Diana Pilipenko is the associate director for anti-corruption and illicit finance at the Center for American Progress.
During Paul Manafort’s trial for tax evasion and bank fraud, the public has heard over-the-top tales of illicit trysts in London, ostrich leather jackets and overpriced antique rugs. Bankers, IRS agents and accountants have testified at length about how Manafort defrauded financial institutions and the U.S. government. Yet little attention has been paid to the constituency that perhaps suffered most from Manafort’s deeds: the people of Ukraine.
I grew up in Ukraine, and reading the court documents detailing Manafort’s work for the country’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, left me disgusted and depressed. The people who suffered from Yanukovych’s corrupt regime are my relatives, my friends and my former neighbors. They are not abstractions or numbers on a ledger, and under Yanukovych their lives took a back seat to state-sponsored greed.
Many in Ukraine credit Manafort with the 2010 resurrection of Yanukovych, who lost a bid for president in 2004 after serious electoral fraud on his behalf was exposed, triggering massive protests.
“Manafort worked for a long time so that Yanukovych could come to power and use that power for his own corrupt schemes, not reform,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament and the investigative journalist who published evidence of the $12 million in payments from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to Manafort. As another Ukrainian reporter put it, what’s been happening in the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, is actually “the first serious trial to address political corruption in Ukraine under Yanukovych.”
Yanukovych defanged law enforcement and the courts, stifled the free press, undermined integration with the European Union, welcomed Kremlin influence and, along with his cronies, allegedly stole up to $100 billion from the country — equivalent to nearly 90 percent of Ukraine’s economic output last year. In March 2014, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Yanukovych as someone who contributed to destabilizing Ukraine, alongside his Russian allies. In this respect, Manafort also bears part of the blame for Russia’s illegal takeover of Crimea and Moscow’s bloody war in the east, which has claimed at least 10,000 lives and continues today.
Many have noted that Manafort’s two most recent high-profile clients, Yanukovych in 2010 and Donald Trump in 2016, both advanced the interests of the Kremlin. And Manafort’s trial has also shown that his work to elect Yanukovych — which earned him more than $60 million — was rooted in corruption. Many of Manafort’s campaign memos, such as those addressed to steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, suggest that oligarchs’ financial interests took precedence over the interests of the Ukrainian people.
The corrupt oligarchic system that Yanukovych thrived in largely remains intact today. Unfortunately, Ukraine’s law enforcement and judiciary have not recovered enough from the hollowing out they suffered under Yanukovych — too much corruption and crime still goes unpunished and continues to sabotage reform.
Transparency International, an anti-corruption advocacy group, gives Ukraine one of its lowest rankings in Europe. Given the correlation between corruption and poverty, it is not surprising that Ukraine is also one of the continent’s poorest countries.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the populations of Ukraine and Poland were similar in number, education levels and wealth. Yet by 2013, the year before Yanukovych was run out of power, Ukraine’s per capita gross domestic product was less than one-third of Poland’s. Poland was able to modernize and introduce market reforms after the fall of communism, while in Ukraine, according to the Financial Times, “deep structural reforms were repeatedly delayed,” and the “oligarchs who made millions from skewed privatizations were able to gain political sway and subvert the system.” It is these oligarchs, eager to maintain the status quo, who funded Manafort’s work on behalf of Yanukovych and his party.
Manafort’s defenders have described him as a brilliant political mind. But what those court documents showed me was something far more malignant: rank cynicism and a will to use people’s fears and struggles as weapons against them. Just as in the campaign he ran for Trump, Manafort counseled Yanukovych to not only inflame economic insecurities, but also to create fissures within Ukrainian society to be exploited for political advantage. Grievances of Yanukovych’s native Donbas region in the east, with industry in decline, were amplified. In a country where, historically, Russian and Ukrainian languages have coexisted, the citizens were pitted against each other across linguistic lines.
To be sure, corruption and abuses of power were present in Ukraine before Yanukovych assumed office. But his administration took it to a level that had not existed before. The year after Yanukovych was elected, the managing partner of a prominent law firm in Kiev told me that, under the previous government, those involved in court cases could win by paying the biggest bribe. Under Yanukovych, though, judges ruled only in favor of the interests of the regime. The power of the state was unrestrained.
Manafort is fortunate to be guaranteed a fair trial and an impartial jury in the United States. The people of Ukraine who lived under the regime of the man he helped elect in 2010 enjoyed no such privileges. It is a bitter lesson that we would do well to learn from.