Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
The one searing image out of the first week of the Paul Manafort financial fraud trial in Virginia is the mug shot of the defendant’s $15,000 ostrich skin jacket, described by some as a monument to the excess of the Washington swamp.
The star exhibit generated plenty of ridicule. But it’s very likely that the free-spending political consultant and former Trump campaign manager may have developed a liking for ostrich from one of his former clients: the ousted, pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
Now living in exile in Russia and wanted in Ukraine for high treason, Yanukovych had a fondness for ostrich skin shoes and even had live ostriches on his lavish estate near Kiev known as Mezhyhirya. (Manafort is believed to have been a frequent visitor).
But it is not just a fondness for ostriches that the two men have in common: Both had a weakness for offshore bank accounts, fine suits and prestigious properties. Watching reports of the trial, Ukrainians could be forgiven for having flashbacks to Yanukovych and the millions he spent on luxuries, ranging from antique cars and a stuffed crocodile to a galleon restaurant and even an ornate, in-house chapel.
Prosecutors for Robert Mueller said Manafort earned up to $60 million from his work as a political consultant to the Yanukovych government between 2010 and 2014. The prosecution will say that the earnings were hidden from the IRS through secret bank accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.
Manafort’s work in Ukraine was mostly to help Yanukovych win several elections, burnish his image in the West and help transform him from a clumsy, inarticulate former coal mining factory boss into a savvy statesman.
In September, Manafort will face money laundering and foreign lobbying charges in a separate trial in Washington, where he is expected to deny participating in Russian activities to “undermine the interests” of the United States. Manafort allegedly was introduced to clients in Ukraine via politicians and businessmen aligned to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
For a struggling, emerging country such as Ukraine in 2010-2014 (the years Yanukovych served as president), where the average monthly wage is around $200, spending $60 million on a foreign political consultancy is a mind-numbing sum. Most of it is reported to have been disbursed in cash and off-the-books, and recorded in handwriting in a so-called “black ledger” maintained by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
“Ukraine figures in almost every sentence in this trial, especially in terms of where Manafort earned his money,” said journalist Myroslava Gongadze in her daily VOA reports from the Virginia courthouse. Indeed, most of the 18 bank and tax fraud charges stem from Manafort’s work as a political consultant in Ukraine.
That the VOA Ukrainian service has been providing blanket coverage to viewers in Ukraine attests to the intense interest from viewers there. Gongadze added that if Manafort is convicted, Ukrainian prosecutors might ask for the evidence for use against corrupt politicians during the time Manafort worked in Ukraine (many key suspects, including Yanukovych, have fled to Russia).
Some observers point out the irony that while no major Ukrainian figure from the Yanukovych circle has been charged, an aging American consultant is been hauled into court in the United States to answer for his work during that time. “Nobody here is in jail. So we now have a situation where the American consultant of a Ukrainian dictator is being the only one held responsible for the crimes of the ex-president,” Ukrainian investigative TV journalist Natalie Sedletska told me.
Still, the trial may serve as a form of a catharsis for Ukrainians who, by the tens of thousands, helped oust Yanukovych, and finally freeze Manafort’s cash spigot in Ukraine.
Manafort’s lawyer has argued that his client’s work for Yanukovych was to “bring the country closer to Western democracies after decades of Soviet rule.” But a careful look at the timeline of events shows he did the complete opposite, slowing Ukraine’s integration with the West, especially with the European Union.
Under pressure from Putin, the then-Ukrainian president refused to sign an accession agreement with the EU in late 2013, which ignited the giant fuse that sparked the Maidan protests and his eventual ouster.
For the current Ukrainian government of pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko, ending up in the daily news cycle as part of the Manafort scandal isn’t exactly the type of PR they want. In fact, despite some impressive passage of reforms by Parliament in recent months, at the end of it all, Americans may be left with an image of the country as hopelessly corrupt, and on its way to becoming a failed state, especially if pro-Russian politicians regain control of the country in elections next year.
Recently, I was reminded by former Ukraine Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, that in fact, with the state treasury plundered so badly, the country was on the verge of default in the weeks after the collapse of the Yanukovych regime. The armed forces were so hollowed out that when pro-Russian rebels invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 the Ukrainian soldiers were sent to the battlefront in sandals, borrowed uniforms and hopelessly useless weapons and equipment.
While the state finances have since recovered – in large part thanks to billion dollar bail-out loans by the international community – endemic corruption, low wages and a lack of opportunity are fuelling a large-scale brain drain of young, talented people. Thanks in large part to the damage to the economy wrought by Yanukovych and his cronies, it will take years, perhaps decades, for Ukraine to fully recover.
“For Ukrainians, the significance of Manafort is incredibly obvious in terms of being an accomplice to a regime that stole so much money from the country, and that was ultimately responsible for murder,” said Franklin Foer, a writer for The Atlantic who has studied Manafort closely.
During the four years Manafort served the then-ruling party in Ukraine, he employed a sophisticated playbook – perhaps borrowing despicable tactics employed by previous clients such as dictators Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi – strategies to whitewash their corrupt dealings and bolster their image in the West. Sowing divisiveness in Ukrainian society – by for example exaggerating the Ukrainian-Russian language divide – was also reported to be part of Manafort’s strategy to strengthen Yanukovych’s position.
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But, in the end, despite his political savviness and years of experience from capitals as diverse as Manila, Washington and Luanda, Manafort failed to predict the harsh reaction of the Ukrainian people and was unable to protect his client from being ousted from power in early 2014.
A stain on his prolific resume, perhaps. But sowing divisiveness and mercilessly beating down opponents are tactics that seemed to have stayed with the Trump team to this day, long after Manafort worked there as campaign chairman from June to August 2016.
Even more astonishing is that the same forces that annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine are, if US intelligence agencies are to be believed, also the same forces that undermined the 2016 US elections by hacking emails and computer networks associated with the Democratic Party.
In both cases, Russia has denied any involvement. But what cannot be denied is that Manafort was deeply involved in both countries. Both Ukraine and the United States were undermined by Putin and his accomplices, with Manafort being one of them.