Reforming Ukraine After the Revolutions by Joshua Yaffa

Two muckraking journalists had contempt for Ukraine’s corrupt political system. So they became politicians.

When Sergii Leshchenko was at university, in Ukraine, he dreamed of working in television news. After an unsuccessful summer internship at a local news channel, in 2000, he heard that a new online publication, Ukrayinska Pravda, was desperately looking for reporters; in recent weeks, nearly all the staff had quit, fed up with low pay and worn down by pressure from authorities. His interview took place in a cramped and sparsely furnished three-room apartment, where he was met by the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Georgiy Gongadze, a thirty-one-year-old reporter. Gongadze regularly received threats from Ukrainian officials because of his muckraking investigations. The power was out in the apartment, so Leshchenko and Gongadze sat in darkness. After a few minutes, Gongadze told him that he could start right away.

Two weeks after Leshchenko began work, Gongadze disappeared. “I thought maybe he wandered off somewhere, went on a bender,” Leshchenko recalled recently. Two months later, Gongadze’s body was found in a forest outside Kiev. He had been decapitated, his body doused in chemicals and burned. Leshchenko had never expected journalism to be a deadly profession, but now that it was it didn’t seem right to do anything else.

Leshchenko rapidly mastered the maze of relationships among Ukraine’s oligarchs and the intricacies of its natural-gas trade. In time, he became Ukraine’s premier investigative journalist.

In contrast, the path that led Mustafa Nayyem to journalism was marked by happenstance. He was born in Afghanistan, where his father was a deputy education minister. His mother died when he was young; in 1989, when Nayyem was eight, his father moved the family to Moscow, and then, in the waning moments of the Soviet Union, to Kiev.

When he graduated, in 2003, he couldn’t find employment, so he bounced between various jobs, played drums in a rock band, and performed in an experimental theatre troupe. In 2004, he began work as a political reporter for a local news agency. He soon found himself covering one of modern Ukraine’s foundational events.

The Orange Revolution, as it is called, marked a euphoric moment in Ukraine’s post-Communist history, a chance to become a modern liberal state.

But in Ukraine’s years of independence its political culture had become dysfunctional. It had not managed to create strong institutions, relying instead on clannish relationships among the country’s rich and powerful individuals.

In 2013, Nayyem, along with some friends and colleagues, founded a television channel, Hromadske, and he became its most visible correspondent.

Paul Manafort also counselled Yanukovych to seize on the country’s geographic and linguistic divides, and play to the grievances of his home region, the Russian-speaking Donbass, in the country’s east.

Yanukovych constructed a corrupt machine that answered to him and his two sons, a network known as the Family. The siphoning of wealth that had long defined Ukrainian politics soon reached grotesque levels. The country’s customs and tax services were transformed into agents of feudal tribute, and Yanukovych used inflated state-procurement contracts to enrich those close to him, making little attempt to mask the corrupt nature of the deals.

The Maidan Revolution reached its dénouement in late February, 2014, with several days of sniper fire and rolling street battles between antigovernment protesters and riot police. More than seventy people were killed.

War followed, a conflict that has left nearly ten thousand dead, and continues in violent spurts to this day.

Throughout Ukraine’s twenty-five-year history of independence, politics has served the country’s oligarchs, the few dozen men—they are all men—who amassed huge fortunes in the nineteen-nineties by using their connections to take control of large firms trafficking in raw materials and heavy industry.

Oligarchs funnel much of their profits back into the political system, which they use as an arena to resolve disputes and insure their continued privileges. Everything has to be bought, from the backing of television anchors to the loyalty of municipal-election officials, making the country’s election campaigns among the world’s most expensive. According to Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in 2004 Yanukovych and Yushchenko together spent about a billion dollars, significantly more than George W. Bush and John Kerry spent in the United States that year.

One of the most influential oligarchs is Igor Kolomoisky, who assembled a $1.4-billion empire through aggressive corporate raiding. Known for his florid, profane speech and for a gigantic shark aquarium in his office, he enjoyed for years effective control over Ukrnafta, a nominally state-owned oil company that sold crude oil at below-market prices to Ukraine’s largest petroleum refinery, which he also controlled. The refined oil was then put on the market and sold for huge profits.

In the months after Maidan, Poroshenko appointed Kolomoisky the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, which borders the separatist-held enclaves in Donbass. At a time when the Army barely functioned, Kolomoisky funded volunteer battalions, and managed to keep pro-Russian groups from making inroads in Dnipropetrovsk.

Late one night last winter, at the height of the scandals around Shokin and Kononenko, Leshchenko received a summons to the President’s office. Poroshenko asked him not to write critically about Shokin and Kononenko, arguing that the accusations were false and that the men were practically “members of my family.” Leshchenko said little and left upset, sure that the President was lying to him.

The secret ledger contained a record of sixty-six million dollars in corrupt payments: a million dollars to buy votes in parliament, three million dollars designated for officials at the central election commission, a million dollars a month to air sympathetic news reports on Ukrainian television.

In August, the bureau announced that Paul Manafort, who had become Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign manager, was listed on the ledgers as the intended recipient of twenty-two payments, totalling more than twelve million dollars.

After two years of paying steady attention to Ukraine in the wake of the Maidan Revolution and the war in Donbass, the United States and Europe are moving on. Washington is consumed with the upcoming election; Obama will likely leave office as the first U.S. President in decades not to visit independent, post-Soviet Ukraine. Donald Trump has signalled that as President he would have little sympathy for or interest in Kiev’s position. He seemed to deny the obvious in arguing that Russia had not in fact invaded Ukraine, and said that the people of Crimea “would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

At home, polls show that only seventeen per cent of the Ukrainian public is satisfied with Poroshenko’s leadership. He now has a lower popularity rating in some parts of Ukraine than Yanukovych did in the months before the Maidan Revolution. Leshchenko and Nayyem suspect that Poroshenko will turn out to be a transitional President, a placeholder, who kept the state in one piece in order to hand it over to younger, more courageous politicians.

On the morning of July 20th, Pavel Sheremet, the Ukrayinska Pravda columnist, who, along with Pritula, had urged Nayyem and Leshchenko to enter politics, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the center of Kiev. He had been a gadfly, writing unfavorably of the volunteer paramilitary battalions in the east and of the oligarchs ensnared in corruption scandals. He also hosted a morning radio program—he was driving to the recording studios when the bomb went off. His death was a macabre echo of Gongadze’s murder, and it, too, crystallized the fear and disorder of the times.

Nayyem told me that he considered the assassination “an act of terror, a demonstration, and a threat—to journalists, activists, politicians, a huge group of people, which also includes Sergii and me.” So far, investigators have turned up little. Any number of people could have ordered Sheremet’s killing, from rogue elements inside Ukraine’s security services to Russian intelligence agents looking to discredit Kiev and stir up political upheaval.