Who is Olena Duma, head of Ukraine’s odious Asset Recovery Agency

28 July, 11:32 PM
Olena Duma, head of the ARMA since June 30 (Photo:Collage NV)

Olena Duma, head of the ARMA since June 30 (Photo:Collage NV)

A dozen of jobs, lack of systemic results, conflicts, and murky connections. The career of the new leader of Ukraine’s Asset Recovery and Management Agency (ARMA), Olena Duma, resembles that of a shrewd official who, over the years, has turned into a technocratic figure close to post-Soviet security services.

On June 30, the Cabinet of Ministers appointed 43-year-old Olena Duma as head of ARMA. It is now one of the most scandal-ridden state bodies, which is criticized by everyone for inaction and lack of transparency, from MPs, to businesses, and the public sector.

But it is also very valuable, in a literal sense. It is ARMA that is seeking out and accumulating billions in assets of sanctioned Russian and Belarusian businessmen, as well as individual Ukrainian oligarchs like Mikhail Fridman, Ihor Kolomoisky, and Dmytro Firtash.

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The appearance of this new leader for the agency immediately caused a stir among Ukraine’s anti-corruption organizations and raised concerns among allies. Duma’s appointment broke the patience of even the politically correct representatives of Transparency International Ukraine (TI), who for many years have chosen their public comments very carefully. They called Duma's appointment "erroneous," emphasizing that it "could put an end to ARMA."

Their main argument was that Duma worked in the social and environmental spheres and does not have managerial experience in criminal justice bodies, and is also politically biased, as she organized a rally in support of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s candidacy during the 2019 elections.

Critics of the appointment also mention her possible contacts with Oleh Kulinich, the former head of the Crimean department of the SBU, who was detained on suspicion of high treason.

Vitaly Shabunin, Chairman of the Board of the Anti-Corruption Action Center noted that in 2020, Duma participated in a smear against Joe Biden, when she appeared at a joint press conference with Sam Kislin, a financial donor of Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump's lawyer.

Subsequently, Olexander Lemenov, chairman of the board of StateWatch, undiplomatically called Duma an "agent of pro-Russian influences." Ukraine’s G7 partners published a short tweet with comments on the procedure of selecting ARMA’s new head.

But the decision had already been made.

How has Duma reacted to this? The new ARMA head recorded a brief video in which she accused Shabunin and Lemenov of crafting a campaign against her.

NV spoke to more than a dozen politicians, former officials, law enforcement officers and asked the official herself in order to find out whether the accusations against Duma are fair, whether her work as the head of the agency is subject to the outside influence, and to create a political portrait of the new leader of ARMA.

Spoiler alert: there were some surprises.

Ties with intelligence agencies

In April 2019, Zelenskyy campaign headquarters held an unusual event.

Several hundred pensioners and students, who were gathered by little-known trade unions and public organizations, assembled holding patriotic slogans. The organizers of the rally alternately took the floor, speaking for everything good and against everything bad. The bad: from the loss of Crimea in 2014 to corruption schemes in the energy sector, the defense industry and the agro-industrial complex, all resembling the arguments of the opponents of the then-President Petro Poroshenko, which were tanking his approval ratings.

“We have resonant high-profile cases like Rotterdam plus, Svinarchuk-Gladkovsky, cases related to the theft of the budget in the agrarian sector and the distribution of agricultural subsidies to the persons close to the current president of Ukraine,” Olena Duma, the organizer of the event, who represented trade union Ridna Zemlya (Native Earth), declaimed into a megaphone. She did not specify what connection trade unions had to these criminal cases.

A certain surrealism was added by the fact that Duma herself at that time was the director of a department in the Ecology Ministry and, obviously, may have been violating the law prohibiting civil servants from engaging in political agitation.

In the end, the head of Zelenskyy's HQ, Ivan Bakanov, came outside and led Duma and her entourage into the building.

Subsequently, Duma published a video on YouTube: “Zelenskyy is the hope of the nation and the protector of our national security! Poro (president Poroshenko) out! Separatists behind bars!”

Dmytro Razumkov, the former speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, who was present at that meeting, recalled in a conversation with NV that he had seen Duma at Zelenskyy campaign headquarters at least twice.

“I don’t remember the role [Duma held in the Zelenskyy campaign headquarters], but Bakanov brought her,” he told NV.

Two months later, Bakanov was heading Ukraine’s SBU security service. In a comment to NV, Duma did not specify whether she had maintained contacts with Bakanov when he headed the service. But several NV sources mentioned her possible connections with the SBU at one point.

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Two years before the elections, in 2017, Duma was also close to the security service officers, although they were former officers working with the Justice party of another former SBU headm Valentyn Nalyvaichenko. Together with him, in 2017, Duma’s trade union protested against the opening of the land market, according to a publication on the party website. Nalyvaichenko refused to speak to NV about his cooperation with Duma.

Duma told NV that she had signed a framework memorandum with the political party, which symbolized Nalyvaichenko's support for the ideas of Ridna Zemlya.

An ex-official at one of the state agencies where Olena Duma worked throughout her career told NV on the condition of anonymity that Duma came to the agency under the patronage of the SBU.

According to NV's interlocutor in the SBU, now the Duma may be connected with the information security department of the security service, which is headed by influential official Artem Shilo.

Since leaving service in 2021, Shilo has been an adviser to the Office of the President. He was a guest at the birthday party of Oleh Tatarov, deputy head of the President's Office, among a number of other law enforcement officers.

In an interview with Bihus.info, Shilo admitted that he successfully advised Tatarov, and returned to the service in 2022 at the personal invitation of  current SBU head Vasily Malyuk – without Tatarov’s involvement. Now Shilo and his department work on counterintelligence at critical infrastructure facilities and the "de-Russification of certain sectors of the economy." Notably, this is one of ARMA’s most prominent functions during the war.

Other law enforcement sources have told NV that earlier Duma may have maintained a romantic relationship with Oleh Kulinich, who is now suspected of treason. He served as an adviser to Bakanov on special issues and was the head of SBU’s Crimean Central Committee. Kulinich was detained by the State Bureau of Investigations in July 2022.

The SBU told NV that Duma never worked for them. At the same time, it was not made clear whether Duma received access to restricted information as the head of a state body or whether she underwent a backgound check before being appointed.

Changing names, Kislin, and property

Olena Duma has changed her surname three times. She changed her maiden name, Litvinyuk, when she married Andriy Faydevych, an official at the prosecutor's office. The second time, in 2012, she changed it after marrying Mykola Kholevitsky, the first deputy head of the State Ecological Inspectorate in Kyiv. The last time was in 2017, when she married for the third time and received her current surname.

Duma's personal Facebook page appeared only in October 2017, a few months after she last changed her surname, and was immediately filled with events she participated in. However, for two years, Duma herself did not make a single post. The page was filled passively by being tagged in the photos of other users. The first post that Duma made on her own Facebook page was the infamous press conference with Sam Kislin – actually dedicated to discrediting Joe Biden, the then-U.S. presidential candidate.

Duma explained to NV that she had met Kislin during the press conference. Additionally, according to her autobiographies, she changed her place of work within state agencies more than 12 times.

During this time, according to NV’s sources, Duma managed to resolve her housing issues and become the owner of two cars. Together with her mother, she owns two adjacent apartments in a residential complex in Kyiv (110 and 85 sq meters, respectively) and another one in the same area of ​​the city – on the left bank of Dnipro River. Her cars are a Toyota Avalon (2008) and MAZDA MX-30 (2021).

Curator of pro-government trade unions

Duma’s career as an official is firmly intertwined with her activities in the public sector.

In 2011, she worked in the registration service of the Justice Ministry. The same year, she joined the public council of the State Land Agency as a representative of a little-known organization called Diya. In 2017, she headed a department in the Ecology Ministry and founded the Ridna Zemlya trade union organization from the employees of the same ministry. Subsequently, she became the leader of another organization called the Nastup (Advance[1] ) trade union. Both organizations are registered with the Justice Ministry, neither has a website.

Duma stated that the composition of Nastup includes organizations of various sectors and ideologies. However, the association does not have information about the number of members in each, or about the size of their collected dues. In addition, NV was unable to clarify with Duma whether Nastup has its own apparatus.

In February 2020, Duma was appointed head of the Social Insurance Fund. She was nominated for the post by Yulia Sokolovska, then the relevant minister, now the deputy head of the Office of the President.

In the same month, Duma ended up in the studio of talk show host Savik Shuster. On this major PR platform, she took the side of former Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov. He tried to convince the public of the need to update the labor code.

The Federation of Trade Unions (FPU) reacted sharply to Duma's speech, calling her a "wolf in sheep's clothing." They noted Ukraine now has about a hundred trade unions that represent no one but their founding owners. The FPU is currently the largest trade union in the country with three million members.

Andriy Pavlovsky, the ex-Minister of Social Policy, in a conversation with NV, described Duma’s trade union activities as strike-busting. This involves the creation of directed organizations from controlled workers who try to convince the team to act in the interests of the owners.

One step away from criminal cases

Duma remained at the Social Insurance Fund[2]  for about two months, from February to April 2020.

An ex-employee of the fund told NV that Oleh Koval, the then deputy minister of social policy, was responsible for promoting Duma to head of the fund. Shortly before this, Koval himself was appointed a member of the board – at the personal request of former PM Oleksiy Honcharuk.

According to him, Duma’s relations with her colleagues did not work out. She immediately began to demand ten memos a day from her subordinates, left them without March bonuses, and began to rearrange the staff, firing dozens of employees without warning and, possibly, in violation of the law. They were replaced by loyalists. In particular, from her first days, Duma brought a dozen of her advisers to the fund.

Duma insisted in her response to NV that these people were fired after they had been exposed as engaging in corruption abuses.

According to the internal documents obtained by NV, in the first weeks at the helm, in addition to exposing corruption, Duma awarded herself several bonuses in the amount of 100% of her monthly wages (UAH 28,000): for each month, for March 8 (International Women’s Day), and Easter. Bonus paychecks in the civil service are not unusual, but they can only be received after a certain period of time, and upon successfully meeting certain goals.

New employees also received additional payments from Duma.

Among the first employees she fired were Ihor Yakimov and Mykhailo Oleinik, two heads of regional branches. Within six months, they successfully challenged their dismissals in court.

At the end of April, the fund’s board assembled all this information during an internal investigation. In May, the Social Insurance Fund announced Duma had been fired due to repeated law violations, and that the materials of the internal investigation would be handed over to law enforcement.

On the pro-Russian TV channel NewsOne, Duma explained that her chair was taken away from her because of her fight against corruption in the Social Insurance Fund. After being dismissed, Duma’s appeals were rejected by courts several times and she was unable to regain her position.

The latest decision in the case of the Duma against the Social Insurance Fund was made in April 2023. The Kiev Court of Appeal recognized that the dismissal of the Duma was illegal. Although the Social Insurance Fund itself was already reorganized in 2022, merging with the Pension Fund.

Oleksandr Lemenov of StateWatch learned that Duma herself could have been brought to trial in June 2020, as the National Police opened criminal proceedings on her misuse of funds on an especially large scale during her work in the Social Insurance Fund.

In addition, Duma may be affected by another matter after a statement by Hennady Nebylitsa, the ex-head of the fund's legal department. He claimed that Duma persuaded him to carry out an illegal public procurement in the amount of UAH 200,000 ($5,400), Lemenov wrote.

According to the organization's monitoring report provided to NV, the same amount was provided as payment for a custom video clip on TV and a paid promotion.

The National Police did not respond to NV’s request to confirm or deny whether criminal proceedings had been initiated against Olena Duma and their status as of July 2023.

However, an NV source heard that the case stemming from Nebylitsa’s statement remains open. It seems that the appointment of a leader with an open criminal case gives the Office of the President, in particular Tatarov, an effective instrument to influence ARMA.

In the second half of 2021, Duma could have become a defendant in another criminal case – this time from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). According to Lemenov, detectives were investigating the receipt of improper benefits by an official of the Infrastructure Ministry. Duma allegedly acted as an intermediary in extorting a bribe of unlawful benefits for making a decision that falls within the competence of this ministry. However, the civil servant in question then resigned.

“In other words, Duma could be a real member of a criminal group, but because of the dismissal, the ‘scheme’ was not implemented,” Lemenov wrote in a blog post.

One of the few places where Duma coped with her assigned duties was the Chernihiv Regional State Administration. In 2021, Duma was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Chernihiv Regional State Administration. She dealt primarily with social issues.

Anna Kovalenko, who headed the Chernihiv Regional State Administration for more than a year, told NV that in October 2020, after her appointment, she was looking for a deputy person who would be responsible for social programs in the region. Yulia Sokolovskaya, deputy head of the OP, recommended Duma to her.

“Olena oversaw several important projects and, in general, the child services. In one of the projects, we managed to significantly expand the number of mentors who worked with children – from one person to twenty,” Kovalenko explained.

In general, she says that Duma proved to be hardworking and had no significant comments. Duma resigned from the regional state administration after Vyacheslav Chaus replaced Kovalenko.

Candidate for two positions

At the end of 2022, the Duma decided to compete for two positions – director of NABU and ARMA.

Out of 74 entrees for the position of NABU lead, she did not make it to the second round, which trimmed the pool of applicants to 50 individuals.

Duma explained to NV that she had dropped out of the race not because she failed the test, but in order to focus on becoming the head of ARMA.

“Indeed, I applied [for the competition for the director of NABU], but did not take part, because later a competition was announced for the head of ARMA, where my professional experience can be used more effectively,” Duma explained.

Against this background, Duma during interviews with members of the commission presented a thorough analysis with dozens of sections on the state of affairs in ARMA. According to the impressions of those present, the presentation rather resembled a month-long work of a whole team of specialists. Of the ten minutes allotted for the presentation, she spent three times as much – vigorously demonstrating her familiarity with the subject.

One of the judges of the competition, Dmytro Ostapenko, withdrew his vote for Duma’s candidacy after the published statements of the G7, TI, CPC, StateWatch.

Duma reacted: Ostapenko's attempt to withdraw the vote for her "undermines the legal system of the state." In any case, there is no legal mechanism for withdrawing a vote. The decision on her appointment by the Cabinet of Ministers was not reviewed.

The main problem in the history of the appointment of the Duma is that the head of ARMA was a person with almost no successful managerial experience, a blatant political background, without the support of civil society, or experts within the anti-corruption community. This multiplies the risks of pressure and bias — unless, of course, the purpose of this appointment was precisely to preserve the shadow influence of the executive branch over ARMA.

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