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Why Ukraine is particularly susceptible to corruption — and political pressure

Volodymyr Zelenskiy
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
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.

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. 

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.

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.  

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/23/2019 - 03:01 pm.

    Well Mark, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we do know that Trump had no problem taking help from the Russians, and even advertised it publicly in his campaign rallies, “Russia if you are listening” so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I will, I doubt he is telling the truth and he probably did try to pressure/bribe etc. the Ukrainian president, it fits his modus-operandi to a “T” Trump!

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/23/2019 - 04:58 pm.

    Trump may be corrupt…but strangely none of the 17milliondy “corrupt” stickers thrown at him by the Left and Corporate media every time he opens his mouth have stuck.

    Meanwhile, the Left and the Corporate media have turned a blind eye to the quite obvious graft of Hunter Biden’s $50,000 a month sweetheart deal working for a Ukranian (evil) fossil fuel company…just as they ignored the hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign money flowing into the Clinton Foundation when she was Secretary of State.

    It seems clear to me, both political parties in America, like the unions, like corporations and banks, are completely incapable of policing their own.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/23/2019 - 05:17 pm.

      Btw…I once said in a circle of men, “How do you know America is the most corrupt country in the history of the world? It is the richest…”

      That was before the almost unbelievable graft at every level with the opioid epidemic.

      Eternal war profiteering, systemic pollution, extinction of pollinators, turning a whole generation into debt serfs, monopoly as the economic ideal, every advantage for corporations, banks and billionaires – austerity and boot on neck or gun in face for regular people, the list goes on and on and on…

    • Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 09/24/2019 - 08:46 am.

      Trump may be corrupt ? You can`t see that by now?

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/25/2019 - 08:17 am.

        It gets hard sometimes to see the corruption of Trump through cloud of reactionary politiking of Dems generally.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 09/24/2019 - 09:31 am.

      And your evidence Hunter Biden was corrupt? Ukraine has a history of corruption, Hunter Biden was on the board with a few others to try to clean it up. He later stepped down when his dad became the point person between the US and Ukraine. Throwing around blame of corruption may be the political thing to do these days, but cite established facts. Trump meanwhile refuses to show his transcripts with world leaders, thinks Putin is a great guy and mixes his personal business with government work on a consistent basis.

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 09/25/2019 - 08:35 am.

        They were working in Ukraine at the same time. Word that HB stepped down when his father became point man is clear Dem misinformation – fake news, as it were. What were HB’s qualifications for this role, this $50,000/mnth position on the board, I have not heard anyone ask, either the rooting out of corruption or natural gas expertise? His main qualification obviously is his Dad as VP.

        Graft like this is so common in America that it has taken on the veneer of the “official”. Much of what passes for big gov, corp, bank, edu, health care, defense/security in America these days is just moneygrubbing of the same sort. Those who gain the most from this generalized corruption fail to see it because they are the self proclaimed “meritocracy”, in their insular bubbles self assured in their benevolent control of society. That is the story of empire.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/25/2019 - 12:21 pm.

          Apart from being under-qualified for the job, there is no evidence that either Biden did anything wrong, or were involved in corruption.

          The Ukrainian Prosecutor General was widely reviled as corrupt. The EU also called for his removal.

  3. Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 09/24/2019 - 08:42 am.

    After all the thousand plus lies and tall tales Trump has spewed out of his mouth, it is easy to believe Donny would do ANYTHING to get his way. Just read his book ” The Art Of The Deal”, and it will back up my statement. Trump and his entire administration, and his family and relatives need to be removed…Like two years ago!

    • Submitted by Misty Martin on 09/24/2019 - 12:52 pm.


      I agree. Just like a cancerous lesion is surgically removed. We can only hope for Articles of Impeachment to be served this time, but I won’t hold my breath.

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