The Ukrainian Who Sunk Paul Manafort
The politician and former journalist Serhiy Leshchenko says Ukraine needs its own Robert Mueller.
When a Virginia court convicted Paul Manafort, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, on charges of tax and bank fraud and concealing foreign bank accounts, a certain Ukrainian politician felt a surge of vindication. Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and a former journalist, revealed the existence in 2016 of the so-called “black ledger”—a list of secret payments made by Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions to Manafort and others. The list detailed the vast sums Manafort earned as a political consultant abroad, some of which he concealed from U.S. authorities. Foreign Policy caught up by phone recently with Leshchenko in Redondo Beach, California, where he is on a swing through U.S. national parks with his family. He talked about his efforts to purge Ukrainian politics of corrupt money, the significance of Manafort’s conviction, and the lingering questions about Manafort’s ties to Moscow.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Foreign Policy: Is it a personal victory for you to see Manafort convicted?
Serhiy Leshchenko: Not a personal victory, but it is in the interest of truth and democracy to have such cases investigated. I wish we would have something like this in Ukraine. The American case demonstrated that with a properly working judicial system, we can prosecute corrupt people. Manafort could be the most influential gray cardinal in the Trump administration, but now he is found guilty. And this is an example of how a proper judicial system works. For Ukraine, this is a good case because political consultants helped very corrupt, even criminal, oligarchs come to power. Of course these people siphoned money from the state budget, from the government, from state companies. Since the Ukrainian revolution happened four and a half years ago, nobody was sentenced for crimes conducted by previous governments or by current governments.
FP: Do you think the Manafort prosecution and conviction will have an impact on anti-corruption work in Ukraine?
SL: It will have an impact in the sense of general public opinion because now our society has an example of how it works in a properly constructed judicial system. But I’m quite skeptical about possible investigations started after Manafort was prosecuted because we have had very poor results of investigations of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s cronies. There are some Ukrainian citizens mentioned in the American indictment, but these persons are so influential, I am quite skeptical about the possibility of prosecution in Ukraine.
FP: What is the current state of Manafort-related anti-corruption investigations in Ukraine?
SL: It was a very long story of how to block those investigations because President Petro Poroshenko was trying to gain the sympathy of President Trump. There was a criminal case started by investigative agencies, but then it was blocked and only in May of this year the investigation was officially launched again because of statements by U.S. senators criticizing the Ukrainian government for blocking that investigation. The current president, Poroshenko, would prefer to forget the name Manafort and just to be sympathetic to Trump.
FP: Did the relationship between Poroshenko and Trump improve after the Manafort-related investigations were blocked?
SL: I think so, yes. There is also a report that Poroshenko paid money through former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for a meeting. So Poroshenko is using different ways to get Trump’s sympathy. Instead of making reforms and making Ukraine a successful country, Poroshenko decides to pay money or to buy American goods and to block investigation of Manafort. But he would get the real sympathy of Americans if he made real reforms. But real reforms mean to stop corruption, which is unacceptable to him.
FP: What unanswered questions do you have regarding Manafort’s work in Ukraine?
SL: It is still not clear if Manafort was working for Yanukovych as just a spin doctor or as, let’s say, an unofficial agent of Russian influence. We know there are some people from secret services who worked with him, such as Konstantin Kilimnik, a suspected Russian intelligence officer. How strong was this influence on Manafort? I think it has to be investigated further.
FP: Next month, Manafort faces another trial on separate charges, related to his lobbying work in Washington on Yanukovych’s behalf. Do you think this question about Manafort’s relationship to Russia will be answered at the next trial?
SL: I hope that special prosecutor Robert Mueller can prove it. I’m quite excited by the evidence he provided at the first trial. As a Ukrainian former journalist and now a member of parliament, I would never have such proof in my hands.
FP: What’s your understanding of the relationship between Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik?
SL: I think they were quite comfortable with each other. Kilimnik was not like a brilliant expert, not like somebody unusual. He was a very typical person. He was so deeply involved in Manafort’s business, so the question is: Why? Was he just useful for Manafort, or was he playing another role? Kilimnik was kind of a mediator between Manafort and Ukrainian clients. There is also another interesting story that Manafort and Kilimnik were trying to work in Kyrgyzstan. What the hell is Kyrgyzstan for them? There are not many rich people to pay for their political consulting there, but if they were involved in some geopolitical issues in Kyrgyzstan, it’s more proof that Manafort wasn’t just a spin doctor.
FP: Do you wish you had a Bob Mueller in Ukraine?
SL: I’m so excited by the work Mueller is doing in the United States. I think he’s brilliant as a prosecutor. At the same time, the Ukrainian prosecutor on Independence Day published a video of a celebration in his luxury mansion in a Kiev suburb, where he is trying to present himself as a big patriot, kissing a child, hugging his relatives, playing with a dog. I can’t imagine that prosecutor Mueller would publish such a video on the U.S. Independence Day. It signals that we have a politician in the prosecutor’s chair.