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Ukraine arrests its top judge amid an ongoing crackdown on corruption


This week, Ukraine made one of its highest-profile arrests on corruption charges, a person no less than the head of Ukraine's Supreme Court. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports it's part of an ongoing crackdown on corruption.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Vszevolod Kniaziev was elected president of Ukraine's Supreme Court in 2021. Just 43, he seemed to have a long career ahead of him. But earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities began investigating Kniaziev after receiving a tip that he was accepting bribes.

TETIANA SHEVCHUK: He was like organizer of the scheme.

KAKISSIS: Tetiana Shevchuk is with Ukraine's Anti-Corruption Action Center.

SHEVCHUK: Because it was not like he just influenced the other judges, pushing them. He was distributing money.

KAKISSIS: Shevchuk says the top judge allegedly promised other judges a cut of the bribes if they backed a favorable opinion for a company controlled by mining tycoon Kostyantyn Zhevago. The tycoon is already wanted on suspicion of embezzlement and is in France. He allegedly gave the Supreme Court head $2.7 million.

SHEVCHUK: I think people were more outraged because of the sum of the bribe and because it happened right now, during the war time.

KAKISSIS: Kniaziev denies the charges. Shevchuk says Ukrainians wonder how this arrest looks to their Western partners who support Ukraine with billions of dollars in aid.

SHEVCHUK: I thought that at the first glance, it should be shocking, and maybe for someone, it will prove the narrative that Ukraine is really corrupt. But I really hope that there will be a second glance which will show that, OK, Ukraine is becoming a different country.

KAKISSIS: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is trying to show that Ukraine is a country that cracks down on corruption. His government has fired officials for even the appearance of impropriety. Ukraine must improve its transparency and strengthen its civic institutions if it hopes to join the European Union and NATO. In the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, community activist Stanislav Samchenko says this arrest is big.

STANISLAV SAMCHENKO: (Through interpreter) To understand the scale of it, it's like the president has been arrested. That's how much influence the head of the Supreme Court has.

KAKISSIS: A public opinion survey out earlier this month showed Ukrainians are more concerned about corrupt officials in power than they are about informants or propagandists for Russia. Not far from Dnipro's court complex, Tetyana Mazurova, a 17-year-old university student, says Ukrainians have lost too much since the Russian invasion to excuse corruption.

TETYANA MAZUROVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "I hope our partners in the West see that we punish those taking bribes," she says, "and that we despise them."

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Dnipro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.