KYIV - Ukrainian lawmaker and presidential hopeful Vitaliy Kupriy survived two violent attacks in the past — and he is taking no chances now. One attack involved an assailant coming at him with a hammer.
As campaigning heats up in the country’s presidential race, he is shadowed by two mountainous bodyguards.
It is hardly surprising that he is alert to danger — he has been a thorn in the side of the rich and powerful for years. He has used an NGO he founded to try to kick-start a string of high-profile corruption cases, including one against businesses owned by incumbent President Petro Poroshenko for profiting from currency speculation using, Kupriy alleges, insider information.
The rights lawyer and deputy chairman of a parliamentary panel overseeing Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies does not have any illusions about his chances of emerging as a frontrunner from the pack of also-rans in an election featuring an unwieldy field of 44 candidates. That is not the point of his candidacy, he tells VOA.
His objective is to highlight how broken the judicial and law enforcement system is in Ukraine and how political corruption is as bad now, he says, as it was when pro-Moscow authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych was ruling the country and plundering Ukraine. Yanukovych was driven from office in 2014 by the Euro-Maidan uprising.
“Our agencies have collapsed. We don’t have the rule of law,” he says. “I go to different cities and hold town-hall meetings and last year I traveled to 130 cities. Aside from poverty, the major complaints are about the courts and law enforcement and how when people complain to the police about crimes against them nothing happens and the criminals just pay off the police.”
From petty bribery to high-level graft, corruption is one of the key issues in a presidential race that many say is one of the dirtiest they can recall. The current surprise front-runner popular TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy has built his political outsider campaign around the issue. With a month to go before the first round of polling, Zelenskiy’s nearest rivals Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko have been slinging mud at each other, trading corruption accusations.
Tymoshenko made a fortune in the natural-gas business, earning her the nickname “the gas princess” for her role in shadowy dealings back in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, an investigation by an independent news outlet, BIHUS.info, rocked the election with allegations linking the son of one of Poroshenko’s closest associates and former business partner, Oleg Gladkovsky, the first deputy secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, to a money-laundering and smuggling scandal.
The scheme, the outlet alleged, led to the embezzling of millions of dollars from state defense enterprises and involved the smuggling of used parts from Russia and selling them to Ukrainian defense companies at inflated prices. According to the National Security and Defense Council, Gladkovsky was suspended from his post after the allegations were aired pending an investigation into the claims. Later it was reported he had resigned, but both he and his son deny the allegations.
'Ugly and dirty campaign'
Poroshenko has not been directly implicated in the accusations of wrong-doing. Even so, Tymoshenko has demanded Poroshenko’s impeachment, and some analysts suggested the expose could upend the incumbent president’s bid for re-election.
“Just wonder if this will be a terminal blow for Poroshenko’s campaign,” Tim Ash, senior sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, a major European investment house, said in a note to clients. “All sides have a lot to lose in this campaign, I guess it is going to be an ugly and dirty campaign. The gloves just came off,” he added.
Corruption involving the armed forces is a highly emotive issue in Ukraine. The conflict in the east with Russia has cost an estimated 13,000 lives since 2014.
The embezzlement allegations come as no surprise to Kupriy, a native of the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), where he headed a department combating racketeering.
He was briefly a member of Poroshenko’s parliamentary bloc but broke with the president in March 2015 after clashing with him over stalled reforms. Last year, he was involved in an ugly verbal spat with Poroshenko in the parliament over the war in the east, which he believes the president has not pursued with enough vigor.
Breaking with Poroshenko has had consequences, he says. Friends and allies of his have been targeted for prosecution and he is under investigation himself by the country’s chief military prosecutor, Anatoliy Matios.
“His wife is a multi-millionaire,” he says of the prosecutor’s spouse. “How is this possible? He has spent his whole career in government agencies. He says it is his wife’s business, but we know what’s going on,” he adds. A request for comment by VOA from the military prosecutor’s office went unanswered.
Kupriy’s tactic has been to follow high-profile graft cases and when there’s no action by prosecutors and the anti-corruption agencies to go to the courts to get them to order probes are advanced. “I have 60 current cases. My style is to be like a bulldozer and push hard,” he says. But once he has secured a court order there is little he can do to get the investigations to be handled seriously.
His biggest focus has been on corruption involving former Yanukovych aides and friends. Most of the cases have just stalled but meanwhile the assets are stripped off the accused and transferred into offshore companies, whose ownership is unclear.
“The property should be seized for the people, and not just confiscated and transferred into the hands of others. This is a question of due process. We lose the opportunity of the property being sold and the proceeds put into the national treasury,” says Kupriy, a father of three who spent four years studying and working in Australia.
The West is frustrated
His outrage has been echoed by Western governments and independent observers, who have urged Ukrainian authorities to enact root-and-branch reform.
Since Yanukovych’s ouster of 2014, several anti-corruption agencies have been set up in close cooperation with the assistance of Ukraine’s Western allies, including the U.S.. Among them the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, the State Bureau of Investigation, and an anti-corruption court.
But there has been open warfare between the agencies. Forty-eight out of 180 major investigations into top officials and oligarchs have been completed, but no one has been sentenced to jail terms and hearing dates keep being postponed. Analysts say there’s been progress in reducing corruption in the gas and banking sectors, but otherwise graft has returned to pre-Maidan levels.
“What went wrong? The short answer is that the new institutions don’t work, or in the case of NABU, they’re being blocked from doing their job,” wrote Mykola Vorobiov, a Ukrainian journalist, in a study for the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank.
To the frustration of Western allies, Ukraine’s highest court struck down Wednesday a provision forcing officials suspected of corruption to prove that their assets are legitimate. The court ruled the requirement unconstitutional on the grounds it violates the principle of the presumption of innocence. The provision was introduced in 2015, a quid pro quo demanded by the International Monetary Fund for loans need to shore up Ukraine’s economy.
NABU officials say the ruling will force them to shut down more than 60 corruption cases.