It might not say much for his adherence to the rule of law that he appeared amenable to the suggestion, analysts say. But in Ukraine, it’s hardly shocking. And, importantly, he hasn’t actually done anything about it since he hung up the phone.
“This scandal is not affecting Ukrainian politics at all,” said Sviatoslav Yurash, a Zelensky ally in the Rada, or parliament. “American politics isn’t on top of the agenda.”
But some members of the Rada appear ready to turn up the heat. Prominent among them is Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of former president Petro Poroshenko’s party. Honcharenko told The Washington Post on Sunday that “sources” within the government have told him Ukraine has both a transcript and an audio recording of the call — and he plans to ask Zelensky to release them.
The chances of that happening are slim, which raises the possibility that Honcharenko is merely trolling. He said he plans to hold an informal hearing later this week.
“He’s doing a stunt,” Yurash said. “Some people like that.”
The president’s press secretary, Yulia Mendel, declined to comment on the existence of a record of the call.
Honcharenko said he doesn’t know what’s in the transcript or tape, if either exists, but he thinks what’s known so far about the phone call is bad enough.
“I don’t know who was preparing [Zelensky] for this conversation,” he said, “but 100 percent they made a mistake.”
He said Zelensky should have deflected Trump’s suggestion that he investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter and returned to issues that are actually important to Ukraine, such as military aid, sanctions on Russia and the effort to arrange a settlement in the breakaway regions in the east. He should not have agreed with Trump’s criticism of Western European leaders, on whose goodwill Ukraine depends.
“Now we’re a part of American elections, and I don’t like it,” he said. “Ukraine has problems enough without this.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced an impeachment inquiry, stemming from the disclosure of the phone call.
Another member of parliament, Alyona Shkrum, argued that the scandal really dates to Poroshenko’s presidency, when Rudolph W. Giuliani began meeting with Ukranian prosecutors and making inquiries about the Bidens. She said Zelensky shouldn’t be blamed for it.
Still, she said, the affair has put Ukraine into “a whirlpool.” She warned that the country, which has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress in its conflict with Russia, could manage to alienate both Democrats and Republicans if it isn’t careful in the weeks and months ahead.
Ukraine needs to take the high road, she said, and show that it’s doing so. “We need to prosecute people according to our laws, and not according to the political benefit of a person in another country.”
Yurash defends Zelensky. It was a get-acquainted phone call, he said, and nothing in the conversation was “that bad.” Zelensky wanted to establish a rapport with the leader of a country that has the most powerful military and biggest economy in the world.
“Both are flattering each other, trying to make a good impression. Is that a criminal offense? No, it isn’t,” Yurash said. “Of course he has spent the time talking about key issues that Trump wanted to raise and raising his own issues. Whether he was pristine in everything he said, well, obviously not.”
Nonetheless, he said, Zelensky is determined to move Ukraine toward the rule of law.
“In Ukraine, that’s the biggest question: How do you battle corruption, and whether you are effective in battling corruption.”
The press here has focused on the implications for the rule of law, asked how independent Zelensky will be from U.S. influence, and explored what Zelensky’s responses to Trump mean for relations with Western European countries.
“Ukraine, in this situation, once again is not a subject, but an object,” wrote Yulia Mostovaya, one of Kiev’s leading journalists, and the wife of an unsuccessful presidential candidate, Anatoliy Hrytsenko. “Using the fears and ambitions of Ukrainian politicians, both Democrats and Republicans turned them into clubs for their domestic political golf.”
In 2016, a leak here revealed secret payments to Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager. Now, Republicans have been pushing Ukrainian prosecutors to pursue the Bidens.
“Maintaining support from both American parties is critical to Ukraine,” Mostovaya wrote in Zerkalo Nedeli, or Mirror of the Week. “And not only because today no one can predict the outcome of the 2020 U.S. elections.” Ukraine needs friends in both the White House and Congress.
The Rada is scheduled to take up next year’s budget this week, and turn to the contentious issue of land reform — subjects more relevant to most people here.
“Ukrainians don’t get the essence of the [phone call], who’s right and who’s wrong,” said Konstantin Batozky, a political analyst. “We’re not the ones who published the account. It’s America.”
And Zelensky is still enjoying a honeymoon with the voters, Honcharenko said with a sigh. A request by Trump to bring political pressure on a prosecutor? “People didn’t hear something that’s unbelievable to them,” he said.