Another week goes by with nobody paying attention to Ihor Lutsenko, a ‘pro-European, anti-corruption’ MP from the ‘pro-European, reform-minded, democratic’ Batkivschyna (lit. ‘Fatherland’) party, and his millions of questionable nature. While this lack of attention is understandable in Ukraine, where the media only care about what’s paying their bills (and corruption allegations against a former Maidan activist do not pay them), it is less so in the West. Western media, as it is well known, are supposed to be free, fair and objective. Clearly we saw that with last Tuesday’s New York Times piece on VP John Biden’s son and Ukrainian corruption allegations, or with last Sunday’s Deutsche Welle piece about VP John Biden about to criticize Ukraine (read: Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk). Western journalists are wonderfully objective when it comes to Ukraine: that is, you can hardly find anything remotely positive about Ukraine in most Western articles. Indeed, their content is so similar to Ukraine’s own internal ZRADA discourse that I’m getting downright suspicious. But I digress.
Ihor Lutsenko is a former journalist, having worked for Ukraine’s Korrespondent magazine in 2013, a former Maidan activist, a former Kyiv city councilor from May 2014 till December 2014, and a member of the Rada since December 2014. To put things in perspective, Lutsenko also sits on Rada’s Anti-Corruption Committee. Any bill aimed at fighting corruption in Ukraine has to go through him and his fellow committee members.
I already wrote how Western media adores the Rada, especially its newcomer members such as Lutsenko. Flowery epithets such as ‘pro-European, reform-minded, anti-corruption’ tend to get thrown around a lot. While I’m not going to doubt Mr. Lutsenko’s allegiance to European ideals, his party repeatedly refused to vote for crucial reform legislation in the past (despite being part of the ruling coalition), and Mr. Lutsenko’s own anti-corruption record is looking pretty shabby by the day.
Facebook blogger Bogdan Karpenko took the liberty of examining Mr. Lutsenko’s official income records, freely available on the Rada’s website, and took notice of the sums mentioned therein. In 2013, Mr. Lutsenko’s accounts held 100 000 USD, despite his official income records stating he only received 18 000 USD in dividends that year. In 2014, when Mr. Lutsenko was a Kyiv city councilor and, allegedly, served with the Azov Battalion, somehow had a total of 205 000 USD, half of which (115 000 USD) he spent on a summer house, and the remainder (90 000 USD) he put on his bank account. However, his official income in 2014 amounted to, judging by this same records, a mere 15 000 USD, or 187 000 UAH. While the dollar was worth 8 UAH in 2013 and about 12.20 UAH in 2014, as of now Mr. Lutsenko’s bank account is worth much more in hryvnia. In fact, it is worth several millions of hryvnia: at the rate of 25 UAH per USD, this entire sum is worth about seven million hryvnia.
Ukraine’s rampant shadow economy, along with Ukraine’s overcomplicated tax system, means that it isn’t uncommon for Mr. Lutsenko to have received his salary unofficially in 2013, when he was a simple journalist. I doubt that, at the time, a journalist could receive 100 000 USD per annum, but let’s suppose that Mr. Lutsenko did. However, he somehow received twice that amount in 2014, when he was either a city councilor, or out at the front fighting separatists. I do not know how much Azov fighters received in mid-2014, when the battalion wasn’t yet part of the National Guard, but city councilors in Ukraine do not even receive an official salary: they are expected to work at their previous place of employment, provided it doesn’t conflict with the law.
After being presented with this information, however, Mr. Lutsenko embarked on a strange course of action, proceeding to ban anyone who mentioned these (obviously uncomfortable) findings on his Facebook page. Mr. Karpenko, not in the least baffled by this attitude, decided to bring the matter to Lutsenko’s fellow anti-corruption activists and whistleblowers – people like Vitaly Shabunin, Dmytro Gnap, Denys Bigus and Oleksa Shalayskiy. For those lacking context, Mr. Bigus and Mr. Shalayskiy are affiliated with Nashi Groshi, a citizen journalist resource dealing with government corruption; Mr. Gnap is a member of Hromadske TV and author of several documentaries on illicit incomes and corruption; and Mr. Shabunin was very vocal about the recent appointment of an anti-corruption prosecutor by the Prosecutor General and a panel of civil and parliamentary advisors. Altogether they are part of the Anticorruption Action Centre, a civic initiative aimed at fighting governmental corruption. While no one is denying that corruption is omnipresent in Ukraine’s government, people tend to forget that the Rada is also a branch of the government, and one of the most important. By that logic, Mr. Lutsenko’s financial records deserve a closer look, do they not?
Apparently not, as Mr. Shabunin recently wrote on his Facebook page. He wrote that, since all of Mr. Lutsenko’s strange incomes were dated to before his tenure as MP, the Anticorruption Action Centre has no business investigating them. Technically, they are correct: before the advent of the recent anti-corruption laws, the mere presence of assets, money or property from before a person became an MP or a government employee is not grounds for an investigation – criminal or otherwise. Yet this technicality somehow did not stop Mr. Shabunin and his associates from investigating Roman Nasirov, head of Ukraine’s State Fiscal Service, and his undeclared London apartments. Mr. Nasirov bought those before he came to head the SFS and conveniently forgot to declare them – standard practice for corrupt Ukrainian bureaucrats. Yet somehow, Mr. Nasirov and his London properties are fair game – but Mr. Lutsenko and his millions are not.
Mr. Lutsenko is, of course, to be commended for his honesty: nobody forced him to include those sums on his income record, and certainly most Ukrainian crooks in high places hardly do even that. But Mr. Lutsenko, so far, has done his utmost to avoid explaining how he, a lowly journalist, a Maidan activist, a city councilor turned soldier turned member of the parliament, got hold of these sums in the first place. Ukrainian crooks in high places hiding their incomes, assets and properties is understandable – most of them are illicit to some degree, they’ve got something to hide. Mr. Lutsenko, on the other hand, is an honest man. Surely he’s got nothing to hide – or does he?
This begets the question, though, why an MP on the Rada’s Anti-Corruption Committee cannot explain where he’s got 300 000 USD from, yet aims to fight corruption himself. I suspect that were a similar question raised in the US or in Europe, the MP in question would have found himself under considerable pressure, media and otherwise. Yet in Ukraine, nobody cares about Mr. Lutsenko. He cheerfully waves at journalists in the Rada as if nothing happened. No unexplained millions of hryvnias, nothing. This cavalier attitude is something one would expect from a grizzled Party of Regions politico, with a closet full of skeletons and a mind full of kickbacks and embezzlements – but not from a new-blooded former Maidan activist and economic journalist.
This begets even more question about Mr. Lutsenko’s anti-corruption associates, who are all too happy to pounce on Mr. Nasirov (who, despite his failure to declare, was an investment banker before his government service tenure), or on Mr. Nasirov’s subordinate Andriy Zvonkov (also with illicit funds), or on, as Mr. Gnap put it, ‘certain people from President Poroshenko’s office’, but balk at investigating one of their own. For any corruption fighter worth their salt, finding that some associate of theirs is suspected of having unexplained money floating around should be a top priority. How, after all, are you supposed to fight corruption if you’re as corrupt as the other guy? How are you supposed to uncover undeclared London apartments if one of your own has things to hide – things he’d rather avoid explaining?
And, of course, you wouldn’t hear a word of it from the Western media. While they’re always happy to implicate Yatsenyuk in corruption (of course, pretty much anyone is happy to implicate Yatsenyuk in corruption these days), or remind you that President Poroshenko is ‘an oligarch’ and didn’t sell Roshen yet, nobody is going to mention a word about Ihor Lutsenko, pro-European, reform-minded, Maidan activist, Rada MP, corruption fighter, and his stubborn refusal to explain where his seven million hryvnias came from. Nobody is going to say a word about Mr. Lutsenko’s colleagues, the oft-praised Ukrainian anti-corruption NGOs, and their stubborn refusal to investigate Mr. Lutsenko the way they do Mr. Nasirov. They are just going to keep mum about the matter as if they never heard of it in the first place – and chances are that they did not. Their Ukrainian sources would have neglected to mention that particular bit.
Well, not anymore. Because accountability is not something that should start up top. One man cannot be held to account while the other gets away with a slap on the wrist.
You cannot fight corruption with double standards. Because selective justice, in case you forgot, is what results in corruption in the first place.
Ukraine has to fight corruption. If anything, Ukraine should redouble its efforts at fighting corruption. We’ve already teetered on the brink for too long. But Ukraine can’t fight corruption with questionable people, and this goes for everyone. Even for civic activists and MPs.
Accountability begins with you. Account for yourself.
Because if you don’t, you’re no better than what you fight.
P.S. Apparently Nashi Groshi, as they proudly say on their site, got their start thanks to George Soros’ Renaissance Foundation. I cannot provide conclusive evidence, but it is probable that Mr. Shabunin’s Anticorruption Action Centre was also financed with grant money.
I am not against foreign grants as a whole. Indeed, they are often necessary so that important NGOs get off the ground and do their thing.
But this makes me wonder where the money given to Nashi Groshi or the Anticorruption Action Centre went.