MOSCOW—Americans can be forgiven if they are sick of hearing about Ukraine and corruption in connection with Donald Trump and Joe Biden and his son Hunter. The long road to President Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and the quick business of acquittal in the Senate left people in the United States drained and desperate to turn the page.
But now it looks like Ukraine is about to open that book again. In the foreground, a lot of broken promises by the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the background, Russian President Vladimir Putin. How much of a role Trump operatives are playing in the picture is unclear.
Last week, Zelensky shook up his cabinet. He fired several ministers pursuing anti-corruption reforms and axed the prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who had managed to win the respect of clean-government activists in Kyiv.
Ryaboshapka was seen to be doing his level best to avoid pressure from Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani to investigate Hunter Biden’s relationship with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, where he held a lucrative position on the board.
Zelensky and his aides had also seemed reluctant to pursue such an agenda, which has a great deal more to do with partisan American politics than it does with rooting out Ukrainian corruption. But Zelensky said the fired ministers were underperforming.
Long-time Ukraine watchers saw something more ominous: a pivot away from attempts at sustainable reform, and one toward the presidential elections in the United States.
In the infamous phone call between Trump and Zelensky last July, you’ll recall, Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor”: to investigate Burisma and the Bidens. This at a time when Trump was withholding vital military aid from Ukraine.
Zelensky told Trump in July he would soon appoint a prosecutor who would look into the Bidens and who would be “100 percent my person, my candidate.” Zelensky assured Trump that this loyal prosecutor “will take care of that, will work on the investigation of the case.” And just as Zelensky promised, Ryaboshapka did look at the facts, but he always chose his words carefully: Instead of “investigating” Burisma, he said he intended to “audit” the case.
Apparently that wasn’t enough. In a farewell speech to Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, Ryaboshapka warned of the return of pro-Russian politicians to Ukrainian politics, some of the very same who were pushed out of the country by a pro-European revolution six years ago, ending decades of corrupt dominance of its economic and political life.
“They want to return and live the same way they had lived for 28 years,” said Ryaboshapka, “that is why I am standing here.” The decision to fire him was based on “bald-face lies,” he said. He had refused to bow to the wishes of Zelensky or members of his “Servant of the People” party that he pursue politicized cases, he said. “I have never been anybody’s servant. I have been—I remain—independent. Nobody can influence an independent prosecutor. He can only be fired.”
“Zelensky and his team are in the process of eliminating everyone who is independent in the cabinet and in the supervisory boards,” says Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. “Prosecutor Ryaboshapka was too independent and too committed to playing by the rules,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s entirely possible that they need someone in the general prosecutor’s seat who will comply with a bogus investigation of Burisma.”
Currently there are many politicians in Kyiv pushing for Ukraine to fulfill Trump’s “favor.”
Oleg Voloshin is a member of the For Life party. Its chairman is Victor Medvechuk, a close Putin friend and associate. On Thursday, he condemned Ryaboshapka and all his supporters while pushing the Kremlin line that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the U.S. presidential elections of 2016. Voloshin told the Rada that the outgoing prosecutor and others are “are very much terrified of the investigation of Ukraine’s interference in 2016 American presidential elections and of the objective investigation against Burisma.”
Ukraine’s leading corruption fighters and political analysts believe that the changes underway may drag the country right back into the arms of pro-Russian figures, and that the shift will also hasten Zelensky’s lean toward Trump on the issue of investigations.
Daria Kaleniuk, director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, is convinced that Moscow is using the moment to strengthen its powers in Ukraine at a moment when the U.S. is focused on coronavirus and election news, and Europe is overwhelmed with the epidemic as well as a new refugee crisis.
“The reshuffle of our government is a direct threat to American-Ukrainian relations: Putin’s friend, MP Viktor Medvechuk and his party For Life, sing in unison with President Zelensky’s party, the Servant of the People, calling to investigate the Bidens,” Kaleniuk said. “It would be a catastrophe for our future relations with the United States if we stop being bipartisan and take just one position: pro-Republican.”
Foreign investors, too, had a negative reaction to the new personalities coming to top positions in Ukraine’s government and their vague attitude toward International Monetary Fund requirements for reform and transparency.
Some new ministers have résumés that suggest not the slightest intention to reform. The new prime minister, 44-year-old Denis Shmygal, previously worked for the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov in 2017-2019 as director of his Burshtyn power plant.
A report by Morgan Stanley released last week recommended investors sell Ukrainian government bonds, before the uncertainty in Kyiv expanded the budget deficit. “We recommend selling Ukraine-2030 Eurobonds and buying Egypt-2031 bonds,” said the report, noting that prominent reformers had lost out, including former Economy Minister Timofey Milovanov and former Finance Minister Oksana Markarova.
“Ukraine has hundreds of top managers, I don’t see many on Zelensky’s team,” said the Atlantic Council’s Melinda Haring. “Also, the purge is not over, they will go after the leadership of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, NABU, and the National Bank of Ukraine next, unless the West makes a ton of noise.”
Zelensky came to power last year thanks to the massive support of his fans, TV viewers of the satirical television series called Servant of the People. Zelensky’s on-screen character, an ordinary schoolteacher, gets elected Ukraine’s president and the first thing he does is to bring down the most powerful oligarchs, fictional men akin to the country’s richest billionaires—Renat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky, and Dmytro Firtash. In real life, at least two, Kolomoisky and Akhmetov, seem to grow more influential in Ukrainian politics by the day. (Firtash is in Vienna awaiting extradition to the United States.)
Zelensky continues to compare his presidency to his television role while recognizing there are greater challenges in real life. “It’s true there are more problems. They are catastrophic,” Zelensky told The Guardian in an interview published last week. “They appear, I’m sorry to say, like pimples on an 18-year-old kid. You don’t know where they will pop up, or when.”
But zits rarely do as much damage as a cabinet shuffle weighted in favor of corruption. This is a “turning point” for Zelensky and Ukraine, says Vitaly Sych, editor in chief of the well-respected magazine Novoye Vremia. Too many clean, professional ministers aiming to change Ukraine for the better had to leave the cabinet, said Sych. “This is nothing left but populism.”