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Why Ukraine is particularly susceptible to corruption — and political pressure

The latest scandal isn’t only about Trump. Ukraine has long been a piggy bank for other well-connected Americans. 

Volodymyr Zelenskiy
We don’t know how Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comedian elected earlier this year on an anti-corruption platform, responded. But there is no indication so far he gave President Donald Trump what he wanted.
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

One of the most depressing aspects of the latest scandal engulfing the Trump administration is that weak and chronically corrupt Ukraine is far more likely to be acting honorably in this case than a powerful friend that has traditionally stood for the rule of law. 

In a July phone call, President Trump pressed Ukraine’s president eight times, according to the Wall Street Journal, to look into the ties between Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, and a Ukrainian natural gas company that was under investigation. He also raised Joe Biden’s demands while vice president that Ukraine fire its chief prosecutor.

Did Trump promise anything, as a whistle-blower claims? Did he delay military aid intended to help Ukraine resist Russia and Russian-backed separatists in order to pressure Ukraine, as many have speculated?

Trump on Sunday acknowledged that he did bring up Biden in the call, but insists that the conversation was completely aboveboard. But given Trump’s track record (“Russia, if you’re listening …”), it seems blindingly obvious that he wouldn’t have a problem pressuring a foreign leader to take actions damaging to a political opponent. We don’t know how Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comedian elected earlier this year on an anti-corruption platform, responded. But there is no indication so far he gave Trump what he wanted. 

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This is what happens when those who have long championed strong democratic institutions start backsliding themselves. In the 28 years since it gained independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union, corruption has buried Ukraine’s aspirations. Now — at a point where there is a glimmer of hope it might start cleaning up its act — it faces the prospect of being corrupted further. By Americans. 

This isn’t only about Trump. Ukraine has long been a piggy bank for other well-connected Americans. 

Up until this past week, the poster child for the phenomenon was Paul Manafort. Before he was Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort made a fortune advising former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose private estate included an ostrich farm, his own zoo, and a full-size replica of a Spanish galleon. Transparency International, which monitors official corruption, estimates that Yanukovych and his associates made $40 billion in state assets disappear before they were thrown out in a revolution in 2014. Manafort, of course, is now sitting in a U.S. jail. Rudy Guliani, Trump’s lawyer, also has pressed Ukraine to revisit Manafort’s case

It’s worth noting that there is no evidence Hunter Biden did anything illegal. And his father, while serving as the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, was far from the only one calling for Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to be fired. But why would a Ukrainian natural gas company in legal peril put on its board of directors an American with no experience in the business – who just happens to be the son of the U.S. vice president? That, too, seems blindingly obvious. According to Politico, Hunter Biden’s compensation was as high as $50,000 a month. 

Ukraine is particularly susceptible to this kind of thing, not only because of the level of corruption and lack of strong institutions, but because of what’s at stake in a country caught between Russia and the desire of many of its citizens to be part of the West. Ukrainians have tended to look for outside experts and outside patrons – and they pay well.

Transparency International’s annual “Corruption Perceptions Index,” which ranks countries and territories by their perceived levels of public-sector corruption, confirms what you probably already suspected. In 2018, Ukraine was 120th out of 160 countries, with a score of 32 out of 100. That’s the average score for sub-Saharan Africa, often assumed to be among the most corrupt regions on Earth. It’s also a small improvement over previous years, and a few points better than Russia. 

What’s equally interesting is the trend in countries traditionally known for strong institutions and clean government. Many are heading in the wrong direction. Of the top 20 in the index, 16 have seen their scores drop slightly in recent years. The United States falls just outside the top 20, and is included in a Transparency watch list. The United States is “experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power,” the organization said.

On television, Zelenskiy played a schoolteacher who runs for president to attack political corruption – and wins. In real life, he says he wants to do what his television character did, and voters tend to believe him. Zelenskiy easily defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who just happened to be one of Ukraine’s richest men. 

While he has talked a good game, it’s not clear that Zelenskiy is totally committed. For a clue, Ukrainians are watching another of its richest men, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whose television channel broadcast Zelenskiy’s comedy show and gave strong support to his candidacy. Kolomoyskiy left the country after Poroshenko’s government nationalized a bank he co-owned and accused him of stealing more than $5 billion. But now he’s back, and keeping a high profile, including a meeting with Zelenskiy earlier this month.

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But let’s give Zelenskiy the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. He hasn’t obviously betrayed his supporters. And it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for him. At a point where he needed the backing of a friend to establish his independence from a rich patron – not to mention matching wits with Vladimir Putin – guess who called? Donald Trump.