Corruption allegations continue to plague Zelenskys top staff Portal

Corruption allegations continue to plague Zelensky’s top staff – Portal

VIENNA/KYIV, Sept 19 (Portal) – During his years as chief executive of one of Ukraine’s largest construction companies, Oleh Maiboroda kept rolls full of dollar bills in a safe behind his desk.

The money, Maiboroda told Portal, was intended to bribe officials to approve construction projects. A lawyer named Oleh Tatarov, now a senior advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, was entrusted with handing over the money.

“Tatarov used to solve all problems with law enforcement,” Maiboroda said in an interview in Vienna, where he has decided to avoid prosecution in Ukraine over his alleged involvement in corruption plots against construction company Ukrbud Development LLC.

Maiboroda said bribes flowed through Tatarov from 2014 to 2019. The lawyer’s contacts with the police, courts and prosecutors made him a perfect mediator. “Of course he paid” for projects to run smoothly with authorities, including by obtaining building permits, Maiboroda said. “He gave them money to make these arrangements,” he added.

Maiboroda’s comments threaten to reignite a controversy that has plagued President Volodymyr Zelensky even in wartime: accusations from political opponents and anti-corruption activists that powerful people shielded Tatarov from prosecution.

Maiboroda provided no evidence to support his allegations. They repeat the accusation of the Ukrainian anti-corruption authorities against Tatarov that he organized bribes. The public prosecutor’s office closed the case in April 2022 for procedural reasons.

Tatarov, a presidential adviser on law enforcement and security since 2020, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been found guilty of any crime. He said his accusers were trying to settle political scores. Zelenskiy had previously stated that corruption had no place in his government. “I want to emphasize: If those who work with me are suspected of corruption, these people will be fired. And I haven’t seen such examples in my office,” he said in an interview with the Ukrainian magazine Focus in December 2020.

Neither Zelensky nor Tatarov responded to detailed questions for this article.

Zelensky has been praised as a war leader since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February last year. Still, some have questioned his commitment to fulfilling his promise to fight corruption. Ukraine consistently ranks in the bottom half of Transparency International’s annual global corruption perception index, and in the latest survey for 2022, only Russia was rated as more corrupt in Europe.

Billions in aid for Zelensky’s government and ambitions to join the European Union are weighing on Ukraine and proving that it is serious about fighting corruption and promoting good governance.

In a June report, the International Monetary Fund said donors and foreign investors needed to see reforms “immediately” to improve governance and transparency and fight corruption. In an assessment of Ukraine’s chances of EU membership published in June 2022, the European Commission called corruption “a serious challenge that requires continued attention.”

A poll released on September 11 by two Kiev pollsters found that 78% of Ukrainians blamed Zelensky for government corruption. A corresponding poll found that 55% of respondents believe that Western military aid should be conditional on fighting corruption.

In recent months, Zelensky has taken steps to respond to his doubters.

He fired more than a dozen senior officials in January amid public allegations of bribery and impropriety, declaring: “All internal problems affecting the state are being cleaned up and will be cleaned up.” Earlier this month, Zelensky replaced his defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, citing the need for “new approaches”. This came after Ukrainian media made a number of allegations that the Defense Ministry was purchasing goods at inflated prices. Reznikov said at a news conference in Kiev a week before his ouster that the reports were inaccurate.

The upheaval has resulted in Tatarov remaining in his post. Several political insiders interviewed by Portal said he was a crucial figure in helping Zelenskyy control Ukraine’s sprawling security and law enforcement agencies.

“Tatarov has become a symbol of Zelensky’s tolerance of corruption in his inner circle,” the Kyiv Independent newspaper wrote earlier this year, citing the bribery allegation.

Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), an NGO, believes that in a healthy democracy, any official accused of corruption should be suspended until his case is resolved. “As long as Zelensky doesn’t get rid of Tatarov, he won’t be taken as seriously when it comes to cleansing the country of corruption,” she told Portal.

Tatarov’s allies say he is a victim of his own efficiency as Zelensky’s law enforcement superior. “They will try everything to bring this guy down because he is the tip of the spear,” said Nicola Mirto, an Italian entrepreneur and former client of Tatarov. Mirto said Tatarov had drawn the ire of powerful interests by supporting Ukraine’s anti-corruption campaign against oligarchs.


Zelensky became president in May 2019 on a promise to break with the nepotism and corruption that had plagued Ukraine for decades.

He became famous as an actor in the political television satire “Servant of the People”. It begins with a group of tycoons sipping drinks above the capital’s Independence Square and pondering which of their hand-picked candidates might win an upcoming presidential election.

Tatarov’s government career began several years earlier. He was an official under Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014. Tatarov caused controversy at the time with a remark after security forces shot at demonstrators. Tatarov claimed some shots came from the crowd. More than 100 people died in the three days of violence.

“Some of the dead have injuries to the back of their heads,” he said at a meeting with European diplomats broadcast on Ukrainian television. This, he said, shows “that the shots were fired somewhere near people who were among the protesters.” At the time, Tatarov did not provide any further evidence to support his claim. In an interview with a Ukrainian channel in 2020, Tatarov said that all briefings he gave were based on “information from the material of criminal cases.” I couldn’t express a personal opinion. He did not respond to questions from Portal on the matter.

After Yanukovych’s fall, Tatarov began private practice as a lawyer. He also became legal advisor to a construction company that is part of the state-owned Ukrbud Group.

The construction sector is typical of the blurred lines between public and private sectors in post-Soviet Ukraine. British and Ukrainian corporate registers and court documents show that Ukrbud Corporation’s then-chairman Maxym Mykytas controlled 75% of the shares of a private company called Ukrbud Development LLC, which has a license to use the state company’s logo.

Mykytas is in prison, charged with another alleged bribery scheme involving a subway contract, which he denies. He said in a statement to Portal that none of the state-owned company’s resources were used by the private company he indirectly controls.

According to Maiboroda, Mykytas used Tatarov for difficult tasks, including paying bribes on behalf of Ukrbud Development. Maiboroda said he regularly received instructions from Mykytas to hand over amounts of cash to Tatarov. In his statement to Portal, Mykytas accused Maiborada of making “false statements” and behaving “like a cornered animal” after he himself was accused of corruption. He said Tatarov’s contacts and influence were “greatly exaggerated.”

Maiboroda said Tatarov was a skilled operator who worked outside the office in fancy cafes where he met his contacts and used encrypted apps to communicate. “He knew about law enforcement and warned us to be careful when saying almost anything on the phone,” Maiboroda told Portal.

He said Tatarov either collected the cash payments himself or sent a driver to do so. Maiboroda said the money was signed by Tatarov and recorded as expenses for construction projects. Maiboroda showed Portal a list of bribes totaling $1.8 million paid by Tatarov in a spreadsheet. He also shared three signed cash receipts that matched the entries on the list. Maiboroda said the signatory was Tatarov and the list of bribes came from Ukrbud Development’s accounts. Portal could not independently verify this.

Portal shared the receipts with Mykytas and Tatarov. Mykytas said it was a fake. Tatarov did not answer. Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) said experts needed to examine the material to verify it.


Zelensky appointed Tatarov as a law enforcement and security advisor in August 2020. Zelensky said it would be unfair to describe all officials who worked under Yanukovych as representatives of the old guard. “The most important thing is to be honest,” Zelenskyy told reporters a few days after Tatarov’s appointment.

Shortly thereafter, NABU, an independent agency, opened an investigation against Tatarov on suspicion that he had arranged the bribery of an Interior Ministry official on behalf of Ukrbud Development in 2017.

The alleged bribe – a free parking space for the Interior Ministry official in return for a low valuation of some state-owned land – appears modest. However, NABU estimated that the undervaluation of the land cost the state UAH 81 million (US$3.1 million at the time).

WhatsApp recordings obtained by investigators and viewed by Portal include an instruction from Tatarov to an accountant at Ukrbud Development to provide the official with a parking space in a Kiev project at a “100% discount” in gratitude for his efforts. The Interior Ministry official told Portal he bought the parking lot at market price, but denied giving an estimate.

Two senior law enforcement officials told Portal that Mykytas confessed to the bribe in an October 2020 video recording in which he said Tatarov arranged the payment. Tatarov has not commented on the matter. In a prison interview with a Ukrainian news website published on December 22, 2020, Mykytas railed against Tatarov. “Tatarov and I did everything together, but if Tatarov is in the president’s office, why should I be in prison?”

NABU is preparing to order Tatarov’s arrest, the two police officials told Portal, armed with evidence such as the messages, other correspondence and independent assessments. But before NABU could act, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, a former lawmaker from Zelensky’s party, made changes to the team handling the case. At the beginning of December 2020, she called in other prosecutors, including herself. Three weeks later, her office handed the case over to the state security service SBU.

Then, in January 2021, Mykytas retracted his confession. He told Portal he accused Tatarov under the mistaken belief that the lawyer and others were trying to steal his business. Meanwhile, the SBU investigation stalled. A court in Kyiv then refused to give investigators more time, and in April 2022, prosecutors closed the case on these grounds.

Artem Sytnyk, the NABU chief at the time, told Portal he believes the case was dropped for political reasons. He said his office had presented extensive evidence, including the WhatsApp messages. Sytnyk, who left office in April 2022 after a seven-year term, said the FBI “did its job” in investigating Tatarov, but “the justice system interfered and prevented the right thing from happening.” Sytnyk said he was not informed in advance that the case had been removed from his authority and described the move as “completely illegitimate.”

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said in a statement to Portal that Venediktova’s changes to the prosecution team were due to the “extraordinary complexity” of the case. The case was subsequently removed from NABU by order of a Kiev district court, the spokesman said.

The spokesman accused the NABU of failing to pass on evidence to the SBU. The court’s refusal to expand the investigation means prosecutors “do not have the opportunity to thoroughly, comprehensively and impartially investigate all the circumstances of the crimes,” the spokesman added.

Zelensky fired Attorney General Venediktova in July 2022 as part of a post-invasion purge of officials accused of failing to root out Russian agents or sympathizers from their agencies. He appointed her ambassador to Switzerland. Her deputy, Oleksiy Symonenko, resigned in January 2023 after media reports said he vacationed in Spain during the war. Neither Venediktova nor Symonenko commented on this article.


Tatarov is not the only member of Zelensky’s inner circle who has caused controversy. This also applies to the president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, an associate from Zelensky’s previous career in the entertainment world. Yermak also did not respond to questions for this article.

Yermak, the son of a Soviet diplomat, previously worked in film and television production. Nowadays he is often at Zelensky’s side at government meetings and public events. He is known among foreign diplomats as the “Green Cardinal” because of his alleged influence and because, like his boss, he has taken to wearing khaki.

In March 2020, a month after Yermak became chief of staff, video footage emerged showing Yermak’s brother Denys, now a soldier, discussing appointments to government posts and suggesting he could open doors. Denys confirmed that the recording was his, but said that he was reviewing candidates and ideas for projects that he would propose to the government as part of a citizens’ appeal, and that the recordings had been edited in a politically motivated attempt to discredit his brother . Andriy Yermak also dismissed the recordings as a political assassin.

The recordings were made by a former police instructor, Dmytro Shtanko, who was killed in eastern Ukraine in October 2022, according to his widow, Liudmyla Bielievtsova. She told Portal that Shtanko’s goal was to expose high-level bribery and that her husband was driven by a sense of duty. “He wanted Ukraine to be a normal country,” she said.

In October 2021, questions arose about Zelensky himself when it emerged that he had used offshore companies to manage his assets and that he had transferred a stake in a company in the British Virgin Islands to a partner shortly before his election. That employee, Sergey Shefir, later became a top adviser to Zelensky, working on a voluntary and unpaid basis. Zelensky told Ukrainian television channel ICTV in October 2021 that the offshore agreement was intended to protect his TV production business from political pressure from the Yanukovych government.

A review by the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption in October 2021 found “no evidence of illicit enrichment.”

Shefir told Portal that all of his business activities were legal and all required tax returns had been filed. “Based on the income received and the declarations submitted, I paid all taxes and other mandatory payments required by the legislation of Ukraine,” he said.

Shefir said Zelensky had submitted all required declarations of assets and income. These were checked by anti-corruption authorities, he said, and “no violations of anti-corruption laws were found.”

Zelensky’s government has also been criticized domestically for purchasing goods at above-market prices. In January, Ukrainian media reported that the Defense Ministry bought eggs at more than double the market price and potatoes at almost three times the market price. A junior defense minister resigned because of the article. He is currently being prosecuted for purchasing substandard equipment at inflated prices. Vyacheslav Shapovalov, in a statement to Portal through his lawyer, denied wrongdoing and said he never sought unfavorable contracts.

Yaroslav Zheleznyak, an opposition lawmaker, said Western donors should take note of reports of corruption. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, over 41 countries have so far pledged a total of more than $140 billion in civil and military aid to Ukraine, including over $70 billion from the United States.

Zheleznyak told Portal that Western donors risk losing significant sums if corruption is not tackled. “Now they’re stealing our money,” he said of officials who tolerated bribery. “In the future, they could steal your money.”

Amid growing demands for accountability from Ukrainians, Zelensky has taken far-reaching measures to combat wartime corruption. On August 11, he fired all regional heads of military recruiting centers after an audit uncovered alleged abuses by officials, including illegal enrichment and helping conscripts escape. Earlier this month, police arrested one of Ukraine’s richest men, Ihor Kolomoisky, on suspicion of fraud and money laundering. Kolomoisky has previously denied wrongdoing.

After a public outcry, Zelensky vetoed a bill on September 12 that would have allowed officials to keep their mandatory asset disclosures secret from the public for a year.

Ukraine’s anti-corruption authorities have doubled their work and say they have made greater progress than ever before since they were founded in 2015. In the first half of this year, they initiated almost 300 cases and sent 58 indictments to the NABU court. Current NABU director Semen Kryvonos told Portal that his agency is prioritizing war crimes in key sectors such as defense and reconstruction and involving senior officials.


The view that corruption persists even in wartime is widespread among several dozen residents Portal interviewed during a visit to several towns and villages north of Kiev that were hit by fighting last year. There is also hope that the country has reached a turning point after the war’s casualties.

Halyna, a 44-year-old local woman, pointed to an alley in Irpin where volunteers bringing food to residents were shot by Russian soldiers, and said that these days when she negotiates with local officials, There is “no longer any evidence of bribery”.

Kaleniuk, the anti-corruption activist, believes the war has created irreversible pressure for reform. “Everything has changed” since the Russian invasion, she said. “The need for social change is huge. The demands for reform are just as great in order to achieve what the people want: integration into NATO and the European Union.”

((Reporting by Stephen Gray and Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Janet McBride))

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