Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts go up in smoke

In the early hours of July 23, the home of leading Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin was badly damaged in an apparent arson attack. Luckily, he and his young family were not at home at the time, while Shabunin’s parents were able to escape the blaze unharmed. Nevertheless, the incident is being treated as a dangerous new escalation in an increasingly open campaign of political and physical attacks targeting advocates of Ukraine’s post-2014 national transformation. As Ukrainian troops continue to face Russian aggression in the east of the country, a parallel battle is unfolding across the nation between anti-corruption forces and those who stand to lose most from genuine reform.

Reaction to the July 23 arson attack has been rapid and indignant. Shabunin’s civil society organization, the respected Anti-Corruption Action Center, has classified the incident as an “assassination attempt”. International NGO Global Witness condemned it while commenting, “Fighting corruption is vital for democracy, and campaigners should not have to risk their lives for this necessary work.” Meanwhile, in the Ukrainian capital, the Kyiv Post newspaper dedicated this week’s front page to the story, which ran under the headline “Impunity Reigns”.

Ukraine’s international partners have also been vocal in expressing their alarm over the attack. EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas echoed the similar sentiments expressed by many of his colleagues when he tweeted: “Very disturbed by the news that the house of the anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin burned down. I call on the authorities to investigate this case and if a deliberate act – to bring the perpetrators to justice. Civil activists must feel safe to carry on their mission.”

In the wake of the blaze, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined the chorus of condemnation. “The culprits must be found and punished,” he said in a statement. “As a society, we still have to learn to be tolerant of those who have their own position on controversial issues.” However, given Zelenskyy’s track record during the first fourteen months of his presidency, many within the reformist camp remain unconvinced by the young Ukrainian leader’s talk of battling corruption.

Zelenskyy was propelled to power in spring 2019 on a populist wave that owed much to his outsider credentials and campaign trail promises to end the culture of corruption which most Ukrainians blame for the country’s woes. Since winning the presidency, he has struggled to live up to this billing. Zelenskyy has repeatedly failed to act in defense of anti-corruption figures, and has dismissed numerous reformers from senior government positions while appointing dubious figures with ties to discredited former administrations.

Nor is the firebombing of Shabunin’s house entirely unprecedented. A similar arson attack late last year on the home of Ukraine’s reformist former central bank governor Valeria Gontareva remains unpunished, while her successor Yakiv Smolii resigned in early July 2020 following longstanding complaints of intimidation and political pressure.

These developments have been taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing information campaign in the oligarch-owned Ukrainian media that appears designed to discredit the country’s reformers and portray them as agents of nefarious Western powers bent on exploiting Ukraine. This is fueling a growing sense that Ukraine’s old guard feels empowered by the Zelenskyy presidency to openly oppose the reform agenda which has dominated domestic affairs since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

With Ukraine at yet another crossroads in its post-Soviet history, serious questions are now being asked over the country’s continued commitment to the Euro-Atlantic ambitions that lie at the heart of the ongoing confrontation with Russia. Will President Zelenskyy maintain Ukraine’s westwards trajectory, or is Europe’s largest nation destined to return to the geopolitical no-man’s-land it inhabited for much of the past three decades? The Atlantic Council invited a range of Ukraine experts to share their thoughts on the implications of the Shabunin arson attack for the country’s future direction.

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John Herbst, Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: The burning down of Vitaliy Shabunin’s house is just the latest attack on reform advocates in Ukraine. It is reminiscent of the arson attack last year on Valeria Gontareva, the former head of the National Bank of Ukraine, who did heroic work cleaning up the country’s troubled banking sector, including the return to state ownership of the corruptly run Privatbank. The action against Shabunin seems to follow a pattern of backtracking on reform since the dismissal of ex-PM Oleksiy Honcharuk’s government in March 2020. But the picture is actually less bleak. President Zelenskyy issued a statement on July 23 condemning the arson attack. This elementary step is not insignificant. When Gontareva lost her house in 2019 and her foes launched a smear campaign against her, the new president was silent. Not on this occasion. At times, progress comes in big steps. Sometimes it comes in smaller steps. The education of President Zelenskyy is important for Ukraine’s future.

Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy: The blatant arson attack on Vitaliy Shabunin and his family is an alarming signal that anti-corruption activists in Ukraine face tremendous danger. The work being done by anti-corruption watchdogs is urgently needed and the government needs to protect them. They should not have to pay with their safety, let alone their lives, for exposing corrupt officials, which is in Ukraine’s best interests. In his 2019 Washington Post opinion piece, Shabunin rightfully pointed out that the change in Ukraine’s political elites does not mean the end of the anti-corruption fight. A promise to eliminate corruption brought Zelenskyy to office. It was a message that appealed to both Ukrainian citizens and international allies. A year later, Zelenskyy’s record is mixed. The launching of the High Anti-Corruption Court, banking reform, and digitization of state agencies are all promising signs. But the return of corrupt officials to positions of power is ominous. Civil society continues to drive anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. Support for activists’ voices is now more important than ever. Ukrainian authorities should investigate intimidation campaigns and assaults with utmost vigilance. If Ukraine wants to secure Western political and donor support, which the country needs to improve its economy and confront the Russian threat, it must demonstrate a firm commitment to addressing corruption and protecting civic activists.

Melinda Haring, Deputy Director, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: The outrageous arson attack on Vitaliy Shabunin crosses a new line. In the past, Shabunin and his team have been targeted for their brilliant campaigns pointing out when Ukraine and its public servants have fallen short, but his family was never previously endangered. President Zelenskyy must demand an impartial and prompt investigation, while Shabunin and his family should be offered state security for at least the remainder of the year. Burning down the leading anti-corruption activist’s home, which he shared with his small children and parents, signals that Ukraine has grave internal problems. If the case is not solved and justice is not served, it is a clear indication that Ukraine’s Western aspirations are only that: aspirations. Ukraine has a long way to go before it becomes a modern European country. Attempts to intimidate and physically harm those who are actively engaged in changing Ukraine serve to undermine the entire reform project.

Michael Carpenter, Managing Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement: The attack is a worrisome development that shows how the forces of revanche are strengthening in Ukraine. Some will probably say this is a one-off incident. But if one looks at the overall political landscape in Ukraine, there is a very clear trend: reformers are being driven out of government, oligarchs are taking control of parliamentary factions, and pro-Russian forces across the country are becoming more assertive. Moreover, the White House and circles associated with President Trump are encouraging these trends by peddling tropes about how Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and reformers are allied with the Democratic Party, George Soros, or similar nonsense. The Trump administration has turned its back on Ukrainian reformers, and now the consequences are playing themselves out.

Jonathan Katz, Senior Fellow, Frontlines of Democracy Initiative, German Marshall Fund of the United States: The unconscionable attack on leading Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin on July 23 is unfortunately the latest incident highlighting a disturbing pattern of increased pressure, hostility, and violence directed at civil society activists and human rights defenders in Ukraine. Those responsible for the arson attack directed at Shabunin must be brought to justice by President Zelenskyy and held accountable for their actions. The message of accountability and zero tolerance for these criminal acts perpetrated against activists must be echoed and reinforced by Ukraine’s transatlantic partners in Washington, Brussels, and across Europe, particularly at a time of growing concerns about the Zelenskyy government’s commitment to anti-corruption reforms. This brazen attack is clearly intended to deter activists and anti-corruption reformers in Ukraine. It is also meant to create a “chilling effect” to weaken government oversight and rule of law with the insidious purpose of opening the door to more corruption from entrenched oligarchs and Kremlin proxies whose influence is growing in Ukraine. This incident and Kyiv’s response is an opportunity for Zelenskyy to show what side of the fight against corruption he is on. Failing to address this and other dangerous attacks on activists will only serve to discredit the Zelenskky government, reward oligarchs, and aid Moscow’s efforts to destabilize and derail a democratic Ukraine. Over the last several months, Ukraine’s Western partners have grown more apprehensive about President Zelenskyy’s commitment to democratic reforms and combating corruption, both of which are essential to achieving Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The attack on Shabunin is a reminder that despite the heroic efforts of the Euromaidan, and the telling poll numbers that show an overwhelming number of Ukrainians seek democracy and membership in the EU and NATO, there is still a battle raging for the future of Ukraine.

Diane Francis, Senior Fellow, Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council: The arson attack on Vitaliy Shabunin is the latest in a series of audacious blows targeting important reformers since Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly against corruption in last year’s presidential election. Last September, former National Bank of Ukraine Governor Valeria Gontareva was hit by a car in London, had her country home burned to the ground, and her apartment in Kyiv ransacked. Earlier this month, her successor Yakiv Smolii suddenly resigned citing “systematic political pressure”. The attack on Shabunin’s home is another attempt by shadowy forces to terrorize the nation. President Zelenskyy must now act decisively. Round-the-clock protection must be provided for Shabunin and his family, along with others in the line of fire. Specialist security forces must be deployed rather than the police. They must aggressively hunt down the goons and their paymasters. Without real consequences, this incident will embolden opponents of Ukraine’s transformation. It will encourage them to widen their reign of terror in order to stifle reform. These are not police matters. These are acts of war against the nation’s most important reformers and against Ukraine as a whole.

Brian Bonner, Chief Editor, Kyiv Post: This arson attack is a continuation of the same old story. Were any of these crimes ever solved? Was anyone made to face justice for the crimes captured on the Melnychenko tapes, the Gongadze murder, the Sheremet murder, the Gandziuk murder, or the USD 20 billion bank fraud? And now we have tapes of [Ukrainian Judge] Pavlo Vovk purportedly bragging about how unreformed and corrupt Ukraine’s courts are today. The nation’s top cop gets away with everything. Ukraine is still subject to the laws of the jungle in many ways. In this environment, journalists, activists, and anyone else who confronts corrupt and powerful interests knows they risk their lives. They do so not because they are reckless, but because they believe in a better Ukraine.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Related Experts: Michael Carpenter, Peter Dickinson, Diane Francis, Melinda Haring, and John E. Herbst

Image: Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin stands outside his fire-damaged home. July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko