At the Museum of Corruption
In February 2014, after months of protests, thousands of Ukrainians stormed President Viktor Yanukovych’s estate north of Kyiv. The Mezhyhirya Residence was filled with the fruits of years of embezzlement. In Yanukovych’s private mansion, the activists found a bowling alley, several swimming pools, a cryosauna and an indoor shooting range. Elsewhere on the 99-acre estate they discovered a full replica of a Spanish galleon; a network of heated roads; a modest decoy home to show to visiting journalists; a vintage car museum; entire houses for the president’s Tibetan mastiffs; accommodation for 400 security guards and 300 live-in staff; and a complex with Japanese, Russian and Finnish saunas, which the activists used to dry out the incriminating documents Yanukovich had dumped in a lake before fleeing. They also discovered a two-kilo gold model of a loaf of bread, given to the president as a birthday present by a businessman.
It was later revealed that Yanukovich and his associates had siphoned off more than $40 billion in state money. He is currently in exile in Russia, and Mezhyhirya is a public park. Replicas of the golden loaf are sold at the gift shop, alongside tiny gilded toilets. It is meant to be an object lesson in the perils of political corruption, though in practice it’s a popular spot for family outings and wedding photo shoots – an inadvertent advertisement for ill-gotten wealth.
When I went to look round, on a mild Sunday in October, the so-called Museum of Corruption was full of visitors. Children clambered onto giant his-and-hers thrones set up opposite the mansion; couples swooned over Italianate gardens; people solemnly fed alpacas. The Trump impeachment inquiry had recently begun. The editor of the Mirror Weekly, Julia Mostovaya, wrote that both Democrats and Republicans in the US were once again using Ukraine to play ‘domestic political golf’ with little regard for the country’s own interests – including its need, in the light of ongoing Russian aggression, to stay in the good graces of both American parties.
Three weeks earlier, with the backing of the IMF and the US State Department, Ukraine had inaugurated its High Anti-Corruption Court. At the same time, parliamentarians agreed to give up their immunity to prosecution, fulfilling a campaign promise of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He assumed office in May, having won 73 per cent of the vote. Elected as an outsider by a populace deeply disenchanted with political institutions, his only prior experience was having played a president on TV. He recently asked his Facebook followers to vote on who should be the mayor of Lviv, and held a 14-hour press conference in a newly opened food court.
More seriously, he has been attacked for appointing ‘tainted officials mired in corruption scandals’ to implement his judicial reforms, and when 11 members of his Servant of the People party (named after his TV show) were accused of accepting bribes, he suggested they take a polygraph test. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest after Zelensky appeared to concede too much to Russia in negotiations over the future of the Donbass region.
His infamous phone call with Trump hasn’t helped burnish his reputation. Beyond the mild embarrassment of what Mostovaya calls Zelensky’s ‘obvious servility’ to the American president, he failed to broach any major issues involving Ukraine and the US – including the war with Russia, arms sales, and the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to slash funding for anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian term for ‘betrayal’, zrada, is often applied to politicians who sell their country out in pursuit of their private interests. Having bottomed out on corruption and backroom dealings – according to a 2017 poll, fewer than 2 per cent of the country trusted Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko – Ukrainians found themselves subject to the whims of a US administration that embraces this logic.
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council adviser, testified at the impeachment hearings in Washington yesterday. It was only after the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, spoke to Congress, she said, that she realised he had not, as she had assumed, been ‘going rogue’ in his dealings with Ukraine, but had been following the president’s orders in circumventing traditional diplomatic channels.
In his bizarrely jocular testimony, Sondland was all too happy to implicate Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, the former national security adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence as being in on the ‘quid pro quo’. Acting in accordance with the president’s wishes, Sondland said, required close collaboration with Rudy Giuliani, a presidential cybersecurity adviser with a habit of butt-dialling reporters during sensitive conversations. Giuliani, who is also the president’s personal lawyer, was the central co-ordinator of Trump’s ‘shadow policy’ in Ukraine, which largely consisted of efforts to strong-arm Zelensky into investigating far-right conspiracy theories that might damage Trump’s political opponents.
Alongside the vertiginous testimonies of Trump appointees, the public heard the sober accounts of career civil servants such as Hill and Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer and decorated soldier. In registering their shock at the administration’s attempts to interject domestic politics into international diplomacy, Hill and Vindman were difficult targets for Republicans eager to frame them as partisan hacks. So the conservatives took a different tack, pointing out that Ukraine ultimately received its military aid, and therefore no crimes were committed.
The Ukrainian media have expressed their displeasure at another aspect of the Republican defence: that Trump withheld military aid because of corruption in Ukraine. According to the Washington Post, Putin convinced Trump that Ukraine was not only corrupt but had meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.
Zelensky meanwhile has a country to run. On 13 November, the day the public impeachment hearings began in Washington, the Ukrainian president signed a law extending greater protection to whistleblowers who expose workplace corruption. Like Trump, Zelensky has a flair for the theatrical. But it is perhaps telling that one of the two men before coming to power played a reformer on TV, and the other a petty tyrant.