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Activists Celebrate Arrest Of Ukraine's Tax Chief In Corruption Probe


More than three years after people filled the streets of Kiev to protest graft in the government, Ukraine is still considered one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Well, now activists have something to celebrate, and they're calling it the biggest victory against corruption since Ukraine became an independent country 25 years ago. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Kiev.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The courtyard behind the Solomyansky Court is littered with trash left by activists who had blocked the exits during a 48-hour protest last week.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Ukrainian).

KIM: They were afraid that Roman Nasirov, the former head of Ukraine's tax service, might escape pretrial detention and avoid the country's first major anticorruption trial. Maxim Eristavi, a journalist and activist, says he was reminded of the huge protest three years ago on Kiev's main square, the Maidan, which has since become synonymous with People Power Revolution.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Ukrainian).

MAXIM ERISTAVI: All those two nights showed us that there is still a public anger and civil society is a powerful force and it can influence advance at crucial point. And it doesn't mean that the revolution is a success, but it means that it's not dead yet.

KIM: Nasirov was arrested by officers of the newly formed Anti-Corruption Bureau. He was accused of participating in a scheme that cost Ukraine more than $70 million.

ERISTAVI: This is a person who is extremely close and indispensable for President Poroshenko and his administration. So for Ukrainians just to see fiscal chief and Roman Nasirov in the courtroom is something unprecedented and mind-blowing.

KIM: Afraid the crowd outside my get out of control if Nasirov walked free, the judge extended his detention by two months and set bail at nearly $4 million, an unprecedented amount for Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk, the director of the Nongovernmental Anticorruption Action Centre, calls blocking courts enhanced civil society control.

DARIA KALENIUK: It's a very important message to people who want to abuse power, abuse their office for embezzlement, for self-enrichment, for protecting the interest oligarchs to stop doing that.

KIM: Kaleniuk says President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected three years ago on a reform platform, has done little himself to change the system. Rostyslav Pavlenko, the deputy head of Poroshenko's administration, rejects that criticism.

ROSTYSLAV PAVLENKO: Much was done actually to cut this tail that goes into the Soviet times or post-Soviet times and actually kick start the new institutional outfit. Yet in three years, we have to do the work that was neglected for more than 20.

KIM: He says progress has been slow because in the years after independence, Ukraine failed to build a system of checks and balances. Political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko says thanks to the peaceful outcome of the courthouse standoff, Ukraine avoided a major political crisis. But he says Ukraine suffers from a Maidan syndrome, activists using blockades in direct action to pressure the government.

VOLODYMYR FESENKO: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: Fesenko says there's a danger that if such drastic actions are used too often, they could end up destroying the Ukrainian state. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kiev.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMBCHOP SONG, "JAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.