Riaboshapka: Zelensky Has Lost His Way
If Volodymyr Zelensky’s year-old presidency ends in failure, one of the many decisive moments why could be his public humiliation of Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka, dismissed on March 5 by a parliament controlled by the president’s party. The firing came, Riaboshapka said, with no explanation and only six months into his service as the president’s hand-picked appointee to the powerful post.
For Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kyiv, the sacking of Riaboshapka signified the “beginning of the end of Zelensky’s reforms. It sent a very negative signal to all reformers in Ukraine: ‘Your reforms should be popular. If not, you’re out.’ I was outraged with how easily and bluntly Ruslan was sacked for doing historic reform of prosecution in Ukraine.”
Riaboshapka, in an interview with the Kyiv Post, said his experience exposed several problems with Zelensky’s leadership: He is untrustworthy. He is no longer interested in reforms to create the rule of law and an independent criminal justice system. He’s repeating the mistakes of former President Petro Poroshenko by “trying to make all the law enforcement loyal to him rather than building strong and independent institutions in the country.”
Presidential press secretary Iuliia Mendel responded to Riaboshapka’s criticisms, made in a Skype interview on April 29, saying that Zelensky is committed to the anti-corruption agenda.
“President Zelensky has never demonstrated any kind of pressure on judiciary or law enforcement and supports transparency and independence of the systems,” Mendel told the Kyiv Post in an emailed statement. “Riaboshapka is loud about his actions after the parliament has dismissed him from the position of the prosecutor general. However, he had enough time to explain his steps in reforming the prosecutor system to the people of Ukraine, the parliament, and to show the results of the prosecutors’ actions.”
Perhaps most troubling of all, Riaboshapka said Zelensky craves popularity, so much so that he’s implicitly made a dirty deal with the nation’s oligarchs and other powerful figures. While Zelensky started with reformist zeal, it evaporated quickly because of his desire “to be in a comfortable and safe situation, without conflict with the oligarchs, without fighting for reforms.”
The oligarch-controlled media had a lot to do with cowing the president, he thinks. “For the presidential office, media attention is very crucial and perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to have a conflict with those who own the media. If you start a war with the oligarchs, their media will start to criticize you and your rating will go down and you’ll lose popularity,” Riaboshapka said. “There is like an agreement between the presidential office and the oligarchs – on their side, they don’t criticize; on the other side, he should protect their interests. The oligarchs are becoming closer to the President’s Office than they were six months ago.”
Mendel said Riaboshapka’s characterization is false. “President Zelensky has stated on many occasions that he is not seeking to boost the ratings and will be losing the electoral support if this is necessary for reforming Ukraine,” the press secretary wrote. “The statement about the deal with oligarchs for not criticizing the president does not make any sense in this context.”
Despite his criticisms, Riaboshapka said that he has no regrets about working in Zelensky’s winning 2019 presidential campaign, or in his six months of service as the nation’s top prosecutor, which he views as a success until it was cut short. He also still views Zelensky as the far preferable alternative to Poroshenko.
But to ever work for Zelensky again? “There is no room for me to trust him anymore.”
He said that “it’s a pity” for Ukraine that Zelensky has dropped the reform path because, without presidential support, “it’s not possible to establish rule of law.”
“The situation is becoming more serious,” almost chaotic in Ukraine, Riaposhapka said. “There are some signals that the central government is losing control over the country.”
He said the revolving door of top political appointees – including the selection and dismissal of key ministers and others after only a few months – is discouraging good people from joining public service. Zelensky sacked his entire government on March 4 and has been making changes ever since then, including to the posts of finance, health, and energy ministers.
Riaboshapka said that Zelensky has made dubious appointments, including that of Oleksiy Petrov as head of Zakarpattia Oblast, and has retained questionable people, such as Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
The president has also inexplicably allowed effective reformers to be fired, including Max Nefyodov of the State Customs Service and Serhii Verlanov of the State Tax Service.
“It’s hard to believe anyone could enter public service now, knowing he could be thrown out in one month,” Riaboshapka said.
Lone outpost under attack
As Riaboshapka sees it, Zelensky has installed or retained loyalists who have no interest in creating strong, independent, and effective law enforcement institutions.
The litany of politically subservient anti-reformers includes the president’s long-time friend Ivan Bakanov as head of the powerful Security Service of Ukraine, Irina Venediktova as Riaboshapka’s successor in the General Prosecutor’s Office and the recently installed head of the State Bureau of Investigation Oleksandr Sokolov.
While he avoided criticism of the interior minister when he was the nation’s top prosecutor, Riaboshapka said no police reform will take place under Avakov and also acknowledged the tainted reputation of Nazar Kholodnytsky, the head of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, who denied tape recordings of him sabotaging criminal cases and coaching suspects on evading criminal charges.
“It looks like Avakov is one of the closest allies of the president,” Riaboshapka said. “Avakov is demonstrating loyalty to Zelensky, that he can be useful to the president who calls him the ‘most effective minister.’ It looks like they like each other.”
The courts, also, remain question marks, Riaboshapka acknowledged.
So what’s left?
The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, charged with investigating top corruption involving powerful figures including politicians, is the only independent and competent arm of law enforcement today, Riaboshapka said.
And now NABU, as it is known, and its head, Artem Sytnyk, are under attack by forces in parliament backed by billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and with what may be the tacit approval of Zelensky.
“The NABU is the only law enforcement that is not under the control of the presidential office. They have a loyal prosecutor general, interior ministry, the same with SAPO, the same with the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), and the State Bureau of Investigation.”
Riaboshapka found encouragement from the International Monetary Fund’s warning this week that diluting NABU’s powers or firing Sytnyk would imperil the approval of an $8 billion lending program to Ukraine. Ending Ukraine’s cooperation with the IMF is favored by Kolomoisky.
Who is in control?
The nation is under the strong influence of oligarchs and regional fiefdoms, he said.
“If we are talking about the central level, some of those guys who are called oligarchs, they are controlling some ministers,” Riaboshapka said. “If we are talking about regional levels; we can see a lot of regional leaders in Odesa and Kharkiv are gaining control of those regions. The country is becoming more fragmented, in the bad sense of this word.”
Sabotage of criminal cases
Riaboshapka said his prosecutors, working with NABU investigators, were making good progress in investigating criminal bank fraud allegations involving PrivatBank that took place under Kolomoisky’s ownership. The state took over the bank, Ukraine’s largest, and recapitalized it with $5.5 billion in taxpayer money allegedly looted by Kolomoisky and his associates through insider lending. Kolomoisky has denied the accusations and launched lawsuits seeking to regain control of PrivatBank or receive compensation for its loss.
The progress came to an abrupt halt in March, Riaboshapka said, when Bakanov, Zelensky’s man heading the SBU, refused to conduct a legally required forensic review of the economic losses to the state budget. “They were quite hesitant from the start,” Riaboshapka said. The stall followed by an abrupt refusal has brought the criminal cases to a halt. Bakanov has denied the allegations.
The refusal, however, is inexplicable considering “they conducted a similar exercise with the beneficiaries of a corruption scheme known as Rotterdam+,” involving a coal-pricing formula that cost the state around $1 billion in losses.
“If they had done this examination, we could go after those who were guilty of these crimes,” he said. “I don’t see any reasonable explanation of why they refused to conduct the examination. But it looks like Kolomoisky is quite powerful and it could happen that forensic experts are afraid of providing the examination.”
The prosecutor general supervises 11,000 prosecutors in the nation. Riaboshapka ran into fierce criticism for forcing prosecutors in the central office to take tests proving their competence and integrity. Critics said the process lacked transparency and that the tests were not meaningful.
But Riaboshapka said the re-attestation he conducted at the national level helped weed out corrupt prosecutors who were working in the interests of oligarchs, politicians, or others rather than in the interests of the state. He regrets that he was fired before he got to complete the task in Ukraine’s regions.
He said that his successor, Venediktova, is trying to undermine his reforms by trying to reinstate “several prosecutors who have been fired by our office, who did not pass the integrity checks.” An attempt to reach Venediktova for a response on April 30 was not immediately successful.
The General Prosecutor’s Office is notorious for its corruption – serving political or oligarchic interests and opening or closing criminal cases for money or political favors. Despite its bloated staff, prosecutors have never put together a single criminal case that has led to the conviction of anyone for major crime or corruption in independent Ukraine’s entire history.
While the inner working of the office “was more complicated” than the public reputation would have it, “generally the picture was like you described it,” Riaboshapka said. “There were a lot of prosecutors lobbied by oligarchs or MPs. The leakage of information was huge from the prosecutor’s office. Criminal cases were started just to press on business. There were investigations which we stopped and totally closed, which were connected to pressure on businesses. Many prosecutors received salaries from politicians or from oligarchs and instead of serving the state, they used their powers as prosecutors to serve these interests.
“This body was totally ineffective in terms of a law enforcement body,” Riaboshapka said. “We had no other choice but to start the reform and start the cleansing of the prosecutor’s office, which never happened in the history of Ukraine in almost 30 years.”
Still, he said, prosecutors managed to put together several solid criminal cases against former owners of 10 banks allegedly engaged in fraud that, taken together, cost Ukrainian taxpayers billions of dollars. But at least one case, involving Oleg Bakhmatyuk, the former owner of VAB bank, is in danger of being sabotaged if Venedyktova succeeds in getting it transferred from the independent NABU to the politically subservient SBU.
Zelensky’s presidency started “to get worse” after Andriy Bohdan left in February as chief of staff. Riaboshapka and Bohdan worked well and closely together, a working relationship dating back to their service together in the Ministry of Justice under two prime ministers — Yulia Tymoshenko and Mykola Azarov.
“Bohdan is a guy who is pro-Western oriented and he was oriented on reforms and pushing for the reforms,” Riaboshapka said. “Other advisers did not agree with Bohdan’s reforms.”
He said “it’s difficult to how to understand how we can change the situation. The president should understand that reforms, which could be painful for him and his ratings, are necessary for him and the country. This for him should be the primary task. I no longer believe he is a reform-oriented president. He is now trying to be in a warm bath only with the good news and thinking everything is OK and everything is good in the country, that the IMF will provide the next tranche, that the European Union will provide macro-financial assistance and everything will be good. It’s not going to happen without reforms.”