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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Volodymyr Zelensky (Image source: Адміністрація Президента України via Wikimedia Commons)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is between a rock and a hard place, whether he should follow up on his campaign promises to clean up corruption in his country or whether he should help out Donald Trump, the Western leader he wants a relationship with, seeing that as a way to realize his dreams for Ukraine. But to follow another idiom, sometimes you need to go with the one who brought you to the dance.
More than 500 Ukrainian prosecutors will be losing their jobs by the end of the year, thanks to the new president. Interestingly, that is how Trump has been explaining his interest in Ukraine, just wanting to clean up corruption. However, one of the prosecutors being dismissed is Kostiantyn H. Kulyk.
He's a key contact of Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who pushed the president on two key investigations that were leaning heavily on conspiracy theories. One is that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election with the goal of helping the Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton. The other is that current 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden pushed for the dismissal of a corrupt prosecutor while he was president because it would help his son Hunter, who was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that was under investigation.
Both of these theories have been debunked, but Giuliani has been pushing them, announcing in May he wanted to travel to Ukraine to investigate. Under pressure, he canceled his plans, but a whistleblower filed a complaint of a phone call on July 25 when Trump asked Zelensky to conduct investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election. He intimated in the call that the new leader would get a White House meeting and military aid that he coveted if he followed through on the investigations. This led to the impeachment inquiry where witnesses have said there was much more talk of a deal between the two leaders with these elements, leading to a quid pro quo situation.
After he didn't show up for an exam that was part of that review process to assess the Ukraine prosecutors, Kulyk was fired. 569 others will also be let go before they have a chance to ring in the new year.
Corruption was a major problem in Ukraine, and Zelensky, formerly a comedian, promised in his campaign to clean up the country. He's trying to do fast work to clean it up before he loses political support.
Zelensky told Trump in their July phone call that the new prosecutor general, Rusian Ryaboshapka, is "100 percent my person." He's auditing previous investigations of Burisma. Anti-corruption activists report that he is unlikely to turn up any corruption on the part of the Bidens.
The Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, says Ryaboshapka is "in a hard situation." The owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, "has to be investigated" after being accused of self-dealing, though this crime allegedly happened before Hunter Biden signed on.
Yet, no matter how Ryaboshapka handles the situation with Burisma, it will have political ramifications in the United States. "I cannot imagine anything he can do that would not be interpreted as a political sign by American journalists," explained Kaleniuk. "Any decision will be politically examined."
Western Diplomats in Kyiv don't believe there's much of a chance Trump's influence will cause Zelensky to cave and not go after the true corruption. He "realizes that if he wants to survive, he needs to make some reforms," said one diplomat.
"Nasty U.S politics are kind of spilling over and corrupting Ukraine," continued the diplomat. "And we have a credibility problem because we rely on our norms to be an example. The Ukrainians say, 'Who are you to lecture us?'"
Most Western diplomats and activists feel only time will answer whether or not Zelensky will be successful cleaning up Ukraine. But even he has connections, such as oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns television stations and wants to see his banking empire returned to him that was nationalized in 2016.
Kolomoisky is the former owner of Privatbank. He left Ukraine during the rule of former leader Petro Poroshenko, only to come back after Zelensky's win. After the bank was nationalized, an audit found fraud that led to billions in losses. He and his partners deny allegations, and one of his defenders if attorney Andriy Bohdan, who represented him during the nationalization. He's now Zelensky's chief of staff.
"Zelensky told me, 'It's morally wrong for people to be dying and for all this wealth to be around," said another senior Western diplomat who has much experience in Kyiv. "It's the first time in all these years I've hard an official really talk that way. To be so genuinely appalled." But the diplomat wonders whether the oligarchs can be held at "arm's length" to avoid the corruption.
There is certainly plenty of corruption to clean up in Ukraine. Zelensky has his work cut out for him, but the question will remain whether the corruption he chases out of the country will help Trump or bury him further.
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