DURING THE 2016 US presidential campaign, I, along with Serhii Leshchenko, a former journalist and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, published a list of secret payments made by the political party of the former Ukrainian president to Paul Manafort.
The revelation known as the “black ledger” revealed that Manafort had received $12.7 million in cash for his political consulting work in Ukraine. At the time, Manafort was running the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump. A few days after the scandal erupted, he resigned, and two years later, he was convicted of eight charges, including tax fraud related to the cash payments.
The current scandal involving President Trump, Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, and Ukraine does not directly involve Manafort, but there’s a reason to revisit him.
To understand the current controversy, it’s important to know that Ukrainian business people and politicians have long been willing to pay generously for the attention of influential Americans. For example, in 2015, the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk paid Donald Trump’s foundation $150,000 for a 20-minute engagement at his Yalta European Strategy conference. Pinchuk is also one of the most generous sponsors of the Clinton Family Foundation, donating about $10 million over 15 years.
So, in many ways, Hunter Biden’s work on the supervisory board of the Ukrainian oil and gas company would hardly have been worth mentioning if his father was not now running for president of the United States. Now, his position has become fodder for Joe Biden’s opponents; Trump is being investigated by Congress for prodding Ukraine’s president to help him uncover any corruption related to the Bidens.
A couple days ago, an American colleague asked whether I believe that Hunter Biden is guilty of wrongdoing.
Legally, the son of the former vice president might escape unscathed. Here’s where Manafort’s case provides important context: Manafort had been engaged as a political consultant in Ukraine since 2005. In 2010, he was given credit as one of the sculptors who shaped Viktor Yanukovych’s victory in the presidential election.
However, it was the generous infusion of sponsors from among the Ukrainian oligarchs and prominent business people that made this victory possible. Mykola Zlochevskyi, the oil and gas businessman, was one of them.
The support of Yanukovych in the elections brought him the position of Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources and the appointment immediately had a positive impact on his business.
It was up to Zlochevskyi’s department to decide which companies would receive new licenses for oil and gas production. So it was no surprise that good times had come for Burisma, the oil and gas holding company owned by Zlochevskyi.
In 2014, president Yanukovych left the country after more than a hundred participants in anti-government demonstrations were shot dead, and that changed everything. Shortly afterward, a criminal case was initiated against Zlochevskyi, who was charged with money laundering.
Around the same time, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president, and Hunter Biden, whose father was at that time vice president of the United States, were invited to the supervisory board of Burisma.
Obviously, well-known foreign names were invited to protect the reputation of the company, which is not illegal. But what about Hunter Biden’s moral responsibility? How could he not have known about the corruption issues of the main shareholder of Burisma? Was he OK with trading on his family’s name? Was the money just too good to turn down? (It has been reported that he received $50,000 a month for the role.)
In the past, it has paid for Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians to have connections to the US political elite. Relations with the United States have always been important for Ukraine, but in the last few years, they have been given special significance.
Ukraine was faced with crucial challenges after the 2014 revolution: it was a poor and corrupt country that was also fighting against Russian aggression. The United States stepped in to help. Now we depend too much on the United States — for military assistance, for their influence on aid from the International Monetary Fund, and for sanctions meant to force Russia out of Ukraine.
The United States was one of the main donors backing an effort create anti-corruption and law enforcement reforms in the country. Thanks to the financial assistance and advocacy of the United States, the National Anticorruption Bureau — law enforcement independent from the country’s political leadership — was created.
It also was due to US financial assistance in 2015 that the reform of the General Prosecutor’s Office began, which, unfortunately, cannot be called successful.
“Ukraine has another fight, the historical one — against corruption. Ukraine cannot afford to let Ukrainians lose hope,” vice president Joe Biden said in an address to the Ukrainian parliament at the end of 2015. Now, four years later, his name appears in one of the highest-profile political scandals in Ukrainian-American relations.
Previously, the United States was to Ukraine a role model, a country where institutions and laws work. But amid the current scandal, our faith is deteriorating.
Trump is accused of blackmail and putting pressure on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, while making accusations of corruption about his potential rival in the upcoming presidential elections. Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, has met with former and current Ukrainian prosecutors to find incriminating evidence against the Bidens. All these details are important to remember.
The country that was once an example for Ukrainian society, a model of transparency, seems to now be a country with a similar problems — nepotism, corruption, violation of laws, and abuses of power.
And the more the United States plunges into this scandal, the faster the chances evaporate for change in Ukraine. Sadly, we are losing the role model that the United States has represented for us in recent years.
Sevgil Musaieva is the editor of Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), an online news site in Kyiv, Ukraine.