Acclaimed British Journalist Talks Russia, Corruption in Ukraine
11 June, 2018

Billions of dollars of stolen money and thriving corruption – these are results of Ukraine’s former governments’ ways of ruling the country. The situation had eventually gotten so bad, it led to hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Kyiv and across Ukraine in hopes of putting an end to decades of law negligence within the ruling circles.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, particularly infamous for his luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the entire nation, was indeed ousted in February 2014. His estate, now nationalized, has become the base for Mezhyhirya Fest, a fun but important event that brings together investigative journalists from around the world. This year, Mezhyhirya Fest took place on June 9-10.

Hromadske visited the festival and caught up with British author and journalist Oliver Bullough. Bullough, having written two books (“Let Our Fame Be Great” and “Last Man in Russia”) and numerous articles for top-level publications, is an expert on Russia and its behavior around the world. He discussed with Hromadske the situation with the frozen assets of Yanukovych’s circle, Ukraine’s progress and failures in fighting corruption, and the Russian government’s disregard for human rights.

On Corrupt Frozen Assets of Yanukovych’s Clique

Bullough says that when it comes to tracking and recovering corrupt frozen assets that used to belong to Yanukovych and his associates, many people had overly high expectations.

“An enormous amount of money was stolen from Ukraine, billions of dollars. Progress on recovering that has been very slow,” Bullough says. “Partly after 2014 and the revolution, there was an expectation or hope that this money would be seized in Latvia or the U.K. and returned to Ukraine very quickly where it could help fund the army or build roads and fund hospitals.”

A lot of those hopes were unrealistic, he says. He brings attention to the case of Pavlo Lazarenko who served as Ukrainian Prime Minister between 1996 and 1997. Lazarenko is accused of money laundering back in the 1990s. In 2009, he was convicted to nine years in prison by a court in California in the United States. He was released after just serving three.

“He was arrested what, 20 years ago? And they still haven't managed to confiscate his money and return it to Ukraine. So the process is very difficult and incredibly complicated, partly because it involves many different countries,” the journalist says.

Another reason for the slow progress, according to Bullough, is the amount of money spent by the defendants in these cases.

“These people are very rich, and rich people can hire the best lawyers who are very good at delaying things,” he says, adding that if complete asset recovery will happen at all, it will “take decades.”

On Ukraine’s Progress in Fighting Corruption

Bullough praises some of Ukraine’s efforts in fighting corruption, in particular, the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the progress in the drug procurement sector.

“NABU has been good. Ukraine has [also] brought drug procurement into international agencies, which have been run by the Health Ministry and that has reduced prices and corruption and made procurement much more transparent,” he said.

“I think all these little gains that Ukraine has been making  – outsourcing medical procurement to the United Nations, bringing in the Prozorro procurement system and opening up the company registration data all these things are good.”

Even though these improvements are still “fragile” and it’s unclear how long they’ll last, they’re “important steps,” Bullough says.

While the recent law on the anti-corruption court is “not perfect,” it’s better than not having the court at all, Bullough says.

“I think we need to wait to see what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will say… Hopefully, they'll think it's okay because Ukraine still needs that money from the IMF,” he said.

“You need to think of it as every little win is a win… You might be at 25% Sweden, but it's better than being 5% Sweden. So I think it's good.”

On UK’s Unexplained Wealth Orders

Bullough highlights how Britain is too lenient with letting foreign oligarchs store their money in the U.K.

“We're very open to any oligarchs. We like Russian oligarchs obviously, but also Nigerians, Chinese, Malaysian, and anywhere, Kazakhstan, Ukraine. We just happen to like money in general,“ he says.

But in the last five years, Bullough notes that there has been a shift in the U.K.’s rhetoric.

“We recognize more than we used to the damage that this money is doing, the theft of this money from its original countries, and its damage in our own country, making up expenses and driving up inequality.”

Bullough says that the newly-introduced Unexplained Wealth Orders will allow police to confiscate property without having a criminal conviction and “this may change things.”

But, overall, practice shows that change is difficult to bring about. “Normally, nothing ever changes. Our bankers just find a new way of doing it.”

On New Charges Against Manafort and Kilimnik

Bullough highlights how Ukraine hasn’t been very cooperative in helping the U.S. investigate the case of Paul Manafort, a former aide to American President Donald Trump, and his associate Konstantin Kilimnik.

“The help [Ukrainian prosecutors] provide can be so substandard anyway, that it's difficult to tell whether they're being obstructive or helpful,” he says, adding that he has no reason not to believe the recent claims about Poroshenko freezing the Manafort probes in exchange for receiving the U.S. Javelins.

With regards to Kilimnik, who was born in Ukraine but, according to the U.S. prosecution, now lives in Moscow, Bullough thinks it will be hard to bring him to justice.

“None of these charges will be tried in court because, obviously, Russia isn't going to surrender him. Presumably, he does have ties to Russian intelligence because [American attorney Robert] Mueller says he does, but we don't actually know that and we never will because that's the way Russia works.”

On Russia’s Abuse of Human Rights

While highlighting that Russia’s track record in human rights abuses is awful, Bullough believes that the U.S. and the West can certainly do more to put an end to it. However, with the current state of things in the world, significant changes are unlikely in the nearest future.

“It looks like Trump is uninterested, I'm not even sure he thinks of the ‘West’ as a thing. He just thinks in terms of America and everyone else. Meanwhile, Britain is distracted by Brexit and all that, and so it's difficult to imagine anyone being able to take the lead without a strong British voice and a strong American voice,” Bullough says.  

“That’s awful because the [Oleg] Sentsov (Ukrainian filmmaker imprisoned in Russia, - ed.) case is terrible, but I cannot see any response coming, no.”

/By Maria Romanenko