Serhiy Leshchenko is a Ukrainian journalist and lawmaker.
In February 2014, as Ukrainian protesters were massing in the streets against their government, a fire broke out in the headquarters of the Party of Regions, the ruling political movement of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Documents later came to light in the ruins that showed hundreds of pages of handwritten payments adding up to billions of dollars. Among the thousands of names of Ukrainian officials, politicians and journalists that cropped up in the documents, there was one that none of us knew at the time: Paul Manafort. He helped bring Viktor Yanukovych to power in Ukraine and later did the same for Donald Trump.
A little over a year ago, long after the Yanukovych government had collapsed in disgrace, I published copies of pages from those ledgers showing that Manafort had received $12.7 million in cash. Some people reacted with skepticism. They said that no one would ever be able to prove anything conclusively and that the story would die. Yet this week, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted Manafort with conspiracy against the United States, tax evasion and money laundering — all charges directly based on Manafort’s work in Ukraine.
During his career as a political consultant, Manafort served some of the world’s most repugnant leaders, in countries from the Philippines to Congo. One can assume, though, that no one ever offered him quite as much in fees as Yanukovych did. Yanukovych, after all, was a man with a fake education and two convictions for criminal offenses, and he enjoyed the backing of the country’s most powerful (and widely hated) oligarchs.
Yet Manafort found a way. Putting his talent to work, he first made Yanukovych prime minister, then president. They stayed together for four electoral cycles. As their partnership continued, Yanukovych became increasingly authoritarian, censoring journalists and ultimately even throwing opposition leaders in jail. Corruption, always a plague in our country, deepened to a horrifying degree. (Somehow, despite his modest salary as a civil servant, he managed to buy himself a huge mansion on an immense parcel of land on the outskirts of Kiev.) To clean up his client’s reputation, Paul Manafort drew on his connections in Washington, hiring big names from the lobbying world, such as Tony Podesta, Vin Weber and Gregory Craig.
To prevent them from being linked too openly with Yanukovych, Manafort paid them indirectly, through a fake public organization created in Brussels by associates of the president. Since Yanukovych earned his money from corruption, the cash Manafort’s clients received effectively came from Ukrainian taxpayers. The money paid not only for their sky-high fees, but also for business jets and month-long stays in the Kiev Hyatt, the country’s priciest hotel.
Paul Manafort decided that the best way to keep his client in power was by exacerbating Ukrainians’ divisions. The Yanukovych government correspondingly played up claims that the Russian language (which is spoken by many Ukrainians) had been suppressed by the administration’s predecessors. Meanwhile, the government also allowed for the registration of the ultranationalist Freedom party. The aim of all this was to polarize society and to make Russian speakers feel besieged and discriminated against by internal enemies so they could look to Yanukovych as their savior. Sound familiar?
Ukraine paid a high price for Manafort’s experiments. His divisive approach deepened the fault lines in society and eroded our unity. The corruption fueled by his regime weakened our capacity for national defense. All this helped make my country an easy victim when Russia moved to annex Crimea in 2014 and seized part of our territory in the east.
Today, the Manafort-related news from the United States is making the largest oligarchic clans in Ukraine nervous. These people – Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash and Sergey Levochkin — are among the richest people in the country. They advised Yanukovych to hire Manafort. It was they who used Manafort’s experience and connections to rehabilitate Yanukovych’s reputation in the United States; Firtash even teamed up with Manafort and another oligarch to try to buy the Drake Hotel in New York for $850 million. They also happen to have close ties to some of the most powerful people in Moscow, including Putin insiders such as Vladislav Surkov and Igor Sechin.
The current president, Petro Poroshenko, is keen to avoid irritating the Trump administration, so he has tried to avoid dwelling on Manafort’s past sins. Even so, some determined investigators have continued to dig. One case involves former Minister of Justice Alexander Lavrynovych. In 2013, he paid $1 million to the U.S. law firm Skadden Arps, which drew up a report, at Manafort’s urging, defending the Yanukovych administration against claims that it was persecuting its political opponents. (Many outside observers disagreed.)
After the 2014 revolution, activists found papers showing that Manafort had suggested and orchestrated the entire effort to whitewash Ukraine’s reputation. For the past two years, Ukrainian investigators have sent a number of requests to the U.S. Department of Justice to ask Manafort and Gregory Craig, Skadden’s lead lawyer, for information about the case. So far they’ve received little help.
It is the taxpayers of Ukraine who ended up paying the price for the services of Yanukovych’s champion political fixer. But Ukraine will never have full answers to the many remaining questions about Yanukovych’s network of corruption without information from Paul Manafort. While we understand the huge potential consequences of the current investigation for America’s own political system, we, too, would be grateful for the help of the FBI.
That Manafort is now being brought to account for his actions offers hope not just to Ukrainians, but to other transitional democracies around the world. America’s political mercenaries clearly feel little sense of responsibility for the ills they perpetuate in other parts of the world. Perhaps now that will start to change.