In the four years since the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych various attempts have been made to recover the assets he and his government stole. But according to Anna Babinets, investigative journalist and regional editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), this process is far from over.
“We know a lot about his assets, but we don’t know anything about arrested assets,” Babinets tells Hromadske at the investigative journalism conference Mezhyhirya Fest. Cases against officials and ministers from Yanukovych’s team are ongoing, but there are no convictions as of yet.
A number of official bodies are working on investigations and asset recovery, including ARMA – Ukraine’s national agency for finding, tracing and management of assets derived from corruption and other crimes – and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). That being said, most cases hinge on the decisions of general prosecutors.
And despite the current government allegedly working to recover these assets, Babinets claims there is evidence of attempted cooperation between current and former officials.
Hromadske talks to Anna Babinets, investigative journalist and OCCRP regional editor, to find out more about the state of Ukraine’s asset recovery process.
Anna Babinets is a famous Ukrainian journalist, a regional editor of OCCRP project and she was here the very next day after Yanukovych had escaped Ukraine and the place had become open to the public. Later Anna was, and is following what's going on with his money. She is one of the organizers of the festival and the author of the idea to talk about assets recovery, and that's what we'll talk about now. Anna, the public in general, especially international public, would like to know in very general terms. What happened with Yanukovych, his assets, and with the assets of his team. Has Ukraine managed to get some of them back, so what's going on?
In general, almost anything happened to that, unfortunately. Now we're in Mezhyhirya, it was a very big asset of Yanukovych, it was his residence, as we know. It's under arrest now, but people from NGO are managing it. The state still doesn't have anything here, so it's very big and the state can do something, Ukraine can do something with this, but now it's the same as it was four years ago when Yanukovych escaped. It was nobody's land, and know it's the same. We know a case about our general prosecutors, they like to talk about one and half billion confiscated money, which according to our general prosecutor Lutsenko, this money belonged to Yanukovych, but it's actually not true. This money connects to Kurchenko, a young oligarch who lives in Moscow now but he's never been official. I don't know how general prosecutors can link this 1.5 billion to Yanukovych, I can't see any connection. Maybe some small things which were arrested by general prosecutors and police, but actually we don't know about that. We know a lot about his assets but we don't know anything about arrested assets.
Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE
Have any other people from Yanukovych's team formal and informal had been arrested, and brought back to the public?
This is a question, too. We were trying to figure that out before this fest, and we were creating a documentary about that, how it's going after four years, and we have several stories about ministers and former ministers who were ministers when Yanukovych was president. We have some cases that are still going, and we know that in any criminal cases, former ministers, officials, we don't have anyone convicted for something. There are some assets which were arrested, some apartments, some cars. We know about the case of Klymenko, he's a former minister of duties, and there are some cars which were ARMA, and ARMA sold them.
ARMA is a new agency which started to work only last autumn. It's a special agency which should manage assets which have some corruption roots. For us, as for journalists, it's important to understand what it is, how it works, and now we see that they manage some assets which connected to Klymenko. This is that Gulliver, the business centre, and several floors there were arrested, and now ARMA is this agency that tries to manage it. I don't know how much money they can get from it. At least this process is started, the process when these assets are just staying and nothing is happening with them, and now this service, this agency is trying at least to get some money from these assets. But it's not a lot actually. I don't know any big successful story about that.
Investigative journalists today are often in the public discourse, which here in Ukraine is accused of speaking too negatively on everything happening, being too critical. That's the discourse even by some Western partners. But indeed, how do you see the new agencies which are created? Are they not corrupt, do you trust them, and not to build this relation on trust or non-trust, what are the facts and figures to know should we be optimistic, should we be pessimistic?
I'm pretty optimistic about working off NABU. But I don't know how it happened, but all cases about former officials are investigated by people from general prosecutors. NABU doesn't have these cases. I don't know why, who decided this. But it's actually corrupted assets too, and NABU should work on it too, as I understand. But actually NABU doesn't work with assets. If we're talking about assets of former officials who escaped and left some houses and cars, it's only the general prosecution that care about it. Only they investigate it. If you are talking about this subject, we can only talk about general prosecutors, not NABU, ARMA.
Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE
ARMA sometimes managed assets but important things that ARMA can't decide is what they can manage and not. They can do this only after court decision, or after some decision of the prosecutors. They can for example decide that this Mezhiriya should be managed by ARMA, so ARMA can't make any decision without the court and without investigators from general prosecutors. So it's new, I think and hope it will work, I believe in ARMA, but we'll see how it will work, and it absolutely depends on the decisions of general prosecutors.
In any country after the revolution, there are talks, and numbers of conspiracy theories that the current government cooperated with the previous government, and the same people are everywhere. So really, do you have some evidence that indeed the cases are not investigated because of some hidden deals, or at least where we have the real reason to suspect that there isn't anything?
Actually we as journalists have it, and we have found some evidence of some agreements, some negotiations between former officials and current officials, for example, the case we presented recently, about Stavitsky, who was the minister of energy when Yanukovych was president, and here on the way from Ukraine after Yanukovych and he now lives in Israel, he has an Israeli passport. We got some evidence, from audio and video records about a meeting in Israel between Stavitsky and two deputies of the general prosecutor, Angela Strzhevskaya and Andriy Yevgenin, that they met in a hotel room which doesn't look like some official place for negotiation, and we have these audio records about talks where the representatives of the general prosecution proposed talking about his criminal case and what they can do in this case, and if they can make any agreement in it. At least we have a fact of meeting outside of Ukraine.
Photo credit: Dmytro Rusanov/HROMADSKE
We don't know if they made any agreement in the end. We know about the fact of the meeting, we know about some negotiation, and it looks like for us, some cooperation. Because in general, representatives of prosecutors, in all the talks they had one-hour discussion between the people, it looked like they wanted to help him solve his criminal case, to make it seem like it's not so strong, or to make him seem not too bad. For sure we don't have something like, we know about money.
We suspect that general prosecutors could ask for something in return for trying to make good relationships with a former minister, and we are awaiting comments, some explanations from officials, if it was an official meeting, it didn't look like that, and of course we asked the general prosecutor about this visit, about everything, so we are waiting. But about your question, I think now we have some evidence that this meeting was an attempt of connecting between current officials and former officials, we can see that it happened.
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Eilish Hart