An advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the government has suffered “reputational damage” on the world stage for its sluggish efforts to battle corruption.
TIME senior correspondent Simon Shuster wrote about his experience following Zelenskyy and his team back to Ukraine after they visited the U.S. in September to appeal for aid, noting in Washington they had faced “insistent calls for Zelensky to fight corruption inside his own government, and the fading enthusiasm for a war with no end in sight.”
Shuster reported that similarly grim sentiment appears among the public as well, as those with the money available “sometimes bribe their way out of service” and that such cases “became so widespread by the end of the summer that on Aug. 11 Zelensky fired the heads of the draft offices in every region of the country.”
“The decision was intended to signal his commitment to fighting graft. But the move backfired, according to the senior military officer, as recruitment nearly ground to a halt without leadership,” Shuster wrote. “The fired officials also proved difficult to replace, in part because the reputation of the draft offices had been tainted.”
“Who wants that job?” an officer asked the reporter rhetorically. “It’s like putting a sign on your back that says: corrupt.”
As a key source of aid for Ukraine’s war effort, Shuster noted that the White House “prepared a list of anti-corruption reforms for the Ukrainians to undertake.”
“These were not suggestions,” one of Zelenskyy’s close aides said, but, rather, “conditions.’”
Shuster wrote that Zelenskyy fired his Minister of Defense, Oleksiy Reznikov, a member of his inner circle, as a means to address American corruption concerns, after Reznikov was suspected of corrupt behavior in his ministry.
Two presidential advisers claimed Reznikov had not been personally involved, “But he failed to keep order within his ministry,” one said, noting the ministry had been over-paying for critical supplies, including eggs
“Don’t buy anything. Don’t take any vacations. Just sit at your desk, be quiet, and work,” one staffer said, summarizing how officials had been warned to not only avoid corruption, but even the appearance of personal enrichment.
“Amid all the pressure to root out corruption, I assumed, perhaps naively, that officials in Ukraine would think twice before taking a bribe or pocketing state funds. But when I made this point to a top presidential adviser in early October, he asked me to turn off my audio recorder, so he could speak more freely,” Shuster wrote.
“Simon, you’re mistaken,” an aide said. “People are stealing like there’s no tomorrow.””
The same official claimed that the Defense Minister’s firing did not have the desires effect because it took so long to occur.
Another advisor similarly noted that by the time of Zelenskyy’s crackdown, “it was too late,” as the “reputational damage was done.”
The TIME correspondent observed that even Ukrainian soldiers at the front have begun “making off-color jokes about ‘Reznikov’s eggs,’ a new metaphor for corruption.”
“When I asked Zelenskyy about the problem, he acknowledged its gravity and the threat it poses to Ukraine’s morale and its relationships with foreign partners. Fighting corruption, he assured me, is among his top priorities,” Shuster wrote. “He also suggested that some foreign allies have an incentive to exaggerate the problem, because it gives them an excuse to cut off financial support.”
“It’s not right,” Zelenskyy told him, “for them to cover up their failure to help Ukraine by tossing out these accusations.”
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