The interview was recorded in Artem Sytnyk's last working week as the war went on and NABU operated under the martial law. The detectives have focused not only on anti-corruption work but also on joint activities with other agencies fighting against the russian occupiers. In this interview, Artem Sytnyk dwells on his seven years as NABU Director, the challenges and establishment of the Bureau, the implementation of anti-corruption reform and the vision of NABU development.
What were your expectations about NABU?
One of the Revolution of Dignity demands was the fight against corruption. It was a public request. However, people with dubious reputations and no honest bone in their bodies soon got appointed to public positions. It was then that I learned about the idea of launching an institution to tackle high-level corruption. In October 2014, the parliament passed the law on NABU. I had nothing to do with the development of this law and the NABU concept. Other people stood behind that, and I met them later, including one of the NABU ideologues, Gizo Uglava, my future first deputy.
The initial NABU law did not mention the idea of an anti-corruption prosecutor's office, nor did it introduce the concept of detectives - just investigators. I remember the question I was asked as a contestant by Giovanni Kessler (Director-General of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), who was a member of the competition commission to select the director of the National Bureau: "What will you do when you document a crime and the prosecutor refuses to sign the documents?” To be honest, I didn't find the right answer at that time.
Before your appointment, you met with then-President Petro Poroshenko, and presented your vision of NABU. Have your ideas about what NABU should be like changed since then?
Conceptually they haven't. During a meeting with the President (in April 2015), on the eve of my appointment, I told him: “If you want a state body in Ukraine that will prosecute people for corruption by law, regardless of political or some other affiliation, you should appoint me. If not - do not appoint me." He then said: “I want Ukraine to be a European state. And I believe that no one should have an umbrella as far as corruption is concerned. For me, it was a kind of motivational guide. Then, after a very short time, I realized not everything was so candid…
When the decree on my appointment was signed, I went to the Registration Service of Pechersk district and registered a legal entity. At that time there was no staff or personnel. At 21:21 on April 16, 2015, NABU was registered as a legal entity.
I remember that day. Evening. Quite windy. I feel a bit confused: NABU already exists legally. But I'm on my own, no office, no seal, nothing ... And the next day, April 17, on the way to the Presidential Administration, where I was temporarily allocated, a journalist approached me asking: "How many (corrupt officials. - Ed.) have you sent to prison?" I was shocked by this question because it was obvious to me that signing the decree on the establishment of NABU and the establishment of NABU were different stages. But after this question, I felt that we did not have time to warm up.
What happened next? How did you choose the model of building NABU, given such institutions had not existed in Ukraine before…
I remember Gizo Uglava and I drawing the first diagrams of the NABU's organizational and functional structure… By the way, most people may not know this, but Gizo Uglava was one of the experts who shaped the concept of NABU. In addition to the law, which set a formal framework, it was necessary to develop team-building approaches. This had been done by an expert community even before my election to NABU. I took up a lot of those ideas because I thought they were right. When I met Gizo Uglava, it impressed me he had a vision of what to do. Moreover, he had extensive experience, including as Deputy Prosecutor General in Georgia. And that was my motivation for appointing Gizo Uglava as my first deputy. Over 7 years, I have never regretted my decision.
But the first NABU model that Gizo and I drew up, even when the Bureau didn't have any office, has changed several times. We constantly adapted it to the challenges. For example, at first, we had created 6 detective divisions of 40 people each. Later, division heads came and said that the approach was wrong because it led to excessive bureaucracy and administrative burdens. They said: “Artem, we think this is the wrong approach. There is no control at the proper level because it is very difficult for one head to manage 40 subordinates”. And then they proposed the concept of 4 departments of detectives 60 people each. And each department consisted of 4 divisions. It was entirely their initiative. I then told them: “You see, with this concept, there should be a competition for the position of heads of departments. Because this is a higher position." They said they were ready for this. I really liked it, because people were not afraid to face another competition, which was quite difficult. They showed that they were guided by a common goal, not their interests.
We have constantly adapted the NABU model, set out on paper, to the work processes. We learned. For example, I had no experience in launching a law enforcement unit. I had no experience in forming an operative and technical unit. This was completely new to me. I don't think anyone was 100% ready to be the director of NABU. That's why I was constantly learning. In the past I was an investigator, someone was an operative, and someone was more experienced in undercover techniques. Some came from the private sector and had no experience of operational and investigative work. For example, during the training, I asked one of the investigators who had previously worked at the prosecutor's office: "You need to put up surveillance on a person. What will you do?" He replied: "I'll task the operative unit." And then he added: “Oh wait... We are the operative unit. Then I'll probably do something myself."
Generally speaking, from the very beginning, we aimed to establish NABU as an operationally independent institution so that we could conduct autonomous investigations without involving other law enforcement agencies. I mean the investigation, operative and technical component, force component, if necessary. Based on this concept, NABU was born.
NABU not only introduced a new profession of detective but also applied new approache to their selection. How did that idea come about?
The concept of competitive selection belongs to international experts; however, I did some changes. Selection for the positions of detectives and analysts is split into four stages: a law test, a general skills test, a psychological test, and an interview with the competition commission. General skills and psychological tests were introduced with the support and at the expense of our international partners.
Speaking of the detectives as a concept - I saw the potential of this position, but, first of all, our higher education institutions do not train detectives - they train either investigators or operatives. And it took us a year before such, so to speak, universalization of personnel was accomplished, when investigators learned to be operatives, and vice versa. And we even learned to form units so that one of the heads - for example, a division head - was an investigator or operative, and their deputy was an operative or investigator, respectively. They had to complement each other. Then this problem disappeared because people learned to work as detectives, combining both investigative and operative functions. But in the beginning, it was quite difficult. And today, again, we do not have universities that train detectives. There were proposals from some HEIs to create such faculties, but we cannot guarantee the employment of all graduates, because all positions at NABU are filled through a competition.
What was the reason for that number of 226 detectives at the start?
Under the law, the maximum number of NABU staff is 700 people. It was important to find a solution that would allow the most efficient use of this resource. Of course, we could kick off with 700 detectives. But what would detectives do without personnel, accounting, or a SOF unit?
When we came up with the structure, the question was how many detectives to recruit. We split the process into several waves. In the first wave, we selected 70 detectives, in the second wave - 65 detectives, in the third - we filled the remaining vacancies. We understood that if we have filled the entire staff at once, it would have been difficult to establish communication.
At one point, 70 people from different parts of Ukraine gathered in one place… The senior staff was not yet selected due to certain delays in the competition. They just got seated in their offices… I remember their confusion: there was no leadership, they didn't know each other, all came from different spheres - the prosecutor's office, SSU, police, business. There were people appointed to positions, but with no staff yet. This is the first point. Second, detectives who passed a highly competitive selection and won faced a lack of trust as many believed this was impossible. They were asked: "How do you know Sytnyk?"
That is, mentally, all that we did here was very difficult to perceive. Everyone was very skeptical about our approaches. A lot of lies appeared in the media that I allegedly employed my friends and relatives. Although in fact, I had known only 12 people from the whole team. I learned about the victory of most of them already at the stage of their appointment as I was not a member of any of the competition commissions. This was my principled decision.
In the first days of my appointment, I did not pick up the phone at all. Because people who had known me for at least 5 seconds in their lives decided they were supposed to be my friends. I came to my parents, and my father had already been given a stack of resumes. So, on the first day of my appointment, I told everyone who knew me better: "Guys, I understand that you will be reached out and asked to help get a job at NABU". Answer immediately: "Competition. Check the website for terms and procedure. There will be no patronage to anyone. At all. I'm completely out of this stuff."
Is the current staff enough to fully fight top corruption? Of course not. There was an initiative to increase NABU's staff to 1,500, but parliament did not support it. I believe that if 1,500 is impossible, then the staff should be increased to 1,000, because we lack, first of all, operative and technical capabilities. However, I think that in the near future it is unlikely to be on the agenda.
Due to the staff limit - 700 people by law - Gizo Uglava and I have tried from the very beginning to invest as much as possible in human development to increase the effectiveness of investigations. As a result, it allowed, for example, to reduce the preparation of analytical files on those involved in offense from one day to 1-2 hours. This was made possible by the provision of appropriate technological solutions and the development of relevant skills.
By law, NABU’s staff is limited to 700 people, most of whom are based in Kyiv. Why was such a model of territorial presence chosen?
The law provided for the establishment of seven territorial offices. We set up three. I understood that the staff limit of 700 people would not allow the creation of seven territorial offices. Therefore, I ordered that the central office served as Kyiv Territorial Office, Lviv Office covered the Western region, Kharkiv Office - the Eastern region, and Odesa Office - the Southern region.
And even those existing territorial offices are very limited in their capabilities. In fact, they serve as NABU's regional headquarters. There is no SOF unit there - it is based in Kyiv. Detectives working in territorial offices are subordinated to the Main Detective Department. I repeatedly talked to Nazar Kholodnytsky (the first SAPO Head. - Ed.) about the creation of regional units of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office. However, he never supported the idea. That's why we had to subordinate the detectives to the central office in Kyiv because SAPO was based only in Kyiv.
CHALLENGES "NABU is like an island in the middle of the ocean"
When did you first feel resistance to NABU?
We did not feel resistance at the launch stage. However, that changed after we started the investigation. We registered the first proceedings on Dec. 4, 2015, shortly after the appointment of Nazar Kholodnytsky as SAPO Head. I remember, when we had already started investigating Martynenko's case, then the elites began to have doubts and think that "something was wrong with NABU." And when it came to lifting Oleksandr Onyschenko's parliamentary immunity and prosecuting him for corruption (in the summer of 2016), we have since been taken seriously as a threat.
What is the essential difference between NABU and other agencies? In Ukraine, we have always had corruption cases, but they concerned either former officials or current but not senior officials. The top rank has always been inviolable. And when we started investigating real cases, the elite got scared. There emerged attempts to "tame" NABU, to establish political control. Perhaps the most critical moment was in 2017 when we investigated the so-called Avakov Backpacks case (the popular name for criminal proceedings into the possible involvement of one of the close relatives of the Interior Minister in the corruption scheme. - Ed.). Then two leaders of the Narodnyi Front and Petro Poroshenko Bloc registered a bill that simplified the procedure for dismissing the director of NABU. I was on a visit to Washington at the time, having a one-day meeting with both the president of the World Bank and the head of the IMF. I thought then it was the end. But international partners took a very tough stance and defended NABU. And instead of the bill on my dismissal, a bill on the anti-corruption court was introduced. From the beginning, President Poroshenko was against this idea. However, he later changed his rhetoric dramatically. Unfortunately, we lost time because the cases we were investigating just gathered dust in the courts of general jurisdiction, no one wanted to hear them. But as soon as we had the High Anti-Corruption Court, it showed how different justice could be. We had already seen that every week before the war - at least one sentence had been passed. The HACC has sentenced more judges for corruption than all other courts in 30 years of Ukraine's independence. Therefore, on the one hand, unfortunately, we lost time, on the other - thank God the HACC is there working by completely different standards of justice.
In your opinion, what provoked the pressure on NABU most of all?
This was a steady growth trend: the more we did, the more they tried to stop us. Regardless of who held senior positions in the state.
I don't know the author of this joke, but the irony is very accurate: "Children who were born when they first attempted to fire Sytnyk have already gone to school."
It has been all the time: they tried and tried…
It is extremely important for the institution that I served till the end, that there was no political dismissal. We succeeded. Now we'll see more of these attempts, as there is no leader, they will try to "shake" Gizo, I'm sure of that. But it was crucial for the agency that the director was not politically fired. This indicates the possibility of ensuring the sustainability of NABU.
This would not have been possible without the support of our Western partners.
What challenges did NABU face in establishing cooperation with other law enforcement agencies?
On the one hand, we have 700 people working at NABU. On the other hand, 20 thousand working for the SSU, 10 thousand - at the prosecutor's office, and even more people in the police. And all of them, frankly speaking, were out there waiting for a moment to nab some of our employees red-handed. No one succeeded.
People could not realize and accept that NABU has a different ideology. And this difference in values determined the aggressive environment in which we had to work all those 7 years.
The main reason why we persevered was the support of Western partners. They saw we worked honestly. If we were guided, so to speak, by double standards, there would be no such support. And most importantly - we have a team formed through an open competition of completely different people imbued with the ideology of the novel institution…
Our detectives are a really cool team. Small, but so powerful that this was probably the reason that our opponents failed. I felt the support of the team as a director. For my part, I tried to create such conditions for the team so that it could work by law. From the very beginning, as a director, I volunteered to absorb all the negativity and oppression. This is how it turned out. Therefore, a small agency set the tone for virtually the entire law enforcement system in Ukraine. We see everyone complaining: “We have ties everywhere. We can tackle it with the police and others. We can't tackle it only with NABU."
NABU has been open to cooperation with other law enforcement agencies from the beginning, but as the practice has shown we can only count on ourselves. And speaking of some cases, if we involved other bodies, there would be no high-profile revelations that clearly showed the public the level of high-ranking corruption. We learned to survive; we were even called "Japanese" because NABU is like an island in the middle of the ocean.
Now the country is at war, and the format of interaction has changed. We work closely with the SSU, intelligence, and other bodies. But before that, there had been powerful sabotage.
INTERACTION "People come to us as a last resort"
The effectiveness of NABU significantly depends on the work of SAPO, which still does not have full autonomy. Did the interaction between NABU and SAPO significantly deteriorate after the SAPO head had resigned?
The history of relations with the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office has been rather dynamic. There were different periods. But we have results. And these are the results of joint work. The fact that SAPO does not have real autonomy affects the investigation of corruption offenses committed by high-ranking officials. The situation around the competition for the new SAPO head is frankly shameful and does not bring Ukraine closer to the EU standards, the membership for which we aspire.
This is really a problem when the acting SAPO head cannot even appoint a prosecutor in a case. At present, the decision is made by Prosecutor General. This was indeed a problem, but I can say that I hardly remember having any difficulties with Iryna Venediktova for the last six months. At the same time, I think it is strategically right to give the acting SAPO head such powers to fully ensure the autonomy of the anti-corruption prosecutor's office.
NABU has offered society a completely different model of interaction based on openness. On the other hand, don't you think that people have high expectations of NABU, which they hold responsible for fighting all forms of corruption in the country?
When I held personal receptions, I was very upset that people came to us as a last resort. 99% of their reports did not fall within the competence of NABU. And almost all of them understood this. But people came because they had nowhere to go. For me, this was a very painful issue, because, on the one hand, you want to help, and on the other hand, you understand you don't have the power to do so. I saw a problem: when people did not receive help, even though they realized it was not our competence, they grew angry and disappointed. I didn't know how to solve it, and I still don't know. Because on the one hand, people have heard about NABU and the integrity of its employees. On the other hand, our jurisdiction is clearly defined by law and we cannot help everyone.
Another problem is corruption-tolerant society. Zero tolerance for corruption is declared, the fight against corruption is declared, but in fact, Ukrainians are ready to justify themselves in certain situations. Even those people who publicly supported us.
The result of our work is not only criminal prosecution for corruption - we are changing the perception of law enforcement and government. We prove by our example that it is possible not to take bribes, it is possible to work by law, it is possible to achieve results. We want the belief that nothing can be done in Ukraine without corruption to disappear. But we cannot do it alone, without the society. We give an example. And we hope that more and more people will follow it. Without this, it is very difficult to fight on the anti-corruption front.
NABU became the first law enforcement agency where the public had a real opportunity to influence the formation of the team and the Bureau's strategic and tactical planning through the Civil Oversight Council…
The Civil Oversight Council is a unique phenomenon and not only for Ukraine. We have found no analogues in the EU where civil society could delegate its representatives to competition or disciplinary commissions and have powerful tools for civil control over the activities of law enforcement. And, unlike other bodies, I did not try to have a kind of pocket, loyal COC. I did care about the possibility of a transparent selection of people who then exercised civil control. To be honest, it was not comfortable. There were different situations. But I can testify that all the constructive proposals of the COC were good for NABU. We cooperated well with all COC staff.
I remember the first wave of detectives. NABU's competition commissions focused on assessing professional qualities. While the COC checked the moral side of the candidates, their integrity. They coped with the task perfectly. Most, if not all, of the winners in the first wave were voted for unanimously by both NABU commission members and COC representatives. This was a sign of our initial credibility because the candidates went through all possible filters.
Of course, we had various discussions and heated debates with the COC, but they really kept us on our toes. A side view is crucial. We repeatedly organized meetings with the COC, inquired about their vision. In general, the mechanism of public control was there, it stimulated and saved us from certain mistakes.
In your opinion, has NABU become an effective factor in influencing the country's political elites? In particular, in terms of impunity and permissiveness.
I believe that NABU has defeated the caste of untouchables. Elites cannot accept the fact there is NABU that can come to them, regardless of posts and status, and break the established corrupt practices. On the one hand, it gives me hope, because I know a lot of people from other law enforcement agencies who dreamed that they would be like us. On the other hand, it annoys many. Elites today are not ready to live like this. Therefore, there are endless attempts to somehow deprive us of power, dismiss the director, and so on.
I understand that this struggle will go on. However, I know for sure that NABU needs to further adhere to the ideology it has been following for seven years. And, perhaps, sooner or later, elites will begin to change. The war may well contribute to this. Although we understand that the war, not only in Ukraine, exacerbates corruption risks.
WAR "Despite the war, we see attempts to revive corruption schemes"
Are criminal corruption cases being investigated during the war? For example, in the security and defense sector? Have these investigations become a basis for wider cooperation between NABU and SSU? Are there any obstacles to this?
Because of the war, NABU has seen certain changes in its work. It is impossible to proceed with all our common activities. This is our objective reality. Unfortunately, because of the war, we could not complete some operations that were already in the final stages. These would have been high-profile cases… Instead, we have been actively involved in other areas, in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies. Our role here is secondary: we overlook some processes, including the documentation of war crimes, use our technical capabilities to cooperate with the military. We receive certain information and, depending on the content, pass it on to other state bodies; we train to fight sabotage-reconnaissance groups and so on. Unfortunately, I can't reveal the details because they are classified.
I am very pleased that we carried out the evacuation professionally. In just 24 hours we had the opportunity to use our technical capabilities. The team has preserved its integrity, combat capability, and ability to work in relevant areas. Now that the intensity of hostilities in Kyiv region has decreased and the occupiers have withdrawn, we are considering getting back to our direct work - fighting high-ranking corruption and investigating corruption offenses. And it's urgent since we see attempts to revive corruption schemes. I am confident that the role of NABU will only grow, because Ukraine's international partners will bring huge resources, and we need to make sure that they are used as prescribed.
How does NABU interact with the SSU within a joint operative and combat group?
We cannot uncover the details of this cooperation so as not to endanger our employees. I can say that 95% of NABU's personnel potential has been used during the war and to good effect. Especially in Kyiv, Kyiv and Lviv regions. But now we are focused on getting back to anti-corruption. I spent the last days of my term working on this. And this will also obviously be a priority for Gizo Uglava as acting NABU Director.
WHAT'S NEXT? "It is important to preserve NABU's institutional independence as a guarantee of the Bureau's ability to expose high-ranking corruption"
Will the war change the attitude of elites to NABU? Is there a threat of dismantling the entire anti-corruption system - NABU, SAPO, the NACP, the HACC?
I am afraid political elites will continue trying to dismantle the whole system or at least weaken it to a level that is not dangerous to them. I don't even rule out that attempts will be even bolder than before the war. Because now all attention of society and international partners is focused on the war, and under this guise, you can do anything. I think it is more probable than in peacetime.
After the war, Ukraine is expected to recover. It will involve a lot of funds coming from different sources, both inside and outside the country. It is naive to hope that corruption will disappear by itself, accordingly, the role of NABU in preventing and combating corruption will increase a great deal. What new challenges will NABU face?
NABU is a powerful and well-established body. I can proudly say that I am handing over to the next leader an effective institution with a professional team that is able to adapt to new challenges. It is important to preserve NABU's institutional independence as a guarantee of its ability to expose top-level corruption.
After our victory over the Russian occupier, Ukraine will face an equally difficult challenge - the fight against corruption. People who have built schemes and remained in their high positions can begin to act even more boldly. This is where our anti-corruption practices will come in handy. NABU is ready for these challenges. Are legislative or other initiatives possible that will be aimed at weakening or destroying NABU? I believe so. But I am confident that our Western partners, who are constantly helping us, will stand by NABU. All major battles are still ahead.
NABU has a development strategy until 2023. Does it need adjustment because of the war?
All the strategic goals we have set remain relevant. So now it is important to reorient the staff from the war-related tasks, which they effectively performed together with the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defense, the Security Service, to our common anti-corruption direction.
Corruption has not gone. It is there both in peacetime and in wartime. Many people do not understand how to deal with corruption in wartime. But in all countries across the world, war has always earned a lot of money. A lot of quasi-heroes will emerge in both parliament and government. They will try to dictate their terms. Therefore, strategically, our work should not change. We are set to achieve the result written in our strategy.
But there may be obstacles, such as reduced funding
This won't be done on purpose, just as a force majeure. So far, funding is coming. The period of budget resolutions is approaching, and it's hard to foretell what will happen. I hope that NABU funding will be kept at the appropriate level, though no one will be blamed if not because these are objective grounds. We will adjust to the general state of the economy and the situation in the country.
You have already talked about the challenges facing NABU. To put it more succinctly, the martial law and postwar challenges. Are these the same challenges or different?
Legally, martial law can be lifted after victory, but in fact, the country will be living under martial law long after. Therefore, this military environment, even in the event of our victory, will significantly affect further developments in Ukraine. NABU and other government agencies will have to adjust and become more adaptable. Especially since a large part of the Kyiv team was involved in warfare.
The only new challenge is a new attempt, given the fact that all attention is focused on the war, to either destroy NABU or reduce its capacity. Strategically, the anti-corruption front is still very far from victory.
How would you like to see NABU in the longer term, say, 3-5 years after the end of the war?
I dream our employees will spread NABU's practices to other authorities. I want to see NABU less relevant in 5 years. I dream NABU will no longer require to be saved from dismantling but instead would have a fruitful cooperation with other branches of government, such as in Lithuania, where the Special Investigation Service works in conjunction with the Prime Minister, President, Speaker, because they are all allies and have the same vision of anti-corruption.
How can NABU's experience help rebuild the state based on anti-corruption practices?
This question reminds me of a situation when there was a discussion about the establishment of an anti-corruption court. There was a thesis that every court should be anti-corruption. Ukraine aspires to become a full member of the European Union, which requires further implementation of anti-corruption reform. War is not a reason to stop it. On the contrary, we need to speed up because we simply don't have extra resources to pay for corruption. There are reports from various EU institutions that NABU is an example of successful reform in Ukraine. This is the brand that leads us to the EU. Therefore, the prospect of Ukraine's membership in the EU will depend on how NABU will work or whether it will be hampered.
How do you feel about leaving NABU?
I imagined a different transfer of powers to my successor, a different farewell to the team. But the war got in the way…
At the stage of formation of any law enforcement agency, the role of the individual is crucial. This stage is over now. I have always emphasized that for NABU to become a stable body, a change of leadership must not rock the ship. Institutional memory must be preserved: key principles, values, and vision. I have always had a desire to reach such a level of NABU development, when a change of leader is not critical because all processes are underway and the team works steadily, reacting if something goes wrong.
I am proud of the team we've built. I thank everyone who joined in the process. After all, despite its small number, it has become a real threat to thousands of corrupt officials. I wish the NABU staff, despite all obstacles, to always act by law, profess anti-corruption values, be united, and have a worthy person as the new NABU Director, selected through an open transparent competition, who will strengthen the Bureau, preserve its achievements, and protect institutional independence and integrity practices.