videos implicated the brother of
Zelensky’s chief of staff in selling high-level government jobs.
The president’s response? Silence, then denial. Zelensky’s office put out a short statement three days after the scandal broke, saying that the tapes need to be investigated although “the conversations in them have nothing to do with real life.”
Zelensky personally didn’t comment on it at all.
His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, had plenty to say. But the direction he took was so wrong that he would have been better served by keeping silent.
The videos were published by Geo Leros, a lawmaker from Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. They show Denys Yermak and his associates seemingly talking about accepting bribes from people seeking jobs as deputy ministers, governors and heads of state companies. The Special AntiCorruption Prosecution opened a probe into the alleged corruption.
The scandal demonstrated that, while Zelensky has been claiming to be different from his predecessors, his administration deals with corruption allegations exactly like those before it: by dismissing them as political intrigue and going after the whistleblower.
Soon after Leros published the tapes, the State Investigation Bureau opened an investigation into the recordings for disclosing “a state secret.” The Security Service started an investigation, too. Both agencies are de facto subordinated to the administration.
Yermak, whose brother is on the tapes, called an online press conference in which he lashed out at Leros, accusing him of serving someone’s sinister interests and even making a seemingly xenophobic insinuation about the lawmaker.
The situation echoes a similar case involving Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. In February 2019, a series of text messages were published, implicating the son of Oleh Hladkovsky, Poroshenko’s close ally and then-deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council, was discussing taking part in corrupt schemes like selling overpriced parts to state-owned military enterprises and paying kickbacks. The conversations made it clear that the son was using his father’s position to do it.
Poroshenko fired Hladkovsky, but he was not investigated. Only after Poroshenko left office, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau made Hladkovsky a suspect in a corruption case, albeit a different one.
Zelensky used this scandal in his election campaign, taunting Poroshenko for sheltering his friend from prosecution.
Now Zelensky is mimicking Poroshenko’s behavior.
His office is shifting the focus to “who produced the tapes and why.” But frankly, it’s not important.
What is important is to conduct an impartial investigation into everyone mentioned on those recordings. To do so, Yermak must vacate his post for the time of the investigation to ensure that he isn’t influencing it, while the organization with the most credibility and the least presidential oversight must conduct the investigation. That is likely the National Anti-Corruption Bureau.
Without this, Zelensky will repeat the mistakes of his predecessor.