Manafort, Ukraine, And All That
Brian Bonner, Kyiv Post Editor in Chief, talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukraine and front page news
Hello and welcome to this week’s Ukraine Calling programme. I’m Tanya Bednarczyk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’ll have a roundup of the weekly news for you, some culture, and some music. We’re bringing you a feature interview of Bohdan Nahaylo speaking to Brian Bonner, Editor in Chief of the Kyiv Post, who always has a fresh take on the latest developments in Ukraine. But first, as always, the news.
Feature Interview: Brian Bonner, Kyiv Post Editor in Chief, talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukraine and front page news
CULTURE and MUSIC
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Feature Interview: Brian Bonner, Kyiv Post Editor in Chief, talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukraine and front page news
Nahaylo: today our guest on Ukraine Calling’s feature interview is long serving, and perhaps long suffering, Editor in Chief of the Kyiv Post, Brian Bonner.
Bonner: Happy to be here, Bohdan.
Nahaylo: It’s good to have someone with your broad perspective of things. You cover these things so thoroughly every week. Obviously a lot of has been happening during the last week or two or three not only in Ukraine but also outside of it with some implications for Ukraine – the Manafort case, the protests that has been taking place here with the demands and the form of the protests attracting attention , Yulia Tymoshenko’s statements [attacking the Poroshenko administration] recently on TV, moves against people allegedly involved in corruption – Avakov’s son being the most famous incident recently, and, obviously, the various terrorist attacks – the killings that happened during recent weeks. So let me ask you this, your newspaper is going to press as we speak. What are you going to put on the front page?
Bonner: It’s still coming together, but the front page will be Paul Manafort. Despite all other big news you named I think this one has the most impact on Ukraine, the world and especially on the US. I expect there are many lessons to draw from this. Paul Manafort worked for a decade for ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions and had a big hand in dressing up Yanukovych, converting him from being a dictator to a democrat, worked hard to help Yanukovych to get elected in 2010. Then of course the massive corruption started and he was ousted during the Revolution. Manafort, an American political consultant, stayed on for a year to reformat the leftovers of the Party of Regions into the Opposition Block. And then he went to the real big time as the Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign manager.
Nahaylo: But what was his actual role? Do we know? You said he made the monsters here look good. But how, in terms of techniques, know how, public relations. What were they paying him for?
Bonner: I think it’s all of those things. And whatever he was doing, it was worth the paying of 75 million dollars.
Nahaylo: Was it also lobbying in Washington?
Bonner: Yes, the investigation is not over and it just started to unravel. I expect the focus will shift to the US presidential elections and away from Ukraine, but we in Ukraine should draw the lesson here. He was paid a lot of money for these things and a lot of it illegally, allegedly according to the indictment, laundered. What we are drawing is the study of contrasts. We hope that Ukrainian law enforcers will see how a really functioning independent professional competent law enforcement system works. In the US Robert Muller’s team had five months to put it together. They have what looks like a very convincing indictment, a very damning one. They already have one guilty plea in the course of this investigation on another matter. But what’s the key here is the contrast with an ineptness and corruption and political dependency in Ukraine’s law enforcement who I remind you … we are accusing what… we are critical of what is wrong with this country. One of the thing that is wrong is that we do not have an effective law enforcement system. Now look at the black ledgers. For the listeners, the black ledgers are the hand written chronicle allegedly of two billion dollars in illegal secret payments made by Party of Regions to various people, including 12.7 million dollars lined up for Paul Manafort. Ukrainian law enforcement is skilful at creating ruses and diversions that mean nothing. There is a huge debate on the authenticity of the signatures. It’s reminiscent, if you remember, of the Mykola Melnychenko tapes of 2000.
Nahaylo: Yes, during president Kuchma’s presidency.
Bonner: The tapes showed hundreds of hours of ex-president Leonid Kuchma in 2000 basically running the country like a mafia boss. They diverted the law enforcement, then obstructed and diverted the debate as to whether these tapes are authentic or not. Contrast it with what the real investigator…
Nahaylo: Can I just ask in parenthesis? Looking back, in two words, what do you think of the Melnychenko tapes now?
Bonner: A lot of what was on the tapes happened in real life. There was FBI analyses of some portions – the radar that was illegally sold to Iraq. The FBI found the tapes authentic. But I am telling you a lot of these things are diversionary. What Muller’s team did was to take the black ledgers and all the other available evidence, get court approved search warrant, get bank records, get tax records and put together the case that this income was received illegally. It was laundered through massive shells, and there was no tax paid on it. That what investigators do. In contrast, Manafort does not face any charges in Ukraine and he stole the money from Ukraine. This is Ukrainian money that we are talking about. No charges. And the response since the indictment in Ukraine is very sleepy like “OK, it’s all very interesting, we will look into it”.
Nahaylo: Why do you think that is so in a post-Maidan set up and with a supposedly post Revolution of Dignity leadership?
Bonner: The authorities in the last three years – and you know this well as I do- have made no progress or very little progress in punishing Yanukovych era corruption. I think the reason comes back down to the fact that we do not have an independent and competent law enforcement system. We are going to argue in the editorial that the actual law enforcement system is so politicized and so incompetent, that is, actually put in place to keep in place the insiders. I think, and it is not written down anywhere but it’s certainly looks like, that Poroshenko has been obstructing the creation of independent anti-corruption court, has been putting loyalist after loyalist in the Prosecutor General Office, and who still presides over the police system that is still intrusive and not reformed. I am talking about the Interior Ministry and the Security Service of Ukraine. So there is no will. The fundamental problem is that the politicians do not want to give up their control over who goes to jail and who does not go to jail. It does look to me like there was an informal deal that when the nation is at war we are not going to go after these things. We need your support in the war. Let’s just keep the system going.
Nahaylo: So however important and critical the war is, it is used as a diversion tactic, as a shield by those defending their interests?
Bonner: It continues to be, and we see this popping out in many different directions… and that maybe takes us to the protests.
Nahaylo: But before we get to the protests, let’s look at NABU (Natonal Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine) going after the son of Avakov who is the head of the police system here. It came as a surprise that they went for him, that they dared to do that. And obviously the response from the police institutions has been fairly predictable and very disappointing [dismissing the allegations as politically motivated]..
Bonner: Oh yes. The court, first of all, didn’t want to meet because they said they were closed for the day for business. Secondly, they let him [Avakov’s son] go without bail. NABU is a very interesting case. It does look politicized to me in the sense that I think there is a feud going on between Poroshenko and Avakov and now as the election rolls out, they’re going to dish-the-dirt on each other. And if this tape [precipitating the investigation] is true, it’s horrendous. To steal from a nation at war is a form of treason.
Nahaylo: So you’re indicating that this rift between the President and the head of the police, that has been rumoured about for months, is in fact is what lays behind it.
Bonner: Well it looks that way to me. If the head of NABU- if he was here he’d tell you- that ultimately their work is meaningless if they don’t have an independent court system to take these cases to. That’s been the problem all along. Furthermore, the listeners should know. NABU has less than 800 people…
Nahaylo: Listeners should also know I’m talking to Brian Bonner, the editor of the Kyiv Post.
Bonner: NABU has less than 800 people, while the regular institutions that have produced zero convictions for corruption and murder are staffed as follows: 150,000 in the Interior Ministry, 40,000 in the Security Service of Ukraine, 15,000 in the General Prosecutor office, and 9,000 judges. So they’re not performing their role as an independent judicial system. Let’s take a look at Manafort! By official estimates, $40 billion was stolen from the country during the Yanukovych era. The allegations against Manafort are $75 million. This is less than 1% (of the $40 billion). So what we have in Ukraine is hundreds of Manaforts, and they’re getting off scot-free. They’re not being prosecuted or cases are opened, and then you know the trick: they have a court hearing once every three months and then they postpone it again and again and then pretty soon we are where we are with the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze, and 17 years later after everybody has lost interest or have moved on. Cases are quietly closed. That’s what we’re seeing now.
Nahaylo: Which is highly disappointing given that we went through a Revolution of Dignity and the Maidan and people were led to believe that things would change. I’m particularly concerned about, not so much the delays, but the watering down of the legal reforms. With the Supreme Court, and other important reforms, that have been made but where at the last minute changes were introduced in the parliament that detract from their significance. This does not bode well because, cosmetically, we have a huge overhaul of the legal system, but the realities are that the same people at the top, maybe different now, but in the same way continue to pull the strings from above.
Bonner: Yes, that is exactly correct. Those who followed the selection of the new Supreme Court closely say: don’t expect much, this is not going to be a reformed Supreme Court in the sense of being independent to political influence. And furthermore we have the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission recommending that Ukraine adopt an Anti-corruption Court. Why? Because that is what’s needed. We need public trials by judges who are weighing the evidence, or a jury of the peers that is weighing the evidence and deciding guilty or innocent. The other reason why I want to go back to NABU and Avakov is that, it’s horrible if he inflated the price of backpacks and ripped off the Defence Ministry at war, especially with him being the son of the top law enforcer in the state. But the other problem with Ukrainian law enforcement is that they are doing ‘little fish’ cases. Six billion dollars was stolen out of PrivatBank. Six billion dollars! That’s 6% of the nations GDP. That’s a huge percentage of the $40 billion budget. There’s no prosecution for bank fraud.
Nahaylo: Was it a behind the scenes trade off?
Bonner: De facto it looks that way. Can you prove that? No. But the fact is the $6 billion was stolen and nobody is even talking about it. In what media outlets are they talking about it? No, Ihor Kolomoyskyi just walked away and it looks like he’s going to walk away. He’s the man suspected of it as he was the owner when $6 billion went missing and the state had to take that over. And that’s just the financial crimes. As you know, we have a whole rash of assassinations, bombings, and so forth that are very disturbing and show a very frightening picture. Most frightening of all is when cases don’t get solved because this means that impunity continues and this can happen again and again and again.
Nahaylo: Yulia Tymoshenko has just come out very strongly against the Poroshenko administration. She was quite quiet for a relatively long period, though partly she supported the recent protests and Saakashvili’s return, etc. I noticed on TV recently that in the last week or so she really went for Poroshenko and his team. She also very bluntly levelled accusations of profit making from the war at the top levels, which is something that you’re alluding to as well. Do you buy into that? That whilst most citizens are very concerned that their sons and daughters are dying out there and that one needs to keep a joint front and a common line against the enemy, that this kind of alleged corruption on the inside and war profiteering are taking place. Or is this her simply being populistic?
Bonner: Well I don’t think it is her being populist. She of course is running for president and she’s a bare knuckles political fighter.
Nahaylo: So we should also add that the context in which we are now is already the pre-election phase and she is positioning herself and preparing her forces?
Bonner: Sure. We have a serious problem with the defence and security budget right now. It’s $5 billion – 5% of the Gross Domestic Product of the nation – and it’s an entire black hole of secrecy. So that only invites corruption. It is not only Avakov. That’s not the only scandal that’s been dribbling out. Many, many scandals have been dribbling out. You don’t have to take from people who are out of power. Take it from Members of Parliament. I interviewed Deputy Speaker, Oksana Syroid. She said, “You would be astounded by the level of profiteering in the defence and security budget. Granted that they need to be secret at war but also even in countries at war there are independent oversights and protection against this kind of corruption which is intolerable because all money that Ukrainians spend for their taxes on security and defence should go to winning the war and should not be syphoned off by insiders who are using the cloak of secrecy to hide the thefts.
Nahaylo: And we’re in a very strange situation as we gear up for the elections, in effect. We see theses rifts within the ruling coalition though there were attempts to heal them, to bring the two groups together in one block, the Poroshenko Block and the Popular Front. But now that seems to be very problematic. On the other hand, the large scale protests that were called for by the opposition within the democratic camp, and they seem to have fizzled out after a few days of capturing attention. Was it because they were poorly prepared? Was it because it was too much of a motley crew, a conglomerate of diverse forces: democratic activists, populists, right wing groups etc? What does it tell us? Has the civil society that we saw becoming stronger and empowered running out of steam to influence the course of developments?
Bonner: No, I don’t think that is the case at all. I mean all these factors that you talked about are part of it. The way I see it now is that the Poroshenko Block and the Popular Front, the two largest factions in Parliament, have lost so much popularity that they need each other. They need to stay together somehow, to keep their power through the 2019 elections. But personalities aside, what did the protesters want? They wanted three things. They wanted the anti-corruption court. They wanted an end to parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution. And they wanted a new election law, so that people can’t buy their way onto party lists. So that there can actually be free elections, representative elections, and elect the person that they choose, and vote against the people that they don’t want to choose. I think all Ukrainians, everybody who loves Ukraine, supports that. So if you take the personalities out, what they stood for, there are the democratic aspirations of Ukrainians. You can’t live in a society and have perpetual revolution, but I can tell you from every Ukrainian I know, if they don’t see progress on the rule of law and justice issues, these protests are going to be continuing again and again.
Nahaylo: And become more radicalized.
Bonner: People see the obstructions. They are not being fooled by anybody. It’s frustrating. I think there’s still hope that President Poroshenko will rise to the occasion, become a statesman, and selflessly put in what the people have wanted. What civil society has wanted. And what their western friends want for the future. Otherwise it’s not going to be a stable situation.
Nahaylo: And it’s going to be a difficult winter. Let me ask you to conclude. Your newspaper (The Kyiv Post) is now a flagship of, I’m not going to call it criticism, but standing for these values of the Maidan, of the Revolution of Dignity, and pointing the finger to where the shortcomings are. And pointing the finger high up, to where the problems lie. That’s a difficult role to play. You’ve become quite isolated, and yet strategically you’re very important because you’re the interface with the outside world, with the foreigners that are in this country and outside it. People read you. So clearly the authorities are not comfortable with the line you’re taking. Are you feeling any kind of pressure like some of the NGO’s pushing for democratisation have complained about recently?
Bonner: Well, we take the editorial positions that we take on the opinion pages. And we have hard hitting editorial news, and commercially independent news. Because we love Ukraine. We want this nation to be better. We believe this nation will be better. We understand. We live here. We’re not going anywhere. We’re not moving to Washington, D.C. or Prague or any other place. We’re here because we love this place. We’ve been with it for revolutions and now war. We’ve seen a lot of corruption, and we want the place to be better. We are not experiencing the kind of harassment that civil society is. We are actually enjoying good free speech. We know from people in power that they are obviously not happy with what we’re writing. But so far they’ve countered it with paid assistants and PR people to write their version of the story, which they’re entitled to do. And people will decide for themselves what the truth is. So far we haven’t seen it, but the biggest problem with journalism in Ukraine is not repression anymore; thank God it’s a relatively free society. The biggest problem is financing independent journalism. And I would rate that as the biggest challenge for the Kyiv Post. Because most of the media still belongs to the oligarchs, and there’s still no history of editorial independence, and so forth.
Nahaylo: Well, at least that’s a partially optimistic, positive note that we end on, that we are enjoying this freedom of expression, and your newspaper, the flagship as I call it, is not being subjected to any harassment. I thank you very much Brian for participating in today’s discussion and informing our listeners.
Bonner: Thanks for having me, Bohdan.
It’s been a busy week for Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists and authorities.
Ukraine’s former Head of the state agency for Investments and National Projects, Vladyslav Kaskiv, was extradited back to Ukraine from Panama. He stands accused of having embezzled the equivalent of $US 1million of budgetary funds in 2012. Vladyslav Kaskiv had headed the State Investment Agency 2010-2014, during the Yanukovych government. He arrived back in Ukraine on November 1st and was present at a court hearing, where he stated that he had already fully compensated for the damage that he had caused the state. Nonetheless, a pre-trial investigation is underway and in the meantime Kaskiv has surrendered his passport and has been released on bail. Yuri Lutsenko, the Prosecutor General, commented that this is the first time that a senior Ukrainian government official has been extradited back to Ukraine to undergo investigation.
Also, in a resonant, high-profile case, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has arrested Oleksandr Avakov, the son of Ukraine’s Interior Minister on October the 31st as part of an investigation into embezzlement. He was one of three persons arrested over allegations of embezzling 14 million UAH from procurements of backpacks for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The two other persons are former Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Serhiy Chebotar, and CEO of an IT firm, Volodymyr Lytvyn.
The three suspects were detained on charges of misappropriating state funds which were meant to buy backpacks for the Ukrainian army in 2014 and 2015. Minister Avakov has reacted to the charges, saying that his son is innocent. And Oleksandr Avakov himself stated that the case being made against him is a political one.
Some expert observers have commented that this case is unlikely to lead to results due to there being political influence on the judiciary. And others have noted that results would only be possible in these type of investigations if independent anti-corruption courts were created.
Ukraine reaction to Manafort case
The news that Paul Manafort, former campaign chairman and foreign policy advisor for US President Donald Trump, was indicted on October 30th, was welcomed in Ukraine.
For many years before he became campaign director for Donald J. Trump, Paul Manafort had advised former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. The charges from US Special Counsel Robert Mueller maintain that Manafort laundered millions of dollars of payments from Ukraine through shell companies. Manafort was charged with money laundering, tax evasion, fraud and failing to register as an agent of foreign interests.
Ukrainian MP Serhiy Leshchenko, who helped to expose documents showing the secret cash payments from former president Victor Yanukovych to Paul Manafort, commented that he was satisfied with the indictment. He added that this was money that had been stolen from Ukrainian taxpayers.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, reacted by saying that Ukraine is ready to cooperate with investigations in Washington. He said that they hadn’t yet received any requests for information in this regard, but Ukraine would readily provide the information that it has.
Assassination of Female Soldier Okuyeva in Kyiv
This week there was another targeted assassination near Kyiv. A Ukrainian-Chechen, Amina Okuyeva, who was travelling by car near Kyiv, was killed in an ambush on October the 30th. She and her husband, Adam Osmayev, were both Chechen refugees who had fought as volunteers with Ukrainian troops in Eastern Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists.
Both Osmayev and Okuyeva were well-known as critics of Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Russian region of Chechnya. They had just survived a previous assassination attempt on them in June. A Russian citizen posing as a French journalist doing an interview, shot at Osmayev. Okuyeva shot back and had saved her husband’s life. Due to this, Amina Osmayeva was known in Ukraine as a heroine. Ukrainian authorities have treated the incident as a contract killing and attributed it to Russian special services.
Attacker identified and detained
The Security Services have located at least one attacker from the spate of terrorist attacks in Ukraine lately. On the 31 March, the SBU Colonel Kharaberyush was killed in an attack in Mariupol, from a car bomb. Since the war broke out in the Donbas, Colonel Kharaberyush had specialized in locating Russian special ops agents. From video recordings at the site, the SBU have managed to identify Julia Prasolova as the trained agent who placed the bomb. She was trained in operations by the Russian FSB while she lived in Donetsk, but was then detained by Ukrainian security services when she came to Odesa to pick up a new Ukrainian passport.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited the United Arab Emirates this week. He not only signed an agreement on Cooperation in the Space Sector, but an agreement was reached on a visa-free regime for Ukraine and the UAE. This adds yet another country for visa-free travel for Ukrainians, making that 77 countries.
In another step towards simplifying travel for Ukrainians, the Moldovan government approved an agreement this week on introducing joint customs and border control at the Ukrainian-Moldovan border. This should reduce the time needing to be spent at the border when travelling.
The military tension between the pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian army somewhat reduced lately, according to the OSCE reports. However, the Ukrainian army still suffered losses: 4 servicemen were killed in action and 15 wounded. On October 28th, pro-Russian forces reportedly shelled the residential areas in Vodiane, Donetsk region with the use of mortars. Civilian homes were damaged, but there no human casualties. In total, over the month of October 13 Ukrainian servicemen were killed. Their names are: Serhiy Klemeshev, Andriy Bespalov, Mykola Larin, Mykhailo Luhovy, Oleksandr Omelchuk, Mykola Rudenko, Yuriy Kolesnyk, Anton Siniahub, Yaroslav Bondar, Illia Stetsun, Valeriy Samofal, Oleksandr Zhukov, Georgiy Saralidze.
For those interested in contemporary Ukrainian photography, there are a number of good exhibitions to see this week.
A large exhibit on the art of contemporary photography, called PHOTO Kyiv open for four days in Kyiv this week at the Toronto Kyiv Business Centre. Art galleries from all over Ukraine have contributed and there are many recognized photographers participating, as well as up-and-coming names. Street photography, documentary photography, news photography as well as art photography is being exhibited.
And also, the 19th annual photo exhibit of Den’ newspaper is now on in Kyiv’s Lavra Gallery. It’s a selection of images from an international competition that aims to breathe some fresh air into the autumn season. Over 200 photos from all over the world will be on display. This year’s theme is a synergy of joy and energy. The paper’s editor Larysa Ivshyna says the goal is to provide oxygen to a society at war.
This week’s song for you is a contemporary musical rendition of a poem by Mike Johansen. He was executed by Stalin in 1937. In 2017 Liza Zharikova put his poem Zelenyi Zaiets, which means Green Rabbit, to music. Enjoy!
Next week Bohdan Nahalyo will interview James Rubin, a top international expert on the impressionists. And we’ll bring you more news, culture, and music. So tune in for the next episode. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. You can write to us at: [email protected]. This is Tanya Bednarczyk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovernko and Nykole King. News by Oksana Smerechuk. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Culture and Music by Marta Dyczok. Music by Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva.