The Corrupt Shall Inherit Ukraine

In a country where even the anti-corruption prosecutors abuse their power, it's hard to say who the good guys are.

Activists protest during an anti-corruption rally in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Oct. 22, 2017. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists protest during an anti-corruption rally in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Oct. 22, 2017. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

On a recent trip to Kiev, I found myself standing before a pop art rendering of Gerard David’s celebrated 15th-century diptych, The Judgement of Cambyses. In two panels, the painting depicts the arrest and flaying of the corrupt judge Sisamnes, who accepted a bribe and delivered an unfair verdict. The renaissance painting had been updated for the 21st century—before me, Sisamnes and the authorities executing his punishment appeared in an array of fluorescent colors, their bright, strained faces contrasting wildly with the clean, modern lines of the Kiev law firm that had commissioned it. “We ordered this painting in a pop art style to show that this problem is very modern,” Artem Afian, an attorney at Juscutum, told me.

In Ukraine, where corruption remains widespread, few expect the judicial system to actually render justice. So news of Paul Manafort’s guilty plea for two felony counts, both linked to his extensive work as a political lobbyist in Ukraine, is a rare cause for celebration in Kiev. At a federal court in Washington, D.C., Manafort pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy against the United States and conspiracy to obstruct justice and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Court documents detailing his criminal activities state that Manafort was paid more than $60 million for his lobbying work on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates and that, from 2006 to 2016, he “laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.” The filings also detail how he conspired to plant negative stories about former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned by the Yanukovych government for abuse of power, in the U.S. press. “My goal is to plant some stink on Tymo,” he wrote to one of his lobbyists. In another communication, he wrote, “I have someone pushing it on the NY Post. Bada bing bada boom.”

While the court documents reveal telling new details of Manafort’s manner of doing business, by now his story is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic: Before he chaired Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Manafort made his name as a political showrunner who fed off Ukraine’s endemic corruption. But the catharsis of his judicial comeuppance will ultimately only produce envy in Ukraine. Four years after the Maidan revolution erupted, the country is hardly any closer to solving its corruption problems; even its latest anti-corruption prosecutors have been caught on tape abusing their official powers for private ends.

Manafort and his company, DMP International, spent more than a decade in Ukraine working on political campaigns on behalf of a number of notorious oligarchs and politicians. Following the 2004 Orange Revolution, when protesters marched against Yanukovych’s victory in what was perceived to be a fraudulent runoff vote and succeeded in having the results annulled, Manafort was instrumental in rehabilitating the image of Yanukovych and his political party and ultimately getting him elected as president in 2010. Though Yanukovych was forced to flee to Russia in 2014 as a result of the Maidan revolution, many of his supporters and political partners remain in power.

The nearly three decades of politics that Ukraine has experienced as an independent country have been largely unhappy, in no small part because of the efforts of Manafort and his clients. In Kiev, his brand of political theater, in which glossy optics are mobilized to mask old-fashioned graft, remains very much alive. Ukraine currently sits in 130th place on Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Gambia, Iran, Myanmar, and Sierra Leone.

Given this history, news of Manafort’s conviction last month on eight counts of financial fraud was met with some bewilderment and tepid optimism in Kiev, where the promised anti-corruption reforms of the Maidan revolution have been slow to materialize. “We are positively surprised how quickly justice could be. We see the case against Manafort as the model case for Ukrainian law enforcement and judiciary to follow,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev. “We have been expecting justice against Yanukovych for years, but that was never delivered. Now we see how justice can be delivered in a nonbiased and quick way against very influential persons.” Manafort’s conviction boosted the morale of Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists, and there are some signs that his prosecution might be making the nation’s powerholders a bit nervous.

On Aug. 21, the same day that Manafort was convicted, Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko announced an investigation into several former Ukrainian officials from the Yanukovych administration who allegedly engaged in business dealings with Manafort. His contacts included many of the most influential oligarchs and politicians in the country, including Serhiy Lovochkin, Rinat Akhmetov, Sergey Tigipko, Borys Kolesnikov, Victor Pinchuk, and Andriy Klyuyev. Together, they are alleged to have paid Manafort $65.9 million for consulting work, according to court documents. Lutsenko’s office is also currently investigating three other cases related to Manafort’s work, and the country’s new Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO) is also investigating cases pertaining to the so-called “black ledger” that detailed “off-the-books” payments from Yanukovych’s party to Manafort, to election officials, and others.

“Since we didn’t manage to cure our own political corruption, this investigation gives us an impetus to make politics a little bit cleaner,” said Mikhail Minakov, a Ukrainian political philosopher. “It’s just another chance to make politics less dependent on dirty money [and] more responsive to citizens’ needs.”

But the unfortunate state of the nation’s judicial system means that without assistance from outside stakeholders, Manafort’s collaborators in Ukraine are unlikely to ever see the inside of a courtroom. Decades of corruption can take decades to undo; despite some positive developments, Ukraine’s judicial system is not yet fully independent, and the widespread influence of oligarchs can be difficult to pin down. “The [Manafort] trial went for three weeks—in Ukraine, for more than four years now, we don’t have any convictions, the result of the dysfunctionality of the system. The difference is staggering,” said Mykhailo Zhernakov, a former judge and current director of the Dejure Foundation, which advocates for judicial reform. “The justice system was horrible before, and, unfortunately, it remains horrible.” According to a recent poll, only 8 percent of Ukrainians approve of the activities of the courts and prosecutors’ offices, respectively. At present, the army is the most trusted governmental institution in Ukraine, with a 62 percent approval rating.

But infighting, and apparent corruption, among Ukraine’s newly created anti-corruption offices has hamstrung the progress of their investigations. “What we have in Ukraine right now is a systemic conflict between different parts of the anti-corruption system,” Minakov said.

Nazar Kholodnytsky, the current head of SAPO, was investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which he oversees, for allegedly leaking details of a case. Early this year, NABU taped conversations in Kholodnytsky’s office, securing evidence to suggest that he was actively blocking cases from proceeding. “The most recent one he blocked was against the son of the current minister of the interior,” Kaleniuk said, explaining that his actions made him “appear not to be independent.” Last year, the interior minister’s son, Oleksandr Avakov, was detained on embezzlement charges, but Kholodnytsky’s prosecutors subsequently released him and closed the case. “It is Lutsenko who is responsible formally for keeping Kholodnytsky in his position,” Kaleniuk said.

On Independence Day, Lutsenko published a celebratory video from his mansion outside Kiev that Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament who exposed the black ledger in 2016, found rather distasteful. “It signals that we have a politician in the prosecutor’s chair,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy. On Friday, following a NABU investigation into illegal enrichment by the deputy head of the Ukrainian Security Service, it emerged that Lutsenko’s office has launched a criminal investigation against the NABU detective behind the report. Because Lutsenko and Kholodnytsky seem to be more politicians than prosecutors, there is little reason to hope that investigations pertaining to Manafort’s many partners will go anywhere. Instead, Kaleniuk hopes that FBI officials might partner with Ukrainians in a joint investigation, which she says “would give additional protection” to uncorrupted Ukrainian investigators.

But all hope is not yet lost. Indeed, the very fact that both NABU and SAPO are operational is evidence of some progress. The creation of both offices was part of a wide-ranging package of judicial reforms following the 2014 revolution—reforms that remain very much unfinished. “Justice reforms only work in Ukraine when new trustworthy institutions are created,” Zhernakov said. The High Qualification Commission of Judges of Ukraine is considering applicants for appointments to the new High Anti-Corruption Court, which is supposed to be an independent judicial institution dedicated to ending the graft that has long plagued Ukraine (though it has received far fewer applications than expected). But the qualification commission is itself not exactly free of the problem that it is purportedly trying to solve. “The integrity of the commission itself is a big question,” Zhernakov said. After the revolution, when there was a massive lustration campaign, the commission only removed a few corrupt judges. “The vast majority of old faces” are still there, Zhernakov said. “Many of them even got promoted.” In a recent press release, NABU announced that most of the individuals it has investigated for corruption belong to the judicial system.

It is a depressing state of affairs but one not immune to the powers of satire and ridicule. Standing before the pop art painting of David’s Judgement of the Cambyses, Afian told me that his law firm had ordered two copies of the diptych, specifically so it could gift one to the qualification commission. “It was a huge scandal,” he said. “They said, ‘Oh, you’re making fun of us.’ And we said, ‘Yes, we are, because you’re taking bribes!’”

Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, California.

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