KYIV, Ukraine—The Daily Beast has learned from an influential member of Ukraine’s parliament, from one of the country’s prosecutors, and from a center combating corruption that the government here is likely to pursue the cases that President Donald Trump urged on President Volodymyr Zelensky in a controversial phone call last July. But not the way Trump intends, and not necessarily to the detriment of Trump challenger Joe Biden.
The investigations and possible prosecutions, if they happen, would take place in the context of a new law signed by Zelensky just before his departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he is expected to meet face to face with Trump for the first time.
In Kyiv, there are widespread hopes that the reforms will help Zelensky, a former comedian who played a corruption-fighting president on television, deliver on his campaign promise to clean up Ukraine for real. A new team of independent prosecutors is supposed to re-open investigations of past cases and answer questions about the corruption in post-revolutionary Ukraine over the last five years.
During much of that time, investigations were launched against various powerful oligarchs, then quietly shut down when, it was widely assumed, the prosecutors were paid off. As a result it has been hard to know if the investigations were justified or merely launched for purposes of extortion.
“We are trying ultimately to re-set the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine, to speed up the reform,” Kirill Timoshenko, deputy head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. In accordance with the new law, all Ukrainian prosecutors will go through a process of recertification. The number of prosecutors will be cut down from 15,000 to 10,000. Timoshenko said he could not comment on specific cases and could not say more about Zelensky’s agenda for the meeting with Trump on Wednesday.
Valentin Nalyvaichenko, a former head of Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency and a member of Ukraine’s parliament, says he expects the corruption case of the Burisma gas company—two cases were opened and dropped by various prosecutors over the years—to be revisited. Hunter Biden, the son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, was a board member.
Joe Biden is now Trump’s leading opponent in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and both Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have been working to find dirt on Biden in Ukraine.
Nalyvaichenko said his country will be best served by pursuing an investigation related to Burisma’s alleged multi-million-dollar corruption deals, not because of Trump’s pressure but because Ukraine wants to know the truth about its own corruption, whether the founder of Burisma, Ukraine’s ex-minister of natural resources Mykola Zlochevsky from 2010 to 2012, had paid to quash the earlier investigations into the way he acquired gas licenses.
In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Nalyvaichenko said Ukraine’s parliament is planning to hold hearings about the various corrupt schemes. Nalyvaichenko, who is a member of the opposition Fatherland Party, serves in a parliamentary group focused on U.S.-Ukraine relations.
“I am going to support President Zelensky’s initiatives to have new investigations by a new team at the law-enforcement agency,” Nalyvaichenko said. This would include inquiries into the actions of previous prosecutor generals, Yury Lutsenko and Victor Shokhin. “I am convinced that Zelensky will say in New York that these are our domestic investigations, we are going to figure them out on our own.” He added, however, “We’d be happy to cooperate with the FBI.”
Prosecutor Sergiy Gorbatyuk investigated the founder of Burisma company, Zlochevsky, for three months in 2016, until Prosecutor General Lutsenko made a decision to drop the probe. First, Lutsenko took the case away from the investigators, then closed it down illegally, Gorbatyuk told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
“There would not have been any question [about pursuing] such cases today, if Lutsenko did not interfere in the investigations,” the prosecutor said. “I hope that with the change of management at the prosecutor general’s office, there will be no illegal interferences and this case as well as other probes will be investigated strictly in accordance with the law.”
A leading Ukrainian sociologist, Irina Bekeshkina says there is powerful will in Zelensky’s team and a strong social demand to see some former corrupt bureaucrats in jail. “It is not the number of punished criminals but their status that will make the difference and set a good example,” Bekeshkina said. “We are going to see some big former decision-makers behind bars very soon, I have no doubt.”
The Ukraine scandal has rocked American politics, where opponents of Trump have fixed on reports that, at least implicitly, he threatened to withhold vital military aid from Ukraine if Zelensky did not pursue the Burisma case.
Trump has said there was no quid pro quo, but admits that he raised the issue of Burisma, and the Biden connection, in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky as part of a discussion about corruption.
A major part of the Trump narrative is that in 2016 then-Vice President Biden pressed for the resignation of Shokhin in order to protect his son. That is not the way people in Ukraine remember things. Lutsenko’s reputation for corruption was infamous, and Biden supported the efforts of Ukraine’s reformers to be rid of him.
According to Nalyvaichenko, Lutsenko needs to be investigated further, not least because he has been in communication with Trump’s agents “for vindictive purposes.”
Nalyvaichenko said Ukraine should also be interested in a thorough investigation into the “black ledger” that recorded slush-fund payments to Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
“As it turns out, nobody really investigated the case properly,” Nalyvaichenko said. “Officials close to former President Petro Poroshenko mentioned two names of the U.S. citizens. One was Paul Manafort, who lost his job as Trump campaign manager, the other, Larry King, was never talked about again.”
Ukraine previously suspected the well-known television host, Larry King, of accepting $225,000 from the “black ledger” for interviewing a pro-Russian politician in 2011. At the time of the allegations, King hosted the Larry King Now show on RT America, the Kremlin’s propaganda channel. At the time, King did not respond to requests for comment from Ukraine’s Kyiv Post, and, as Nalyvaichenko says, the allegations faded away.
There are high expectations in Ukraine this week surounding Zelensky’s meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations. In a Ukrainian dream scenario, Kyiv would want Zelensky to agree with Western leaders on an approach to settling the war in the east. There has been talk here, at least, of a sweeping peace treaty in the works.
Sovereignty is not just a word here, threatened as Ukraine is by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s irredentist ambition to resurrect the Russian Empire. Since 2014, Ukraine has paid with thousands of lives and territory, first during the uprising on Independence Square and thereafter during the war that has raged since.
Memories are long in such conflicts, and efforts to help are deeply appreciated. Nalyvaichenko says he has no ill will toward Biden. He remembers the U.S. vice president as one of the “bravest” Ukraine friends coming from Washington during the first and most violent year of war with the Kremlin-backed forces.
“Biden asked me about Russia’s aggression at the time when not many believed in it,” Nalyvaichenko said. He said Ukraine’s intelligence service shared with U.S. officials data they had at the time on Russian military forces fighting in Ukraine.
Nalyvaichenko said Biden did not shrink from denouncing corruption. “He is a man of sharp and fresh thoughts; he had no fear to turn with his face to the government, to our prime minister and top politicians and say: ‘You have corruption at a high level.’”
The executive director of the Center for Combating Corruption, Darya Kalenyuk, said that all of Ukraine’s corruption fighters expect the Burisma probe to be reopened. “The Burisma case has been a systematic problem for years, first Prosecutor General [Viktor] Shokin, then Lutsenko blocked the criminal investigations,” Kalenyuk told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “The pressure from Joe Biden was really needed, we welcomed it with gratitude, now it is up to the newly formed team of prosecutors to revisit the probe.”
International experts working in Ukraine also have strong memories of Biden’s move to pressure Ukraine to fire the top prosecutor, Victor Shokin, in 2016. “The U.S. law-enforcement community was very supportive of the efforts to oust Shokin at the time, working with civil society,” Donald Bowser, a former adviser on institution building, told The Daily Beast.
In 2016, Bowser’s group advised NABU, Ukraine’s national anti-corruption agency. “For example, a current serving Republican congressman, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, was seconded by the FBI in Kyiv at the time of the push to oust Shokin, he was helping on the anti-corruption efforts.”
Bowser also suggested it was time to pay attention to one of the erroneous statements by Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. “Giuliani claims the Anti-corruption Center, ANTAC, was [George] Soros-funded,” he said. “But they were mostly funded by INL [the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement] of the State Department.”
MP Nalyvaichenko welcomed President Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s critical statements about Ukraine’s corruption, but pointed out how important it was for Kyiv to remember its own history, value its old friends, and keep good relationships with all political powers in the United States, Ukraine’s most important strategic partner. “Please understand us correctly—our bipartisan position—U.S. support is very important for us as a state.”