On the barricades against corruption

What It Was Like to Work under Nasirov. Former Odesa Customs Chief Yulia Marushevska Speaks to Bohdan Nahaylo

Show hosts

Bohdan Nahaylo


Yulia Marushevska

On the barricades against corruption
On the barricades against corruption

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.

FOCUS INTERVIEW: What It Was Like to Work under Nasirov. Former Odesa Customs Chief Yulia Marushevska Speaks to Bohdan Nahaylo




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FOCUS INTERVIEW: What It Was Like to Work under Nasirov. Former Odesa Customs Chief Yulia Marushevska Speaks to Bohdan Nahaylo

Nahaylo: Today my guest is a remarkable young woman. Young, bright, attractive, courageous, and inspiring. In many ways she personifies a new generation of modern Ukrainians, European-oriented, who took to the barricades in 2014 and 2015 and risked, or gave, their lives for liberty and decency and Ukraine’s regeneration. I am talking about Yulia Marushevska whose unforgettable video “I am Ukrainian” went viral on the Internet and helped inform the outside world about what the EuroMaidan and Revolution of Dignity was all about. Yulia did not vanish from the scene but rolled up her sleeves and applied herself practically to the democratic transformation of Ukraine. In October 2015 she accepted a highly challenging position as Chief of Odessa Customs and experienced at first hand the bitter reality of trying to overcome corruption. A year later she resigned in frustration. One of her chief adversaries was the head of Ukraine’s fiscal service responsible for both taxes and customs, Roman Nasirov. He was arrested recently and is currently being investigated for fraud. I am very glad we have Yulia on our program to hear her take on what has been happening and what is at stake. Yulia, welcome!

Marushevska: Thank you, Bohdane, for your kind words. I am happy to talk to you and your audience.

Nahaylo: Before we discuss your experience in fighting corruption and what Nasirov’s arrest may signify, please tell us how you, a student and scholar from southern Ukraine, became involved in civil activism and politics.

Marushevska: I would say that the Revolution of Dignity brought me to politics. Before that I worked on social and educational projects. I was doing my PhD and teaching Ukrainian literature of the 20th century at Kyiv National University. When the Revolution happened I could not stay away. It moved everyone and I was there. After the Revolution, after victims, after all what we had seen, you could not come back to the same life again.   During the Yanukovych time I could say to myself, “That’s not politics. That’s just robbery. I am not interested to participate in it.” During the Revolution we saw that everyone matters and everyone do something that could influence the lives of others.

Nahaylo: So the Revolution of Dignity transformed you personally but you realised that there is a big job to do – to transform the country.


Marushevska: For sure. Before I took the governmental job I went to Stanford and participated in the program at the Centre of Democracy and Rule of Law where I was studying how states are transforming from the post-Soviet to modern ones. I had a great opportunity to work with Francis Fukuyama, Michael McFaul, Larry Diamond – bright professors who gave me a great perspective on how countries are changing.  And I understood completely that it’s not going to happen in one day, or in one month, or even in one year. But it can happen. This is the most important thing that I learned. It happened in a lot of countries and they transformed into successful societies through some challenges and hard work, but it’s possible and doable.  For me it was my motivation to take a governmental position. I was invited byMikheil Saakashvili, whom I knew before through my international work, and started to work as Deputy Governor [of the Odessa region]. When I was offered the position of Chief of Customs of Odessa, it was a battle even to take this challenge. I had long discussions with my friends and with myself, “Should I do this or not?” Then I understood that we had paid such an enormous price to have a chance to do something that it would be just dishonest not to take this chance and not to do anything.

Nahaylo: So you felt you can make a difference.

Marushevska: I was sure I could make a difference. I think we did make a difference in the Odesa customs. For me it was very important to prove that if you really have a will to do something, and if you are not taking bribes, you can clean up even the most corrupt institution in the country.

Nahaylo: At that time it seemed you had presidential support and there was wind in your sails, that the job could be done gradually over time despite huge obstacles from the legacy of the past. How soon did you realise that it was almost impossible to do the job?

Marushevska: Yes, I agree. The support of the authorities at the beginning was really amazing. That was one of the reasons I understood we could succeed. I was promised that I would have legislative support for our initiatives to change Ukrainian laws in customs regulations. I was sure that we had enough financial support to renovate the customs space, the space where we wanted our new custom officers to work.

Nahaylo: You felt that there was a political will to make these changes…

Marushevska: Yes, for sure. At the beginning it was clear that I had partners in the government and I could work on our project, because the idea was not only to clean up Odesa from corruption, but the plan was to pilot the national reform starting from Odesa port. For me it was a great goal because I understood that we could change not only one region but also the whole institution and the whole country.

Nahaylo: Could you give us an idea of the size of the budget of Odesa port. That is a huge port.  Are we talking about many millions or many billions?

Marushevska: For you to understand the scale: Odesa customs is 1400 people, more than 1000 km of border, five sea ports and 1 bln Hryvnia of taxes per month. That is the scale.  Coming back to the topic of support from the authorities, unfortunately, it vanished completely in November [2015] after the local elections [October 2015]. As I understood it, Poroshenko and Saakashvili were political allies for some moments, and that lasted until the local elections.  When Poroshenko gathered all the votes that he needed, the signal that I saw was a very sad one. For example, I was working for three months with the Head of the Committee on the tax and customs at the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian parliament] and then I heard that “There is no order to support you.  There is no real will to support the legislation that you are suggesting.”  Then I was told the same by the head of the presidential party.  I understood that it would be very hard to work through Parliament. We decided to concentrate our work on the Cabinet of Ministers and push our changes through its orders.

Nahaylo: Despite “lip service” to transparency, decisions are taken in the old ways behind the scenes and with phone calls?

Marushevska: Unfortunately, that’s the style of Ukrainian politics.

Nahaylo: So this must have been a huge disillusionment for you. Having come in, having experienced the Revolution of Dignity, having had these hopes and signs that you would be able to achieve something, and then essentially hitting your head against…what…a wall of bureaucratic opposition, or oligarchical opposition?  How would you describe it?

Marushevska: I would say that now we are in a clinch between new forces, new Ukraine, new institutions and the old system, which is a mix of Soviet institutions, oligarchic criminal interests, and our mentally completely destroyed elites who do not understand the importance of their role and today’s moment.  I cannot explain it differently because …

Nahaylo: They cannot rise to the occasion and to the historical necessities of the time, to the new opportunities?

Marushevska:  Yes. That’s what you see… Each time Ukrainian people are a few steps ahead of the Ukrainian authorities and Ukrainian elites and the leadership. That’s very sad. It seems like it’s Ukrainian society that is pushing for and demanding every change, and that only after few years we have reaction from our elites, our Parliament, our leadership.

Nahaylo:But you felt that the opposition was mainly from local criminal groupings, mafia types, from the past, or them in alliance with other clans or oligarchical groups in Kyiv and elsewhere? Or did you feel that it was mainly the centre, the capital, the presidential camp, saying ‘enough of this experiment?’

Marushevska: The opposition was mainly from the central government. I wasn’t working with the local groups a lot, because the Customs Office is an institution that is completely subordinated, working as part of the vertical of power. I was subordinated only to the central office, to Nasirov, and Danyliuk, and Groysman [Prime Minister]. That was my subordination [chain of command]. And presidential will is a huge deal in Ukraine today, as you know, because a lot of appointments are done by him [the President], starting with the Prosecutor General. Even Groysman [the Prime Minister] is known to be his old buddy.

Nahaylo: Yes. And now let’s move a little bit towards Nasirov himself. When did you first encounter this opposition, or, if you want, the obstacles coming from him personally, from his official position?

Marushevska:The first thing we need to know about Nasirov is that he is not an independent personality, or an independent public official who makes his own decisions. The first signs that he had no will to cooperate happened just after the refusal of the Presidential Party [Petro Poroshenko Bloc] to support our legislation. That all went together. Within a few weeks I understood that there is no will to change the custom’s procedure on the level of laws [legislation], he [Nasirov] published an article where he started to accuse Odesa customs in not succeeding, that we are not doing this Odesa experiment well, and so on. And at that point I understood that he’s just delivering the results [message], that he’s doing the job that he was asked to do.

Nahaylo: Discrediting you, on orders.


Nahaylo: So eventually you realized that you could not do the job that you had hoped to do. You resigned. And then were attacked immediately, attempts were made to discredit you. What did you personally feel at that moment? Did you feel like giving up, just turning your back and going into private life? Or did it make you want to fight even more?

Marushevska:First of all, I wouldn’t say that I gave up immediately, because I spent more than seven months in a huge controversy with the system, using any, even the tiniest possibility, to implement the project. The biggest reason for me to resign was that I hired 124 new custom’s officers, young people who came after graduating, they were people who were trained by the US Border and Custom’s Protection Agency, by the EU Commission, and I promised them that they would have good salaries. Whatever I tried to do, nothing helped [worked]. With no changes to the legislation and no support from the government we couldn’t find the possibility to pay them a normal salary. Their salary was at the level of 3,000 hryvnias (approximately $110.00 US), which is a really small income for surviving in Odesa.

Nahaylo: And to prevent corruption.

Marushevska:Yes. And our policy was zero tolerance towards corruption. And I promised these kids that we would pay them a normal salary to survive. And we couldn’t. And that was the motivation for me. I couldn’t. They were waiting for four months.

Nahaylo: Were you shocked of the pettiness of the things you were accused of afterwards, things you’ve just been vindicated by the court in Odesa, this 500 hryvnia business. It seems so petty, given the job that you had, to try to discredit you, and destroy you as a public figure in this way.

Marushevska:No, that’s the typical approach of the Secret Service, of the KGB, FSB, and so on. They start with small cases, to investigate you, to start listening to your calls, ruin your personal life. Now they started a bigger case. That’s the way it works. Because if they can’t prove that we were doing wrong things in Odesa, then how can they answer questions why is nothing changing in Ukraine right now, in tax and customs Ministries everywhere. They have to find an excuse for themselves, why everything is so bad. Unfortunately.

Nahaylo: So jumping ahead. What is your take on the Nasirov case? Why was he suddenly arrested, out of the blue, like this? What does this signify? Some kind of struggle at the top? Or a struggle between institutions: NABU [the Anti-Corruption Bureau], the Prosecutor’s Office, the Presidential Camp?

Marushevska:For sure it’s a struggle between the old and the new Ukraine. The NABU, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, is a newly created body, an institution we all needed. It’s an institution where people actually have quite high salaries, an institution with proper legislation, independence, and the opportunity to make their own decisions. And NABU just demonstrated that they can make their own decisions. The arrest of Nasirov is logical, needed, and a very useful thing for NABU to prove that they exist, that they have some strength, and that they’re going to develop.

Nahaylo: But even in the last days we’ve seen attempts to impose an auditor on NABU through the parliament, which was rejected, twice. Where is this coming from?

Marushevska:That’s a great sign! That’s a symbol. If the Presidential Administration, or Ukrainian Parliament, or any other old, Soviet bodies, are now trying to exert their control over newly created institutions, it means that these newly created institutions are becoming independent, and becoming efficient. And that’s awesome! I think that we need to create as many new institutions so that one day they will work instead of these old institutions. What is NABU? NABU is the Prosecutor’s Office, at the end of the day. If we had an efficient and modern General Prosecutor’s Office why would we need NABU? But we don’t have an efficient Prosecutor’s Office. And this is why we have NABU. And we have to develop it. And now as civil society, we have to defend it from all the crooks who are trying to destroy it. Because it’s like a flower. It has to grow. And we need to have this parallel institution, for most Ukrainian institutions. We need a just [fair] court, instead of this destroyed court system that we have, and so on.

Nahaylo: I’m the country representative, at the moment, for Democracy Reporting International, and on Monday we had a fairly major public discussion on the state of play in reforming of the Procuracy, so I’m very encouraged to hear what you’re saying, that you see that the glass is not just half empty, that it’s half full. That there are encouraging signs in a fairly dismal set up. Do you think that the overhaul in the judiciary at the moment, the changes in the court system, that this will have an impact also?

Marushevska: Of course I hope so. But from my experience of working in such a corrupt institution I see that to have real change you have to change most of the people, you have to completely re-build the institution, and you cannot make half-steps in reforms.

Nahaylo: Right. Now let’s look ahead briefly. What’s next for you? Where do you go? I would imagine that with your skills, with your experience, your determination, you would make a very good member of a new Parliament. Do you have political ambitions of your own?

Marushevska:Right now I do not feel that I want to be a politician. I shifted to civil society and started a project that defends business from the pressures of the tax and customs authorities. It’s a project that we actually started in Odesa, the hotline, “Help.” And right now we are gathering cases about corruption. We are working with entrepreneurs, trying to defend them, to give them legal and public support. Because I believe that one of the main players in reforms is business, the middle class. They must be most interested in the changes in the country, because they are the ones who will benefit. Their business will grow rapidly if the country is changing. And it’s very important for me to encourage this middle class to move towards reforms.

Nahaylo: And briefly, if we look ahead, what are the signs we should be looking for that change is taking hold, that we will not be swept back, that the wheel of history will not crush us? What other signs, other than NABU’s effectiveness, what other signs should analysts, observers, the general public, be looking for to inspire us, to give us confidence?

Marushevska:I would say it’s all classics. We cannot invent anything new. There are two main stones to re-build the country. First you have to change the elites. Second, you have to build efficient, modern institutions. If you see that the elites are changing, new people are coming, coming with honest, transparent motivation. And if you see that new institutions, new independent institutions are developing, then the country’s changing.

Nahaylo: Thank you very much, this is very useful advice, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. We’ve had in our studio Yulia Marushevska who was in many ways an emissary, a voice of the Maidan at one time, and then a symbol of the new generation’s struggle against corruption and the transformation of Ukraine into something better, the kind of Ukraine that we would all want to see. Thank you very much.

Marushevska:Thank you.


President Assesses Current Situation

On 20 March Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, speaking at the fifth session of the Regional Development Council,delivered a major speech about the state of affairs in the country.  He noted the recent encouraging signs of economic recovery and growth, significant reduction of the level of inflation, relative stabilization of the Hryvnia, increase in gold reserves, and overhaul of the banking system, but acknowledged that these results have still to improve the standard of living for the population. President Poroshenko identified the following as the main threats facing Ukraine: the military threat from Russia, speculation on the theme of early elections, which he claimed would only destabilize the situation, and the rise of populism and elements of anarchy.  The key area for reform, he said, remains curbing corruption, and progress with this difficult task has been welcomed by Ukraine’s external supporters and creditors. He also reiterated his commitment to the ongoing reform of Ukraine’s legal system, decentralization, and a proper “tax police”, or rather “Fiscal Investigatory Service”.

Shooting in Kyiv

Former member of Russian Parliament, Denis Voronenkov, who defected to Ukraine and criticized Putin, was shot dead outside a hotel in central in Kyiv on Thursday 23rd March.Since he fled to Ukraine in October, former Russian legislator Voronenkov had given interviews critical of Russia in the media. These statements had roused an angry backlash in the Russian media and government. President Poroshenko described the shooting of Voronenkov as an act of state terrorism against a critic of the Putin regime. He noted that Voronenkov was one of the main witnesses to Russian aggression against Ukraine and in particular, to the role of former President Yanukovych in the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine. An Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Anton Herashchenko, stated that the attacker was a Russian agent working in Ukraine.

Місце вбивства Дениса Вороненкова Громадське радіо/Андрій Кабалія

Munitions Depot Fire

A large ammunitions depot in Kharkiv oblast was set alight in an act described by Ukrainian officials as sabotage. The fires broke out overnight on 23 March Balakliya, which is about 100km from the front line in the conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Munitions from the depot are used to supply Ukrainian military units at the front lines.Around 20,000 people had to be evacuated.

Балаклія Радіо Свобода

3 year Budget Planning

This week, Ukraine made an important step towards good governance. The Parliament passed a law introducing three-year budgeting, starting in 2017. The law will allow government to move to middle-term planning and to do economic forecasting for the next three years. Parliament also rejected two attempts to nominate an auditor for the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine NABU proposed by the plurality coalition suspecting that it would undermine the work of this independent body.

IMF tranche

The next IMF tranche for Ukraine was expected to be decided on Monday, but has experienced some delay. The IMF’s decision was postponed due to the Ukrainian National Security Council’s decision to implement a blockade on trade with the Donbas region and to place sanctions against Russian banks. Since it is predicted that this would have a significant impact on the economy, the IMF requested that Ukraine recalculate macroeconomic data and their influence on the budget.

Eurovision Contest and the Russian entry

This week the Ukraine’s State Security Service, the SBU,decided to deny the Russian representative to Eurovision 2017, entry to Ukraine. The decision to ban the singer Yulia Samoilova was based on the fact that she had entered Crimea, currently occupied by Russia, for a performance, without receiving permission from Ukraine.Ukraine is to host Eurovision in May. Ukraine received the right to host the contest when Ukraine’s entry, Jamala, won the 2016 Eurovision contest.

The War

There has not been any let up in the tension on the front line with Russian-backed forces in the Donbas. According to the Ministry of Defence, in the past week 10 Ukrainian soldiers were and 32 wounded. Five civilians were injured and 29 residential buildings damaged, as well as a kindergarten and a humanitarian aid centre, mostly around Avdiivka’


At a unique theatre show in Kyiv on the 18 March theYara Arts Group of New York led by VirlanaTkacz, together with the post-proletarian rock group Zhadan and the Dogs, presented a show of poetry, theatre and music. The piece was called “Tychyna, Zhadan and the Dogs” and it managed to successfully span the leap of a century. The poetry texts, all written in 1917, were by PavloTychyna, one of Ukraine’s most talented 20th century poets. Yet the themes of war, displacement and revolution sounded very current, especially as accompanied by Julian Kytasty’s contemporary bandura sound and the rock beat of Zhadan’s Dogs.


This week’s musical offering is a sad one and meant as a tribute. Last weekend it was announced that the Ukrainian composer and musician TarasYashchenko had died tragically in Munich where he had been living and working for over two decades. He was 53. Taras came from a distinguished Ukrainian family and he wrote not only classical, but also blues, tangos, jazz, and variations on Ukrainian folk themes.  Here is his piece “Kyiv Blues”.


Next week we will be following the main stories in Ukraine again. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko and Marta Dyczok. Headlines and Culture by Oksana Smerechuk. Music selected by Bohdan Nahaylo. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Natalia Kucheriava.