Ukraine’s politics has always been a bare-knuckle affair with smears, low blows and, at times, threats of criminal prosecution or even violence. But it’s getting even messier and more unpredictable.
President Volodymyr Zelensky faces declining ratings, a vast economic crisis, the continuing pandemic and stalling reform efforts after losing his control over the parliament. The last thing he needed is more pressure on Ukrainian politics as the U.S. election in November draws nearer.
Ukraine has been here before.
An effort by President Trump’s associates to dig up campaign dirt in Ukraine roiled Ukraine’s politics for more than a year and unbalanced the presidency of Zelensky, a 42-year-old former TV comedian.
Fallout from the recording
The latest political storm in Ukraine touching Zelensky and his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, also has been leveraged by Trump’s backers: recorded snippets of a four-year-old conversation between then-Vice President Joe Biden and Poroshenko. The recording was released by a pro-Russian lawmaker, Andriy Derkach, who met with Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani in Kyiv in December. Poroshenko has called the recording fake, but its authenticity has not been disputed by Biden or aides.
Derkach asserted they showed corruption by Biden and “treason” by Poroshenko. The recording proved neither, according to anti-corruption and disinformation analysts.
But it has sent Zelensky’s administration into damage control and led to an investigation of Poroshenko. Prosecutors issued abuse-of-office charges Wednesday against him in a separate matter. Poroshenko’s name also has been dragged into 19 other cases looking at a range of alleged offenses — from treason to the illegal import of artworks — as a suspect in some and as a witness in others.
Poroshenko has denied any wrongdoing and dismissed what he has called a political campaign against him by “pro-Russian marginals” such as Derkach, who once studied spycraft in Moscow. Poroshenko declined to be interviewed for this report.
Zelensky has repeatedly insisted he wants to steer clear of U.S. political battles after his July 25, 2019, call with Trump was at center stage in Trump’s impeachment in the House and his later acquittal in the Senate. In the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden.
But the current flap in Ukraine appears to draw Zelensky right back into the mix.
‘Playing with fire’
When Derkach released the recording last month, Zelensky immediately lent them credibility, even as anti-corruption advocates said they offered no revelations of wrongdoing.
Zelensky told journalists last month that Poroshenko’s purported conversation with Biden over issues including a prosecutor’s dismissal “qualified as high treason” and called on law enforcement to act. He said the prosecutor general would investigate Derkach’s claims and told Ukrainians…