In March, a scandal erupted in Estonia: money raised for Ukraine by the most famous Estonian charitable organization, Slava Ukraini, had apparently been misused. This lead to a sharp decrease of donations for Ukraine and brought into spotlight that country’s rampant corruption.
Disturbing rumors about Estonia’s “star” NGO
There is probably not a single person left in Estonia who has not heard about the Slava Ukraini Foundation. Since the beginning of the war, it has enjoyed the widest media support. Its advertising could be seen on electronic displays in the center of Tallinn and heard on the radio. In March 2022, the NGO organized a charity concert with the participation of hundreds of the most famous Estonian stars and with the support of two of the largest media organizations in the country, including the public one (the Estonian National Broadcaster, ERR).
The Slava Ukraini Foundation promised to use the donations to buy and equip guerilla-ambulances and minibuses and ship them to Ukrainian cities that needed immediate assistance. The NGO managed to raise 700,000 Euros at the March concert alone; the total donations it got since the start of the war amounted to 6.5 million euros. Some of that money were spent on medical and protective equipment for Ukrainian military units, medical training, and assistance for civilians living near the front line.
The head of the NGO Slava Ukraini Johanna-Maria Lehtme was awarded in Estonia the titles of European of the Year, Citizen of the Year, and Woman of the Year; she became the Person of the Year according to one of the country's largest media outlets, received an order for organizing humanitarian aid to Ukraine, took part in events organized by the European Commission, and in a short time gained wide popularity. In the March 2023 parliamentary elections, Lehtme won more than 5,000 votes for Estonia 200, which was the largest vote harvest for this political force and partly ensured its electoral success – the party is now a junior partner in the ruling coalition.
Then just a couple of days later, it became known that Ukrainian partners of the Estonian organization were suspected of misuse of funds. Lehtme claimed that she had learned about the misuse of funds suspicions just two days before the elections, when the NGO council first met to discuss its financial affairs. Having become a member of parliament and the ruling coalition, she retained her place on the board of the NGO. “As for the revision of NGO Slava Ukraini, I really hope that it will be carried out quickly and with empathy, including in relation to our Ukrainian partners. Slava Ukraini and our partners do not deserve the information storm that has been created here, and no one should go through this again,” she wrote on the social network.
At first, little was known about what exactly happened. The advisory board of the NGO limited itself to a general statement: “Unfortunately, alarming signals have reached the board regarding the reliability of the two connected Ukrainian partners. Since all such reports should be taken with the utmost seriousness, the board and the advisory board decided to commission a financial audit, the purpose of which is to find out whether the activities of the Ukrainian partners were sufficiently effective. Until the results of the audit are known, it was decided to stop making payments to the mentioned partners in Ukraine” the council of the NGO said.
At the same time, ERR reported that projects related to aid packages, “Christmas of Hope in Ukraine” and the construction of ambulances to evacuate the wounded were under suspicion. Then it was assumed that tens or hundreds of thousands of euros were spent for other purposes.
Everything for victory and for the manicurist
In April, it became known that much larger amounts of money were misused. Journalists from Eesti Päevaleht, in cooperation with the Kyiv Independent, found out that the money collected by Slava Ukraini went to the account of the management of a certain Ukrainian private company. The publications reported that the NGO All For Victory (Все для Перемоги) and a company associated with its representatives, IC Construction, were at the center of the scandal.
Both of these organizations are associated with former high-ranking officials at Lviv City Hall. Journalists discovered that the former vice-mayor of Lviv, Gennady Vaskiv, who heads All for Victory, is a close friend of Johanna-Maria Lehtme. She publicly denied the assumption that there was a closer connection between them, despite the fact that sources in some publications indicated this.
IC Construction is managed by Roman Panasyuk, a former head of the City Hall economic department who, at that time, was Vaskiv's subordinate. It is known that during their time at the City Hall, the mayor's office was marred by corruption scandals. The owner of IC Construction is Marta Liuta, who works as a manicurist in a beauty salon associated with Vaskiv's wife.
Almost 100% of the turnover of Panasyuk's commercial company, according to him, was money received from the Slava Ukraini fund, i.е., from Estonian residents who donated money. Journalists calculated that the company received every fourth euro donated by Estonians. It is not completely clear what were the services provided to the Ukrainian army and civilians for this money.
Lehtme stated that the funds were used to equip vehicles for evacuating the wounded, but a journalist from another Estonian media, Postimees, having visited Lviv and studied the price list of several workshops, found that the cost of re-equipping cars is actually several times lower than the Slava Ukraini fund paid. In one place, they were ready to do it for free, while, according to Johanna-Maria Lehtme, 3,500 euros were paid for each assembled guerilla ambulance.
„I was shocked. And I'm not exaggerating. Slava Ukraini is probably Estonia's most successful charity project of all time, which worked with unprecedented donation amounts. To have 1.5 million euros of donor money transferred to a completely unknown and obviously untrustworthy partner without anyone noticing […] and this kind of thing happening on Ukrainian soil at the expense of Ukraine's own needy people... I simply cannot imagine myself in the place of those people who abuse such trust in such extreme conditions. The damage caused is immeasurable, and I feel that the architects of this scheme do not even realize the harm they've done” said one of the authors of the investigation, Eesti Päevaleht journalist Martin Laine.
Over the past month and a half, the Estonian media have been racing to publish new facts that expose the details of the affair. The result of these revelations was sad.
Donations have dried up
The statistics of Estonian donations to Ukraine in the second year of the war were already not very comforting: the relevance of the ongoing war had somewhat faded compared to the much closer-to-home economic crisis. While in the first months of the war Estonian organizations helping Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees collected hundreds of thousands of euros in voluntary donations, in February of this year the numbers plummeted. The maximum that the organizations reported was 20,000–24,000 euros, while the Red Cross managed to collect only 2,200 euros.
Enthusiasm was not helped by the growing distrust in the activities of charitable organizations and their Ukrainian partners. In addition, openly pro-Kremlin local portals also picked up the topic, taking advantage of the occasion for criticism. Of course, representatives of the political opposition are also not silent, arguing that if it were not for a member of the ruling coalition, the prosecutor's office would have dealt with the case long ago. Initially it really seemed that the authorities would do nothing, but on May 9 the Estonian prosecutor's office announced that prosecutors criminal proceedings in the Slava Ukraini scandal have been initiated both in Estonia and in Ukraine.
„It is a fact that Slava Ukraini's donations have already dried up by now, and this will undoubtedly have a wider impact on donations to Ukraine in general. It also feeds the strategic narrative and conspiracy theories of the so-called opposing side and all sorts of other bad guys about the misuse of donated funds in ‘totally corrupt Ukraine’” says Martin Laine. „I think that the Ukrainian authorities must do everything to ensure that the reaction to these possible abuses is strong and rigid and that they show zero tolerance for corruption”.
According to him, during the investigation, the journalists were aware that the consequences of exposure could negatively affect the number of donations. “Of course, we thought about it, but the unpleasant truth does not depend on the journalist [...] Journalists live for those moments that shock and prove that we work independently. And I believe that all people who now know the truth are only grateful for this, even if the situation itself makes us angry and sad” says Martin Laine.
The reputational damage is huge. It is not surprising that when the Estonian journalist from Eesti Ekspress asked at a joint press conference of Estonian Prime Minister Kaia Kallas and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky what Ukraine can do to make private donors not worry about where their money will go, it caused the discontent of the Ukrainian president. “We are dealing with this topic” he replied.
“I do not trust foundations and volunteers who do not provide reports. We have terrible corruption” says Olha Kukharuk, a journalist from Lviv. According to her, everything is being stolen, from money to children's clothes and food. “Then all this stuff ends up on the markets at inflated prices. And how many humanitarian aids are found in closed warehouses... And suddenly it becomes impossible to recognize the owner of the warehouse or the fund that kept this humanitarian aid there” she says. According to Kukharuk, what is happening is well described by the proverb “to some is war, and to some is dear mother.”
“Many Ukrainians are cashing in on the grief of their own compatriots” notes Olha Kukharuk. “We thought that now, in such a terrible time, everyone was working for the victory of Ukraine, but it turned out that many people thought only about their pockets.”
Sadder, but wiser, as the problem is widely known, charities have become more demanding. Kuharuk gives an example from personal experience: “I was looking for some medicines for the hospital, which was located near Bakhmut. Through friends, I turned to Lithuanian volunteers for help. The guys immediately asked for a list of medicines on a form with the seal of the head physician of that hospital, and then a photo report, which was done. Thus, we are sure that the medicines have been delivered to those who need them.”
In the international corruption perception index, Ukraine ranks 116th, next to El Salvador and Algeria — not the best position for a country that aspires to join the European Union. Estonia is located on the 14th. There is a long road ahead, and it is clear that after winning the war, Ukraine will have to deal with many internal problems, including the problem of corrupt thinking. In the meantime, European charities, including Estonian ones, will have to learn to interact with Ukrainian partners on a more solid, documented basis.