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Corruption, attacks on civil society and dishonest officials. How can Ukraine fight all that?

Ukraine has been grappling with a full-scale invasion for over two years, facing an unprecedented challenge that threatens its very existence. Despite this, corruption continues to flourish within the country.

Why, in a nation fighting for survival, do individuals who served in the pro-Russian government hold top positions? Ukraine aspires to join the European Union, yet attacks on civil society and investigative journalists persist. The country seeks to establish the rule of law, yet drops charges against corrupt officials.

Corruption, attacks on civil society and dishonest officials. How can Ukraine fight all that?
Estimated Reading Time: 30 minutes

Brian Bonner: Hello, everybody. This is Brian Bonner, and I’m welcoming you to Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling. And thank you, our listeners and viewers around the world. This is going to be a very enchanting program. We have bad news on the weather and the war front, unfortunately, but the bright spot is the presence of Daria Kaleniuk in the studio. Hi, Daria.

Daria Kaleniuk: Good to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

What’s the issue with seizing Russia’s frozen assets?

Brian Bonner: And if this conversation sounds like one between two longtime friends, it is. We’ve known each other for a long time. She is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre and more. Ukrainska Pravda named her one of the 100 most powerful and influential women in Ukraine. Definitely, she’s in the top 100.

She’s also been a reliable part of this vast network of civil society, one of Ukraine’s strengths. So before we get into the corruption part and the war on corruption, maybe you can talk about your organization. How has it changed from the war? I know you’ve been campaigning actively for “Make Russia Pay.” I believe there are $360 billion in Russian assets frozen around the world, mostly in Europe.

Before today, I read the news that the G7 finance ministers are meeting in Italy, and they’re again dancing around this issue: Russia’s war is illegal, their seizure of territory is illegal, they’re committing war crimes – that’s illegal. They’re destroying property – that’s illegal. And yet, why is it that the international community is tying themselves up in knots about whether seizing the assets is legal or not? You’re a lawyer, please enlighten me.

Daria Kaleniuk: As a lawyer, I would like to say that lawyers shouldn’t resolve this issue. The issue of seizing Russian assets should be resolved by politicians and leaders. Because actually, the law follows the realities, the geopolitical situation. The international law basics were designed after World War II after tens of millions of people were slaughtered. And this caused a setup of new rules. Now we have another tipping point in international relations – the genocidal war happening in Ukraine by Russia.

Russia is partnering with other autocracies, Iran, China, and North Korea. Russia is bringing soldiers and troops from all across the world. Even some people from Africa are now earning money serving in the Russian armed forces and participating in this genocide.

Brian Bonner: And Sri Lanka and other places.

Daria Kaleniuk: And India and many, many other places. We might not know everything, but the point is that it’s not just some local small conflict or just the Ukrainian war, as many media outlets are still portraying it. It’s actually a tipping point in the way the world will develop, whether autocracy will win or democracy, whether the liberal world will still exist. Ukraine is just the battlefield for all of that.

It means that the current set of rules, which sometimes include specific frameworks for lawyers, financial experts, and technical people, is outdated. They have to be put aside, and politicians, leaders who actually represent the will of the people and who have to respond to the challenges, must redesign new rules. And that is not actually new rules if we are talking about the confiscation of Russian sovereign assets.

Brian Bonner: It’s been done before, Iraq. They invaded Kuwait.

Daria Kaleniuk: Even the existing legal framework more or less gives tools for how to get it done.

Brian Bonner: And why are they holding this up? Is it because they want to do business as usual with Russia?

Daria Kaleniuk: They are too afraid, I think. Some still think that they can go back to business as usual. But they are also influenced by some companies. First of all, there is a huge company called Euroclear. It’s a Belgian financial institution, a European Union clearing center, I would say, which holds most of the seized and arrested money. It’s about 191 billion euros, merely Russian sovereign money.

They were frozen in 2022. This institution is earning huge profits from this money. In two years, they earned more than 5 billion euros. This institution is represented by its CEO. It’s a woman—I don’t remember her last name—but she is now on her tour across Europe. She is spreading fears among the leaders, financial experts, and financial ministers, saying that, oh my God, if you seize Russian sovereign money, the entire financial system of the EU will collapse.

Also, this institution goes to the office of the prime minister of Belgium and says: we are a critically important institution for you. We cannot be forced to seize these assets, it’s unprecedented. Too many risks to us, you know. Tomorrow Russia will go to all the courts in the world and we will have to spend zillions of euros in order to protect ourselves.

This is absolute bullshit. We tried to figure out how many lawsuits Russia submitted against Euroclear and where. What they were able to tell us, it’s just a few in Russia. Who cares about the lawsuits in Russia? Are there courts in Russia?

Brian Bonner: Well, we have lawyers too or the West has lawyers too. And I would not want to be in Russia’s position if we battled it. But the problem with lawsuits, as you know, is they take a long time. Sort of like our criminal investigations here. But do you see a breakthrough imminent, or are they just going to keep fighting? Do you agree that we’re going to need this money? Because it looks like the West is flagging in its support of Ukraine.

Daria Kaleniuk: The West cannot suggest an alternative. If you don’t want to confiscate these $300 billion, which are placed in Belgium, France, a little bit in Germany, and Japan, if you guys are not ready to confiscate, what is the alternative? Are you ready to generate $300 billion for Ukraine? To arm Ukraine? I don’t see that kind of readiness. There was quite a battle to get an EU-approved Ukraine peace facility, which is 50 billion or so.

Brian Bonner: Over the four years.

Daria Kaleniuk: Yeah, over the four years. Two-thirds of these are actually loans. And not a single euro can be spent on defense. So how can we defend ourselves? Where should we get the money to pay our military? Where should we get the money to buy weapons if we are not given assistance from that?

And there is money that Russia keeps in Europe. So we are saying: all right, you don’t have the money, you are taxpayers. Okay, fair enough. You have more important things to spend on. You can’t increase the prices of electricity, etc. But you are sitting on Russian money, you are earning on Russian money, you are war profiteering.

So, the first step that the European Commission will be taking in June is to take profits earned by European institutions on Russian sovereign frozen money and spend them on Ukraine. But they don’t want to take profits earned by Euroclear in 2022-2023. And what’s the reason for that?

Brian Bonner: That’s $5 billion in interest, it’s about $5 billion.

Daria Kaleniuk: It’s between $3 to $5 billion.

Brian Bonner: But as Timothy Ash says, that doesn’t even touch the sides of what Ukraine needs. And they won’t even do that.

Daria Kaleniuk: It doesn’t even challenge any legal international issues. This money doesn’t belong to Russia. They belong for some reason to Euroclear, which earns this money on the blood of Ukrainians.

Brian Bonner: The ultimate war profiteering.

Daria Kaleniuk: It is war profiteering. We initially came to Belgium and reached a high governmental level, and we told them. They said: no sorry, we will not change our mind, we want to keep this money and you will not convince us. And we said: oh really? You don’t know about Ukrainian civil society. Your decision is not known to your parliament, to your civil society. We will make sure that everybody knows about that.

Ukrainian civil society does its part in winning the war

Brian Bonner: You have a formidable group of allies. And a powerful group of allies. Because I know a lot of them. Is that your number one priority? Your number one war priority?

Daria Kaleniuk: We have a few teams. The Anticorruption Action Centre focuses on reforms inside Ukraine and the confiscation of Russian assets. After the large-scale invasion, we set up the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, which focuses more on international advocacy and advocating for everything Ukraine needs to win the war.

Brian Bonner: That came from ANTAC, it came from the coalition?

Daria Kaleniuk: ANTAC is one of the co-founders, with a few more organizations and support. So, Ukrainian civil society groups are joining efforts. My main job is as an anti-corruption activist in Ukraine. I’m building the rule of law.

Brian Bonner: But IF we don’t have a country, we don’t have any corruption to fight.

Daria Kaleniuk: That’s the point. We will fix our corruption and keep our democracy in good shape. But if ballistic missiles and guided bombs rain down every day, it’s hard to build democracy.

Does the West really support Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: I had two guests, Ben Hodges and Kurt Volker. You know both of them. They basically say the fundamental problem is that the West hasn’t decided that it wants Ukraine to win this war. Do you agree?

Daria Kaleniuk: I agree. But I see that slowly, at least our European allies are waking up. So they start to understand what is the alternative. If Ukraine is not winning this war, what’s then? Peace negotiations? Well, I don’t know. But I see more and more people trying to understand that it is unlikely there will be any sustainable peace.

More and more people are starting to understand, even among leaders, that peace in Russian conditions means more war in the future. Including war against NATO directly. That is a good trajectory. But still, if you look at (German Chancellor Olaf) Scholz and Germany, while Germany is number two after America in the amount of military aid provided to Ukraine, it is still self-deterring. Scholz is afraid to send Taurus to Ukraine, because, oh my God, Ukraine can destroy the Kerch bridge.

Brian Bonner: They have 600 of those Taurus sitting around too.

Daria Kaleniuk: And also when (U.S. national security adviser Jake) Sullivan comes to Ukraine and says: ‘Don’t strike on Russian oil refineries. What are you doing, bad Ukrainians?’ We are not provided with military aid for seven months and “you dare to strike Russian oil refineries.” And we are responding, okay where are your grave sanctions? The grave sanction was actually Ukraine striking those oil refineries and preventing more oil from Russia from being sold. And more money coming to the Russian military budget to buy more weapons to destroy more Ukrainians.

Brian Bonner: Well let’s hope the momentum starts going our way again, Ukraine’s way again. One big start would be the $60 billion and another big start would be if Europe does wake up. And you’re right, I am seeing signs that they are. They’ve been a pretty defenseless continent for too long. But I think with the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House they don’t have a choice except to actually shoulder more of the burden themselves.

Ukrainians and you and the civil society activists have done a great job of explaining why you can’t negotiate with Russia, I think. I mean, how many agreements has Russia broken? Virtually all of them, I think. I don’t think there’s any that they’ve upheld. So that’s a no-go zone for the world, I think.

And for all the Ukraine haters and those who are looking for reasons not to help Ukraine, we talk about corruption because we love Ukraine and we believe that corruption is stealing from the future of Ukraine and stealing from the prosperity of Ukraine. And there’s a big difference between a democratic society like Ukraine which is exposing corruption, fighting it, developing ways to prevent and punish it, and a complete criminal mafia state like Russia, which doesn’t even bother. And actually exports corruption, death, and destruction all over the world. Did I say that correctly?

Daria Kaleniuk: Beautifully said. I have nothing to add.

How is the fight against corruption in Ukraine going?

Brian Bonner: I am trying to catch up and I am losing track of all the corruption scandals. So I guess I’ll just throw it out generally. Where are we at now in the battle against corruption, in the war against corruption, which is an internal war for every country, including America? I think the most appalling corruption during times of war would be in defense or defense procurements.

Daria Kaleniuk: I would add one more thing to your explanation of the problem of corruption. Corruption was and still is a very important tool in the hands of the Kremlin. It is called strategic corruption when they are using their agents of influence when they are bribing politicians, when they are installing their politicians, political and media projects all across the world.

They do this in order to destroy some countries from the inside, as they have already done successfully with Belarus. Or in order to control the narratives in some countries like they are doing in Hungary. In Ukraine, they have tried hard to use corruption to destroy Ukraine from the inside without having to actually go to war.

There were attempts to change our legislation through the Constitutional Court. They have invested hard into the political project of Viktor Medvedchuk, a former so-called “leader of the opposition.” They have wired him millions and millions of dollars from Russia, generated from piping oil and gas.

The media projects. There were three national TV channels in 2019, in 2021, controlled by Medvedchuk, which spread Kremlin propaganda. But they failed in their attempts to take control of Ukraine just by using corruption and other means. Why have they failed? Because we were actually quite successful in building independent institutions, a system of checks and balances. Ukrainian civil society is strong.

And in Ukraine, there emerged politicians and government officials, not all of them, but many, who are actually true patriots of the country, who tried to do things right. And that actually made (Vladimir) Putin very nervous. And he decided, okay, I can’t control you like I control Belarus, I will throw hundreds, thousands of my soldiers, thousands of missiles and bombs. I will just destroy you. And you will give up.

No. We are not giving up. Even during this large-scale invasion, we are not giving up in our consistent fight against corruption and building strong democratic institutions and systems of checks and balances. It’s quite unique to the world.

Including the defense sector, I would say even most important. Unfortunately, it was our mistake, and our team, the Anticorruption Action Centre, as well, to not look into the defense sector for 12 years when we were operating.

Brian Bonner: Since the revolution.

Daria Kaleniuk: Even before the Revolution of Dignity (in 2013-2014). Since the Revolution of Dignity, there have been many reforms in the healthcare sector, the educational sector, the environmental sector, and even in the energy sector. But almost zero reforms in the Ministry of Defense. There have been some important positive changes in the army, in armed forces, because many volunteers after Maidan, straight from the Revolution of Dignity, volunteered to fight against Russian aggression. It started not two years ago, but 10 years ago in 2014.

But the Ministry of Defense, procurements, the way these people are appointed to different positions, and the way the defense production sector operates—everything was super post-Soviet. It was super closed from the eyes of outsiders and from the eyes of civil society. It’s national security; security has to be there. But not everything should be top-state secret.

There’s also complexity because defense, especially if you’re talking about arms, is complex. So, probably, arms transfers and arms procurements are the most complicated. We can probably compare this kind of procurement to healthcare and medical procurements. You have to understand that market. But in Ukraine, those who understood that market were post-Soviet people, whom we inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Former directors of defense companies who, for the last 35 years, have been actually selling the old Soviet junk weapons all across the world. And we were serving weapons that we sold to different countries in the world, repairing these weapons. And now, after the large-scale invasion, the system had to change the way it operates.

Instead of selling junk stuff that we inherited from the Soviet Union, we had to buy it. And not just junk and not just Soviet, but actually NATO standard equipment. And that changes the entire framework of how MOD (the Ministry of Defense) should operate. New people have to come there, people who are not thinking in Soviet style. We have to build trust into the system so that Western partners – especially those countries and companies that produce weapons – have trust. Whatever they sell to Ukraine, the technology is being protected. And that the bribe will not be required. And we’ve raised that issue super high. By exposing a year ago corruption in procurements of food. It’s not a weapon, it’s just food.

Brian Bonner: But that triggered the ouster of (ex-Defense Minister Oleksiy) Reznikov.

Daria Kaleniuk: That triggered important changes, Reznikov was fired. Unfortunately, with a delay, just in September 2023. The new minister was appointed, (Rustem) Umerov, who actually started the cleanup of the defense procurements. And now we have two agencies. Agency on non-lethal procurements under Arsen Zhumadilov, a known reformer who previously cleaned the system of medical procurements. And just recently, there was appointed the new head of the defense procurement agency.

Brian Bonner: From Ukrenergo she was.

Daria Kaleniuk: She is from Ukrenergo and she is one of the best procurers in the country. She received a few awards from Prozorro (electronic system of public procurement – ed.) for how she does procurements.

Brian Bonner: So are you saying you have faith? That we’re on the way to recovery here?

Daria Kaleniuk: I’m saying we don’t have any other choice and any other option. I’m saying that our team now has a crystal clear focus to make sure that things will be repaired. Especially in lethal procurements.

What is the scale of corruption in defense procurements?

Brian Bonner: Do we have any way of knowing the scale of corruption in defense procurements? There are massive amounts of equipment and money involved. Procurements go on a scale that Ukraine has never done before.

Daria Kaleniuk: Well, first of all, it is important to separate. Whatever corruption is happening in the defense procurements in Ukraine, this is our taxpayers’ money. Because we are not allowed to buy weapons or spend anything on defense from the money that is coming from our partners. It is both good and bad. The good thing is, that American taxpayers can be relaxed. European taxpayers can feel safe that whatever money is being sent to Ukraine, they are not being embezzled in the defense procurements. This is the first thing.

Second, we want American money, EU money, and first of all confiscated Russian money to come to Ukraine, to be spent in Ukraine, and to be used by defense procurement agencies to purchase weapons. This is the road to sustainability. We have to be able to purchase what we need ourselves in Ukraine. We shouldn’t be dependent on what’s on the minds of Mike Johnson, Donald Trump, Olaf Scholz, or whoever.

We have to be leaders in our country. We also need to have the resources and capabilities to buy weapons from our producers. Amazing solutions emerged in the defense industry in Ukraine, especially among private inventors who cooperate with the army. This drone industry includes small drones, big drones, long-range drones, drones that are hitting oil reserves in Russia, and drones that are hitting the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. All of that is designed and produced in Ukraine by Ukrainians on the money that Ukrainian taxpayers paid.

So we have to scale that up. We know that we will be able to do that if our procurement institutions in the defense industry are more effective. We will get rid of notorious people whom we don’t trust and who probably have a background of sympathizing with Russia. That network of people has not been cleared yet from the industry. And we just don’t have another option; we have to get it done now.

Brian Bonner: During the war?

Daria Kaleniuk: Yes.

Does Volodymy Zelensky want to fight corruption?

Brian Bonner: At the heart of the matter is intent. Mykhailo Zhernakov, head of the DEJURE Foundation, said it aptly: We have not had governments that wanted the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a real fight against corruption, and swift and sure justice. Do we have that now in the Zelensky administration?

Daria Kaleniuk: There are many people in the Zelensky administration who want to get it done right. But I also see many people who don’t want it. And there is a conflict between them. The question is whether Zelensky wants to get it done right. And I don’t have a clear answer. I see that Zelensky really wants to get Ukraine into the EU and NATO. And this is a very positive sign, this means that whatever reforms regarding the rule of law are listed in the conditionals on the way to the EU and NATO, they will be implemented.

We’ve already witnessed that when in June 2022, the European Commission told, us that we are ready to issue you the status of candidate country to the EU, but first implement seven conditions. Five of them were about the rule of law. Constitutional court reboot, then the appointment of the specialized corruption prosecutor, anti-money laundering legislation. All seven were done. And in November 2023 we got very positive feedback from the European Commission. And then the European Commission issued a report highlighting what else has to be done.

I hope that in June, we will finally open negotiations between Ukraine and the European Union about membership. These negotiations will start from chapters 23-24. These are the fundamentals of the European Union accession track. They concern the need to reform all law enforcement agencies, prosecution, police, security services, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Economic Security.

Attacks on civil society in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: We have a lot to talk about here. We have had some problems lately. There have been attacks on members of civil society, investigative journalists, and SBU video recording members of the Bihus Info. In a time of war, they actually have time to harass journalists and civil society activists. What is going on, who’s behind it, and how widespread is this? And has it stopped, or will it stop?

Daria Kaleniuk: I can name the person who is behind that. It’s Oleh Tatarov, deputy chief of staff of President Zelensky. He is officially coordinating the reform of all law enforcement agencies in Ukraine. And unofficially he is coordinating the work of most of the law enforcement agencies in Ukraine. Without his blessing, the attacks on civil society organizations, activists, and investigative journalists by law enforcement agencies are impossible.

It’s a very dangerous tendency which started at the end of last year. Because in 2022, and early 2023, everybody was united. Investigative journalists and civil society activists were doing their job. But the more we have started to expose problems of some of the agencies, and some of the institutions, including the procurement in the defense sector, the more some bad people decided to use a very convenient tool, mobilization, which is a sensitive topic in Ukraine, in order to discredit civil society activists, watchdog activists and investigative journalists.

Drop them to the army and send them to some places to make sure that they are not able to speak freely about the issues they are speaking about. And then use this to discredit civil society activists and investigative journalists in society, saying that, you see, they don’t have to talk about corruption or some notorious public officials. They don’t have the right to do so, because there are so many Ukrainians who are in the trenches protecting Ukraine from Russians, but not these guys.

Brian Bonner: I’ve read a lot about Oleh Tatarov, but I think many of our readers need to be reminded why he’s so dangerous in his current position. I believe your position, and civil society’s position, is that he has to go.

Daria Kaleniuk: First thing, Oleh Tatarov was charged with corruption by newly established anti-corruption agencies which Ukraine built after the Revolution of Dignity. He was charged by NABU, National Anti-Corruption Bureau, for giving bribes involving the construction of apartments for the military. It was back in 2018, 2019, so many years ago. But the charges came when he was already appointed as deputy chief of staff of President Zelensky. Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff for President Zelensky, invited Tatarov to this position. A brilliant leader of the globe who was named by Time as one of the top 100 leaders in the world.

So, one of the top hundred leaders of the world put Oleh Tatarov in this position. Zelensky approved that. After the charges were brought, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Iryna Venediktova, dropped those charges. So she took the case from NABU (the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine), sent it to old non-reformed agencies, changed the prosecutor, and closed the case. And Oleh Tatarov kept working as if nothing had happened. He’s still in charge of law enforcement agencies in Ukraine.

So, there was a clear conflict of interest. It’s the first thing. The second thing is that during the Revolution of Dignity, Oleh Tatarov was serving in the special police units. And I want to remind you that in November 2013 and December 2013, special police units physically attacked protesters who went peacefully to the rally against President (Victor) Yanukovych’s decision to walk away from the EU.

Oleh Tatarov went public, saying that these are not the special police units attacking protesters. These are protesters attacking special police units. And this person is in charge of our justice in the office of President Zelensky.

Brian Bonner: Do you think he instigated the Yanukovych violence or just recommended it against protesters?

Daria Kaleniuk: I think he was part of the Yanukovych system, a pro-Russian Yanukovych system that attacked civil society. He’s part of the problem; he’s not a solution. I don’t see any reason why Zelensky would want to keep him in this position. I see only reason for Yermak to keep him is to control law enforcement agencies.

Brian Bonner: So the answer is, with him in a position of power, great power, do we have any hope to get rule of law and transparency?

Daria Kaleniuk: No. While Tatarov is in charge of justice in the Zelenskyy office, we don’t have any chance of reforming law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor’s office, the police, or the security service of Ukraine. And I’m saying this literally every day in Ukrainian and foreign media.

I think Zelensky receives a lot of criticism because of that. Ukrainian society demands change, but for some reason, Zelensky and Yermak decide to keep this very effective manager in his position. So let’s just guess why he’s such an important professional and what he’s doing for Yermak and Zelensky.

Does Zelensky have too much power in his hands?

Brian Bonner: I hope they’re listening and I hope they will act because it’s not going to help the country. And I think we can do more than guess. But this is all under the heading of big power bestowed on a president during wartime and martial law. He has more power than in non-war times. Is he the biggest abuse or are there other abuses?

I believe civil society is not happy, I’ve talked to many people. Civil society is not happy with the powers that Yermak has and the apparatus that he’s built around him. What’s the problem there? And what other abuses are you seeing during martial law?

Daria Kaleniuk: Even before martial law, Zelensky had a lot of power because of his popularity. He got 74% of the votes during the presidential elections. His party, The Servant of the People, received a majority in the parliament. So he didn’t even have to negotiate about the coalition. And he didn’t have to negotiate with the opposition about how to compose the government.

He appointed the prime minister and the government of Ukraine and controlled the parliament because of the Servant of the People. So, he controlled two out of three branches of power. However, after the large-scale invasion, the president’s role increased even more for obvious reasons. According to the Constitution, the president is the top commander in chief of Ukraine. Under martial law, he has increased powers.

He’s influenced foreign policy, he’s influenced defense. Zelensky was extremely busy with all these media appearances, negotiations, and working on mobilizing the world to help Ukraine. Yermak, he’s the chief of staff who is with Zelenskyy 24/7. Whenever you see a photo of Zelensky, show me those photos where you haven’t also seen Yermak for the last two years.

Brian Bonner: This is one reason why it’s hard to believe Zelensky doesn’t know what’s going on.

Daria Kaleniuk: Clearly Zelensky knows. But for some reason he trusts Yermak.

Brian Bonner: Do we have to guess at that too? Answer the question for all of us who are still guessing, why are Tatarov and Yermak in their positions?

Daria Kaleniuk: Tatarov is in his position because he is useful to Yermak. Why Yermak is in his position is a big question to Volodymyr Zelensky. Because Yermak rose to the level of being really the vice president of Ukraine. He has more powers than the prime minister of Ukraine. He replaced the minister of foreign affairs. He, I think, feels empowered when he has direct contact with all national security advisers in the world. While his position is not the national security adviser. We have a separate position of national security adviser.

So, he’s just the chief of staff. Yermak has interesting advisors, many of whom are non-paid. They didn’t declare their assets, and they didn’t go through any special checks. But they travel with Yermak to very important negotiations. Darya Zarivna and a few other external advisors. These external non-paid advisors with no clearances sometimes have more power than the ministers. This is not the way of governing the country during a large-scale invasion. And this is not building trust, unfortunately.

Brian Bonner: You know, I was at Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s (former prime minister of Ukraine – ed.) security forum recently. And there’s discontent bubbling up, you would know the extent better than I do. Other political factions, let’s put it that way, they feel highly marginalized and highly defeated. Like they have zero voice in running the affairs.

As you know, we didn’t have elections during the war. I agree with that; I think it’s foolish for a democracy to have an election during the war. But other people say, well, if we’re not going to have that, why don’t we have a unity government that brings in (ex-President Petro) Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk, (Kyiv Mayor Vitali) Klitschko, or whatever? Everybody, like a war cabinet. Do you agree with that?

Daria Kaleniuk: I think it’s a very naive idea. I think we need to have a government of professionals who are not restricted to being loyal to Zelensky and Yermak. Because those who have independent thinking and who can challenge the opinions of Zelensky and Yermak are not staying in government for a long time. Even The Servant of the People faction and the politicians don’t have that level of access to Zelensky, which they should have.

Brian Bonner: I even heard some MPs haven’t met him yet. Or he hasn’t met them, I don’t know.

Daria Kaleniuk: Well, Zelensky doesn’t bother about the parliament. He doesn’t treat them as something important.

Brian Bonner: So what is the solution then? Probably it’s not a simple solution.

Daria Kaleniuk: This is not a simple solution. I think Zelensky needs to understand the threat coming from Yermak. And Yermak clearly has more ambitions than just being Zelenskyy’s shadow. You know, there is a joke: every vice president wants to be the president. I think Yermak has this ambition. I think he thinks he’s more influential, smart, and important than Zelensky.

And even the international media started to notice this. You know, in Politico, I was in their office in Brussels in February this year. There’s a big wall with portraits of the leaders of 2024. And on top of that wall were (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen, (French President) Emmanuel Macron, the president of Turkey (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, and Andriy Yermak.

Brian Bonner: Which picture does not belong here?

Daria Kaleniuk: Green cardinal of Kyiv. What the hell is that? And there was Zelensky too, but a few levels down, jointly with (Alexei) Navalny as a dreamer.

Brian Bonner: Well, let’s put it this way, my money is on the Ukrainian people who know what to do with politicians who they stop supporting. They vote them out of office quite regularly.

Daria Kaleniuk: They would have voted many inefficient people from the Ukrainian government and parliament and presidential office if you had had elections. But I fully agree we can’t have elections now because Russia will use these to kill Ukrainian democracy. Literally, they will just fire hundreds of missiles on the day of the elections and we are done.

The corruption we don’t know about

Brian Bonner: It goes back to the original question, the intent. Do you want to govern well and for the people or you don’t? And the issues you’ve raised are disturbing. The other thing that comes up from journalists is you know how hard it is to dig up corruption when people are against you all the time and not giving you information.

But Sevgil Musayeva, chief editor of Ukrainska Pravda, said, and I’m paraphrasing, I was there for it. She said, I really hope that we don’t find out at the end of this war that there was a lot of corruption that we were ripped off, that we were stolen from during the war. How worried are you about that? That we don’t know the full extent of what’s going on?

Daria Kaleniuk: We do know what is happening. During the large-scale invasion, we tried to fix the issues non-publicly. But if we’re not able to do that, we went public. The self-censorship of Ukrainian investigative journalists and civil society began over a year ago. When we expose problems and talk about them publicly, officials must react. Zelensky, as a mirror of the country, must react; he can’t just ignore that.

Brian Bonner: Do you believe that even if we don’t get justice in a court of law, just exposing them has a deterrent effect?

Daria Kaleniuk: Exposing corruption during the war is causing resignations and important investigations. It is causing policy changes, like with defense procurements. So this is the only way to go. And yes, we can’t have elections. However, if you look at the social polling, Ukrainians as a society think that corruption is the number two threat to national security after the war.

It reflects the maturity of Ukrainian society and the demand of Ukrainian society to the president to deliver justice. And that’s what makes us different from Belarus, Russia or other countries like that. It is impossible to have autocracy in Ukraine. In Ukraine, democracy is in the blood. We are very decentralized, there are a lot of initiatives.

We actually survived in the first days after the large-scale invasion because so many grassroots initiatives stood up the army. People started to self-organize, disregarding whatever the state was doing.

Brian Bonner: I suppose our viewers and listeners know I could talk to Daria for hours because she is so knowledgeable. My money is on civil society and the Ukrainian people in this struggle. There are a lot of things I wanted to talk about during the war, but we’ll have to save them for another time.

I mean, during the war, we fired a lot of people: the prosecutor general (Venedyktova), the SBU chief (Ivan Bakanov), and the National Bank of Ukraine governor (Kyrylo Shevchenko). And a key deputy head, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, who’s back in the Defense Ministry, I hope he’s not anywhere near procurement, Reznikov, and so on. The list goes on.

And then we still have a way to go before we have swift and sure justice. As far as I know, the (Ihor) Kolomoisky case and Rotterdam+ to (ex-member of parliament Mykola) Martynenko and many other cases are still winding their way through courts.

Daria Kaleniuk: It’s in progress in the High Anti-Corruption Court. But the good thing about judicial reform is that during the large-scale invasion, we fully rebooted the High Qualification Commission of Judges and the High Council of Judges.

These are judicial self-governance bodies, the firing and hiring bodies for judges. We’ve got the law passed in the summer of 2021. In the summer of 2022, during the large-scale invasion, we were in the full implementation phase. So now these judicial self-governance bodies are firing very notorious judges. This is a good thing; we have to give credit to Zelensky for that.


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