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Ukrainian lawmakers seek new probes into allegations at ‘epicenter’ of U.S. political battles

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Aug. 29.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a session of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Aug. 29. (Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

KIEV, Ukraine — Lawmakers in Ukraine are seeking to launch probes into some of the same allegations at the heart of the Trump administration’s dirt-digging efforts, including possibly reopening inquiries into the Ukrainian natural gas firm with connections to Hunter Biden.

The Ukraine push, however, could draw the country deeper into Washington’s whistleblower battles even as President Volodymyr Zelensky tries to thread a careful path with one of Ukraine’s most important allies.

A separate probe by Ukraine also has the potential to add sizzle to White House efforts to charge up President Trump’s base and lend legitimacy to his demands for Ukrainian prosecutors to look again at corruption allegations — despite no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden.

Those advocating the parliamentary investigations say they address any potential loose ends and try to defuse Ukraine’s potentially explosive role in the 2020 presidential election. But they also acknowledge that their effort could have the opposite effect and keep Ukraine in the middle of the impeachment debate in Washington.

“I don’t like it that Ukraine, again and again, is in such tight, uncomfortable situations,” said Valentin Nalyvaichenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker who is leading the push for the parliamentary inquiry.

Nalyvaichenko — who was head of Ukraine’s top security agency, the State Security Organization, at the height of a conflict with pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 — said Ukraine might as well try to seize control of the narrative.

“Ukraine is already in the epicenter,” he said, “to put it mildly.”

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The whistleblower complaint made public Thursday alleges a wide-ranging effort by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, son of former vice president Joe Biden, and others. It details mounting concern by both men that Zelensky, a former comedian elected in April, might be unwilling to take part.

On Thursday, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, said that Hunter Biden “did not violate” any Ukrainian laws during Lutsenko’s tenure from May 2016 until this past August.

But under Ukraine’s political rules, Trump and Giuliani may not need to go to the top to get what they want.

Ukrainian law allows parliament to start a formal inquiry if one-third of the 450-member legislature agrees. Nalyvaichenko, a newly elected member of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, is now trying to gather enough signatures.

Even if Nalyvaichenko falls short, he said he would still press for regular parliamentary hearings. Those could involve alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and inquests into claims of money laundering and abuse by the gas company Burisma Holdings, whose board once included the younger Biden. He has not been accused by Ukrainian officials of wrongdoing.

In a sign that he knows the inquiry will not simply be of local interest, Nalyvaichenko said he would invite “Ukraine and international media” to cover it.

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As the eastern Ukraine conflict erupted in 2014, Nalyvaichenko was in frequent contact with top U.S. policymakers, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, and the State Department official then in charge of Russia and Ukraine, Victoria Nuland.

“Those years when Russian aggression started, they supported us,” he said.

He said that he had not consulted with anyone from Zelensky’s team or political party about the effort, although he said he hoped they joined in. Zelensky’s party controls a majority of the seats in parliament.

Investigations into Burisma were left dormant or dropped by previous Ukrainian prosecutors. Giuliani has accused Joe Biden of pushing for the 2016 dismissal of Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin to halt an ongoing inquiry into Burisma. 

Joe Biden, however, said he was actually pushing for Shokin’s ouster because he was too soft on corruption, a view shared by many Western officials in Kiev. Both Joe and Hunter Biden have denied any improper action.

Nalyvaichenko said in both inquiries, lawmakers would focus on Ukrainian citizens potentially breaking Ukrainian laws. That would mean that the investigation would be unlikely to focus on the actions of either Biden.

Still, he said, in the case of Burisma, the inquiry would start at the top.

The inquiry will look at “Ukraine high-level officials, starting with ex-president Mr. [Petro] Poroshenko, his role and other officials in his administration or in the government, in this, in other corruption, all deals within the activity of this gas company,” Nalyvaichenko said.

Nalyvaichenko also said that he wanted to get to the bottom of a “black ledger” that appeared in August 2016, three months before the U.S. election, and appeared to detail illicit Ukrainian government payments made to Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman. Manafort was forced to step down shortly after the ledger surfaced.

Nalyvaichenko said he had always been puzzled that he never learned of the ledger while he was head of Ukraine’s security service. The ledger was supposedly recovered from the burned-out remains of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions headquarters. He also said he wanted to study the actions of Ukrainian diplomats in Washington, whom he said may have favored Clinton.

Interference in foreign elections is also not against the law in Ukraine, although handling investigative evidence improperly could be.

“I would not like to see this as against anyone,” Nalyvaichenko said. “It’s potentially against political corruption in Ukraine.”

Among the witnesses he said he was interested in speaking to was Andrii Telizhenko, who served as a junior diplomat at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington at the time of the election and has been in contact with Giuliani. 

Unlike U.S. congressional investigations, Ukrainian parliamentary inquiries don’t possess the power to subpoena witnesses or otherwise compel testimony. They don’t have the resources to hire independent investigators.

Separately, one of the senior Ukrainian officials who has collaborated with Giuliani said he would welcome any request by U.S. authorities for him to investigate the cases.

“If the American justice system is interested in finding out what happened here three years ago, of course we will make this happen to the utmost,” said Nazar Kholodnytsky, head of Ukraine’s Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. 

“Something wasn’t right” in the sudden appearance of the black ledger that implicated Manafort, said Kholodnytsky, who met with Giuliani in Paris in May to discuss his concerns.

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, pushed publicly for Kholodnytsky’s ouster this year after he was allegedly captured on tape advising potential witnesses how to avoid prosecution in corruption cases. 

Giuliani, in turn, pushed for Yovanovitch’s removal, and she was ultimately recalled early from Ukraine.

“Like or dislike, we’re already on the agenda,” said Oleg Voloshyn, a lawmaker and former Foreign Ministry spokesman. “It’s better for us to be open and transparent, rather than put it in a suitcase and look like we’re selling it to Trump or Biden.”

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