KYIV–Ukraine is reviewing 15 probes related to Burisma Holdings, the energy firm where, for five years, Hunter Biden served on the board.
This might look like “favor” that President Donald Trump asked Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for in a now-infamous July 25 phone call. But it is far too early for Trump to rejoice. Things are never simple in Ukraine’s evolving, reforming institutions.
Ukraine’s new Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka told reporters on Friday that he was “auditing” cases handled by previous prosecutors, including those related to Burisma, but he insisted that the investigation in Ukraine should be “independent from politics.”
At a news conference he said, somewhat coyly, “the key words were not Biden and not Burisma," the question was whether investigations were closed by previous prosecutors as part of what amount to corrupt proceedings. In the array of cases to be looked at, he would say only that "Burisma" and "Biden" might figure.
It’s worth remembering that this is the prosecutor Zelensky told Trump would be “100 percent my person." But it’s also important to know responsibility for the audit will soon be taken away from him.
The official government statement on Friday said that as of November 20 this year the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine loses investigative powers due to amendments to the law previously signed by President Zelensky.
“Ryaboshapka has at least four Burisma cases at the prosecutor’s office, which two Prosecutor Generals before him have put on hold,” Daria Kaleniuk, a corruption fighter and one of Ukraine’s leading experts on Burisma told The Daily Beast.
“He will review them before November 20 and pass on to various investigative authorities, supposedly including police and the national anti-corruption agency,”
Prosecutor Ryboshapka explained on Friday that Ukraine had many cases related to businessmen and senior officials of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych regime overthrown in the popular Maidan Revolution of 2014. Burisma and its founder Mykola Zlochevsky, a minister of natural resources under Yanukovych, figured in 15 criminal proceedings, which have been closed “in violation of the law,” the official statement said. In other words, past prosecutors failed to detail corruption and punish anybody at Burisma.
Kaleniuk was one of the most aggressive voices pushing for investigations into Zlochevsky’s corruption. Back in 2011-2012 he allegedly violated his authority as minister by “giving his own company licenses for gas production,” Kaleniuk told The Daily Beast. “But today I am a strong believer that the probes should not have anything to do with the American presidential elections. … The proceedings should not be fit in any political agendas or deadlines.”
Zlochevsky put Hunter Biden on the Burisma’s board in May 2014, soon after Zlochevsky’s money was frozen in the United Kingdom. A few months later Ukraine began to look into Zlochevsky and Burisma’s alleged corruption. In January 2015 the court in London lifted the freeze on $23 million of Zlochevsky money.
The U.K. asked Ukraine to investigate whether Burisma’s founder had benefited from criminal dealings with Sergei Kurchenko, a shadowy billionaire who acted as the alleged frontman for the money of Viktor Yanukovych and his older son, Oleksander Yanukovych. Prosecutor General Vityaly Yarema ordered Zlochevsky brought to court, which put him on what Ukrainians call their “wanted list.”
Notwithstanding the allegations and controversy Burisma continued–and continues–to operate. Is, for instance, a major support of the annual Energy Security Forum in Monaco together with one of Burisma’s long time directors, former Polish Presiden Aleksandr Kwasniewski.
The most criticized past prosecutor general of Ukraine, Viktor Shokin, did not push for the investigation of the Burisma Group, so by 2016 the case was effectively in limbo. Vice President Joe Biden insisted on the dismissal of Viktor Shokin. But the national anti-corruption agency, NABU, continued some of the Burisma investigative proceedings. In September 2016, Kyiv’s court made a decision to stop looking into Zlochevsky.
Enter the figure of Andrei Artemenko. He won a seat in Ukraine’s post-Maidan parliament, the Rada, in 2014 as member of the populist Radical Party, and soon became known for staking out controversial position. He was officially expelled from the parliament in 2017 and deprived of his Ukrainian citizenship after passing his widely criticized peace plan to resolve the conflict with Russia to Donald Trump through his then-attorney Michael Cohen.
Artemenko, who is now based in Washington, D.C., often appears on Russia 1, the Kremlin’s propagandistic television channel, leveling criticism at Ukraine. He tells the Daily Beast that he is a “good friend of Sam Kislin,” a rich former exile from Ukraine who has long-standing ties to Trump and Giuliani, and that he has “provided Sam Kislin with the same evidence and documents that have previously been given to the FBI.” Sam Kislin visited Kyiv last summer and had meetings with the Ukrainian presidential administration and the Ukrainian Security Service. The House of Representatives impeachment committees have “requested” multiple documents from Kislin that may relate to President Trump’s alleged corruption or abuse of power.
There are attempts both in Kyiv and Washington to blame ex-President Petro Poroshenko for the failed Burisma investigations and for not looking into Hunter Biden’s participation in Zlochevsky’s business.
Artemenko is one of the political entrepreneurs pushing for the probe to please Trump. Artemenko, who has a Canadian passport, says he is a consultant for private businesses and has no plans to return to live in Kyiv. But nevertheless, he pushes for investigations against Poroshenko.
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, Artemenko said, “Everything is very simple. Zlochevsky was supplying free gas for President Poroshenko’s companies and for his entourage. In exchange Ukraine had to close criminal investigations against him.” Artemenko did not supply documentary evidence supporting this claim.
Sam Kislin, who came to Kyiv ostensibly to condemn corruption, and Artemenko, who may have passed some documents to the FBI, are among the aggressive voices in both Washington and Kyiv pushing for investigations against ex-President Petro Poroshenko. He is their target, Hunter Biden, in a sense, is potential collateral damage.
But there are also many liberal voices warning President Zelensky and U.S. investigators against taking the wrong lead.
A senior Ukrainian diplomat and expert on the country’s integration into Europe, Vasil Filipchuk, tells The Daily Beast, “Any prosecution of ex-President Poroshenko to punish him for putting Burisma and other corruption probes on hold will look like selective justice, the ugliest manifestation of non-developed states.”
“The new Ukrainian leadership should not start down the road of politics with criminal prosecutions of ex-politicians,” he said. “It should act only in accordance with the rule of law, respect for justice.”
It’s not clear that Trump ever got that message.