A Ukrainian businessman who became the nation’s health minister at the beginning of the pandemic has now had a warrant issued for his arrest, with a $12 million embezzlement alleged.
Ukraine’s Higher Anti-Corruption Court ordered the detention of former health minister Maksym Stepanov on Thursday, they said in a statement, noting the businessman could not be arrested as he has already left the country.
Ukrainian state broadcaster Suspline reports Stepanov is suspected of having embezzled nearly half a billion hryvnias ($12 million) during his time as the director of a state-owned business that printed, among other documents, passports and driving licenses for Ukraine.
It is said he used a private business to sell the raw materials for these documents to the state company he led at grossly inflated prices, pocketing the difference and that the embezzlement was detected with help from colleagues in Estonia and France. These allegations have yet to be proven in a court of law.
A video publicising the order by the Anti-Corruption Court claimed the proxy company supplying inflated materials was acquired in 2013 and asserted the money was sent abroad, to Stepanov’s own accounts and those of his family members, including to the United States. “Ukrainians were forced to overpay for documents due to a corrupt scheme for several years”, the video asserted.
After running the state printing plant, Maksym Stepanov became a government minister for Volodymyr Zelensky’s ‘Servant of the People’ party in March 2020, taking on the health position just as the world was plunged into coronavirus lockdowns. One of his major responsibilities was the rollout of Ukraine’s vaccination programme, but he was fired in May 2021 over the failure of the programme.
At that time, less than one million Ukrainians out of a population of 41 million had received a coronavirus vaccine dose, a rollout that was seen as unacceptably slow domestically. Weeks before he was fired, Stepanov said claims there was corruption in his department slowing the importation of vaccines were due to “dirty information attacks”.
The firing was not, perhaps, unusual. As reported by RadioFreeEurope at the time of Stepanov’s ouster in 2021, “President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s cabinet has experienced significant turnover since the former comic took power in 2019.”
In recent weeks, the Ukrainian government has removed its defence minister after a flurry of corruption claims — he denied these were linked to his departure — and has even fired every regional military recruiting officer over claims they took cash to exempt young men from conscription.
While President Zelensky was elected on a promise to clean up politics in Ukraine, the persistent issue of corruption in the nation risks taking the shine off his own leadership. As reported this week, the vast majority of Ukrainians hold Zelensky directly responsible, as President, for corruption in the country, making it clear they expect him to deal with the problem.