NABU's new director faces questions of independence amid ties to government
On March 6, the government appointed Semen Kryvonos as the director of NABU (Photo:Collage by NV)
How the newly selected head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), Semen Kryvonos, is connected with the Office of the President, and what his predecessor, Artem Sytnyk, thinks about him – in this analysis.
On March 6, the Cabinet of Ministers appointed lawyer Semen Kryvonos to the position of director of NABU, a key institution that is supposed to investigate corruption at the highest level. The position has been vacant for almost a year. And although the new head was appointed from among three finalists selected by the competition commission in the course of a multi-stage selection, public activists and specialized experts doubt his independence from the government.
In general, there are two main claims against Kryvonos today. The first is closeness to Oleksiy Kuleba, Andriy Yermak's deputy, the chief-of-staff for President Voldoymyr Zelenskyy (OP). Specifically, Kryvonos’ wife, Halyna Polsynska, worked together with Kuleba when he held a position in the Kyiv Municipal State Administration (KMDA). The second claim is a lack of experience in investigating corruption cases.
Olena Shcherban, an expert at the Anti-Corruption Center (ANTAC), explained to NV: the lack of this experience did not become a problem during the competitive selection of the director, because the law does not require it. It defines a broader framework: management experience and work in the field of law.
That is why political connections are Kryvonos’ main problem, Shcherban believes.
"At the interview, he confirmed that he knew Kuleba," she said.
“Does it directly mean that he is an OP person and will be completely loyal? It's still too early to say 100%. But exactly such a narrative creates risks for NABU's activities."
In addition, Kryvonos headed the State Inspection of Architecture and Urban Planning of Ukraine (DIAM) before being elected as the director of the Bureau. According to Shcherban, this position is chosen by the Competition Commission of the Higher Corps of the Civil Service, which in many cases carried out manual selection.
After all, in 2021, former Georgian president and ex-governor of Ukraine’s Odesa Oblast, Mikheil Saakashvili, wrote that Yermak fully supported Kryvonos for the position of head of DIAM.
"That's why he can use these political connections in the future in the position of director of the Bureau," says the ANTAC expert.
"Of all the candidates [for the post of NABU director], he is the most public and well-known, who is no stranger to political circles and among the political elites of our country."
On the other hand, Artem Sytnyk, NABU’s former director, and today the deputy head of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NAZK), believes that it is still too early to draw conclusions about Kryvonos. In a comment to NV, he noted that there are two major issues that are completely unrelated: the first is the competition itself, and the second, the most important, is being in office.
"Therefore, it is important not to give preliminary assessments, but to assess by what happens after the appointment," said Sytnyk.
He also drew attention to the fact that the competition commission included international experts who had the right to a decisive vote. And the competition itself was built on a multi-stage basis and candidates were evaluated from very different angles: knowledge of the law, tests of intellectual abilities, passing a test on integrity, practical tasks, and leadership tasks. Therefore, a random person who does not have enough business skills here would have a hard time getting to the final stage of interviews.
"We should proceed from the fact that the main task of the NABU director is to ensure the independence of the anti-corruption bureau," Sytnyk added.
“And therefore, if this independence, which has been built for 7 years, will lost, or there will be attempts to somehow destroy or reduce it, then this will be immediately visible. I think that we will read a lot of material in the media then. The new director has an interesting and difficult path ahead. And whether [NABU] will be independent or dependent – we will find out soon."
Sytnyk’s mandate ended April 16, 2022. The competition for the newly opened position started just a few months later, at the end of 2022.
In total, 74 applicants were registered for the post. Firstly, there was an anonymous test on legal knowledge, and then the competitive commission screened out 28 candidates based on the results of the general ability test. 22 applicants made it to the next round, with only 11 making it to the penultimate selection stage. The selection commission then conducted integrity interviews with the remainder, after which it selected three finalists for the job.
These were Serhii Hupyak, the head of the investigative department of the territorial management of the State Bureau of Investigations in Khmelnytskyi Oblast, Roman Osypchuk, the head of the Internal Control Department of NABU itself, and finally Kryvonos. Among them, the Cabinet of Ministers chose the latter.
Shcherban explains that the government’s final word on the choice of NABU director is a condition it insisted on during changes to the rules of the competition.
"It was the government's demand to give it a choice at least among several candidates after the commission's decision is made," says Shcherban.
“Well, the compromise was exactly 3 candidates. And it was a weak point, because it was clear that from the moment that the commission identifies three people, there is room for the government to negotiate with these people: who among them can promise some kind of loyalty to the government."
Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, deputy head of Ukraine’s parliamentary anti-corruption committee and an MP from the liberal opposition Holos party, believes that there were no valid reasons for the commission to reject Kryvonos during the competition. He told NV that international experts do not use guesses, but proven facts, when making decisions.
"There are remarks and warnings about Mr. Kryvonos, but there are no facts that would indicate his corruption or dishonesty," says Yurchyshyn.
"The cooperation of the wife with the deputy chief-of-staff of the OP, Mr. Kuleba, can be assessed as an element of risk, but not as an element that should stop participation in the competition."
Yurchyshyn recalls that there were also remarks about Kryvonos' predecessor: "But Sytnyk showed himself to be completely independent in his work and laid the foundations of NABU's operations that we now appreciate and are proud of."
Therefore, in his opinion, there is a possibility that Kryvonos will behave independently. However, there is little hope for this, given the connection with the current government.
"In particular, an indicator of this is the fact that [Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr] Kubrakov abstained from voting for him at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, arguing that he had business relations with him, says Yurchyshyn.
“That is, a person was a priori included in the decision-making system. You can hardly count on his complete independence."
A threat to NABU's independence?
Shcherban believes that the head of NABU has many ways to influence the department's activities, despite the fact that he does not have procedural powers. However, administrative powers can allow him to influence detectives and, by extension, cases.
"It is possible to introduce procedures for the certification of detectives and in this way somehow filter loyal and disloyal employees," says Shcherban.
“The director is a person who makes decisions based on the results of disciplinary investigations. That is, you can punish someone or not punish someone, even despite the decision of the disciplinary commission."
Yurchyshyn believes that the maximum that the NABU director can do, if he turns out to be a plant, is to slow down some cases by transferring them from one detective to another.
"He will not be able to block their work for one banal reason - the procedural head of NABU is SAPO (the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office - ed.). That is why [SAPO head] Mr. Klymenko will not allow essential cases to be blocked,” Yurchyshyn insists.
“And detectives have a sufficiently large level of administrative independence to also be able to conduct investigations without coordinating every step with the head of NABU."
Sytnyk believes that there are very serious challenges facing the NABU director now. If he himself had to create the Bureau in 2015, then the newly elected director must preserve the independence of the Bureau and somehow improve on Sytnyk’s work.
"These are perhaps even bigger challenges than those that faced the first director of NABU," the former NABU director adds.
“And therefore, independence will be the basis for overcoming these challenges."
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