Ukrainian Minister Accused of Link to Land-Seizure Scheme

(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian anti-graft authorities accused the country’s agriculture minister of involvement in a scheme to illegally appropriate state-owned land as Kyiv moves forward in efforts to tackle corruption.

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Mykola Solskyi, who has overseen Ukraine’s wartime grain exports since taking office a month after Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, was issued a notice of suspicion by the country’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, known as NABU, and prosecutors, according to a statement on Telegram Tuesday.

Solskyi denied wrongdoing and said he “guarantees openness” to authorities for activity that took place before he took office, according to a statement posted to the ministry’s Telegram channel. He said the land under scrutiny is part of a legal dispute between state enterprises and individuals.

Ukraine has grappled with endemic corruption since gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union over three decades ago. But since Moscow’s invasion, the issue has become more urgent, particularly for international donors dispatching billions to keep the war-battered economy afloat.

Bolstering anti-corruption efforts and reducing the control over the economy by oligarchs is a central demand for lenders including the International Monetary Fund but also the European Union, which opened accession talks with Kyiv at the end of last year.

The scheme tied to Solskyi involves the seizure of some 2,500 hectares of land in Ukraine’s northern Sumy region worth an estimated 291 million hryvnia ($7 million) between 2017 and 2021, NABU said. Investigators foiled another attempt to appropriate land worth another 190 million hryvnia, the watchdog said.

Public outrage over corruption has also played a role in the political arena. Anti-graft officials last year opened an investigation into suspected purchases of food at inflated prices for war-hit regions, a probe that entangled Solskyi’s deputy, Taras Vysotskyi. The ministry denied the accusations.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy dismissed his defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, as part of the wartime cabinet’s biggest shakeup last year. The former defense chief long fended off allegations over graft in military procurement by subordinates, charges that he denied.

--With assistance from Aliaksandr Kudrytski.

(Updated with scheme details, minister’s comments from second paragraph.)

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