As hard as it is to believe, competitive recruitment for the Head of the ARMA is still ongoing and has even moved into the pre-final stage of interviews.

This fact is astounding in itself, since recruitment of the head of one of Ukraine’s key anti-corruption institutions is now in its third year. During this time, many scandals have arisen around the Agency itself, criminal cases have been initiated, there were talks about terminating the agency, and its powers have been taken away. The competition itself is now in its second iteration, and it appears that this time, despite the turbulence, it is creeping towards the finish line.

But do we dare hope it may work this time?

Let me remind you that it was our second time watching interviews with the candidates in the recruitment process. During the first iteration, the selection commission decided that none of the candidates were fit for the position. But this time, it seems, they will reach the decision after all.

Most of the meetings with the candidates took place peacefully, without conflicts or accusations. The members of the selection commission mostly asked questions related to the candidates’ integrity. Some were also about the professional component. Two candidates, Oleksandr Rudenko and Kostiantyn Tkachenko, did not participate in the interviews. Earlier, they sent their applications on withdrawal from the competition.

The interviews were quite interesting and even useful for some. For example, former head of the ARMA’s legal department, and now an applicant, Andrii Potiomkin, said that he found out about his loss in the judicial dispute over his reinstatement from the previous interview, with current leader of the Agency Dmytro Zhoravovych.

Of course, the most intriguing part of these interviews was what makes this competition different from others. This is something I want to cover in more detail.

Foresight and a Little Verve: How the Candidates See the ARMA’s Development

The candidates devoted the first 10 minutes of each interview to describing their vision of ARMA’s work, in particular talking about problems and proposing ways to resolve them.

The views differed. For instance, former deputy head of the ARMA, and now a military servant, Volodymyr Pavlenko believes that the ARMA should become a militarized “economic Mossad”, where key positions will be occupied by officers of the Ministry of Defense and war veterans. The aforementioned Andrii Potiomkin believes it necessary to have the Agency provide administrative services on finding property to arbitration managers.

There was also a lot of conversation about digitizing the ARMA’s work, of course. The ideas varied quite a lot. Former Deputy Head of the Chernihiv Oblast State Administration, Olena Duma, suggested automating the process of finding a manager of seized property and searching for assets. And Artem Brintsov, head of the legal support department of the HACC, insisted on the need to introduce electronic accounts where potential managers can get information about seized property. A similar idea was expressed by Stanislav Seriohin, head of the Central-Western territorial division of the ARMA.

Many candidates said that the property should be sold on the Prozorro.Sale platform, and this makes a lot of sense — no other sales system has proven to be as effective as this one.

Importantly, almost all candidates criticized the ARMA’s current work, although the severity of such criticism varied. Volodymyr Pavlenko called the ARMA “the first dead agency of our time.” The candidates mostly had a negative view of the ARMA’s current role in the sanctions policy, saying that the Agency definitely could have achieved more in terms of that. The biggest failure in the ARMA’s work, according to them, was transferring the management of assets under sanctions from the ARMA to the State Property Fund. Olena Duma believes that the legislative framework for ARMA’s work is quite sufficient, and problems arise due to internal documents adopted by the Agency itself.

What can you say — the optimism of the Agency’s potential leaders is certainly inspiring, but sometimes it’s more about the words than about the meaning. It seems almost strange that the most balanced vision of the ARMA’s role came from the candidates who never worked in the Agency — Artem Brintsov and Serhii Rokun. Among the candidates involved in the ARMA’s work who also have a confident vision of the institution’s development, there’s Stanislav Seriohin, though he did confuse us with his claim that he’d be able to make the Agency transparent in seven days.

But let me remind you that all these presentations are homework. When the questions came from the commission, it became much more interesting.

Almost Hidden Integrity

As we expected, the commission asked questions aimed at assessing integrity. First, it asked about ties with political forces and with people involved in investigations of corruption.

The thing is that some candidates are personally involved in criminal proceedings, including ones related to the ARMA’s work. The candidates have different statuses in those cases. In one proceeding, Andrii Potiomkin is referred to as an “expert witness” (though there is no such status in the Criminal Procedure Code), providing assistance to pre-trial investigation agencies. His former colleague Volodymyr Pavlenko is a suspect, though he says the case is “dead” and he has no preventive measures in place. In general, it’s hard to say how these facts will influence the commission’s final decision.

There were also property questions to some candidates. As representatives of civil society, we faced a problem here, since it is quite hard to assess the candidates’ integrity when access to the e-declarations register is blocked. The commission, for its part, did not make our task easier — it never resolved the issue of publishing declarations, as was the case, for example, with the competition for the director of the NABU. We also did not have an opportunity to track the dynamics of the property status of candidates, since we had no access to the declarations from the previous years.

During the competition for NABU director, the commission made the decision, and everyone interested, including us, could get an idea of who the candidates were even before the interviews started. They had to explain all the controversies in the declarations while talking to the commission. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it worked with the ARMA competition.

But even under these conditions, not all candidates were equally convincing while answering questions about their property. Some only said that all their income was declared, and the selection commission made an error in their calculations. Some blamed it on previous employers, saying that maybe the paycheck was not entirely official.

There were really flabbergasting statements. When director of the Office for Combating Raiding of the Ministry of Justice Viktor Dubovyk was asked how expensive his wife’s car was, one which he also uses, he said, “You should ask my wife how much she values that car.” He also could not remember whether he wrote his own biography while running for the Parliament with the “Green Planet” party.

On Professionalism

When it comes to the candidates’ professionalism, though, the commission didn’t seem too worried about this problem. When such questions did arise, the candidates sometimes answered in vague terms.

This vagueness can probably be explained by their lack of experience in the system of criminal justice agencies, and thus an incomplete idea of the ARMA’s service role. Only a few candidates demonstrated relevant skills — Serhii Rokun, Artem Brintsov, and, of course, Stanislav Seriohin and Dmytro Zhoravovych, who are currently in the ARMA’s management.

At the same time, almost all candidates were asked what they would do with the individuals who, according to the court decisions, should be reinstated in ARMA positions. The answers were unanimous: the court decision must be obeyed. However, some of them, like Viktor Dubovyk, spoke about reorganizing the agency and dismissing officials who would fail to demonstrate their performance. The willingness to obey court decisions was not as steadfast in this case.

The commission also tried to identify the candidates’ leadership qualities, but, sadly, they did not ask everyone about it. This is unfortunate, since resolving conflicts within the team is quite an important skill.

The candidates’ responses varied: from ideas that all the top management must prove their integrity on a lie detector (Viktor Dubovyk) to protecting civil servants’ labor rights. Stanislav Seriohin, for his part, said unequivocally that he was going to bring his team into the agency, whose members could either be transferred to the central staff or act as advisors.

However, when answering questions about leadership qualities, most candidates provided impersonal examples from their own life experience.

Where Does That Leave Us?

In general, interviews with candidates for head of the ARMA seemed a sort of island in the eye of the storm that the institution has become in the past few years. This is a good sign — discussions about the ARMA’s status should not prevent the commission from completing its work and choosing a scrupulous, professional leader. The Agency’s institutional capacity directly depends on its head — it is he or she who will have to represent the Agency’s position in communication with state and non-state actors. We can confidently say that only candidates with experience in criminal justice, Artem Brintsov and Serhii Rokun, demonstrated a sufficient level of integrity and professionalism in their vision of the ARMA’s further development.

It seems to us that despite all the skepticism with which this competition is sometimes regarded, the probability of a balanced and reasonable choice does exist.

Despite the length and certain shortcomings of the competition procedure — unpublished declarations and candidate evaluation criteria — the second attempt was successful. And some candidates showed a high level of professionalism and experience that may really help them reform the ARMA.