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The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump has pulled my homeland, Ukraine, into the spotlight, and more Americans are talking about it than ever before. Yet few see it clearly. Some still call it—wrongly—“the Ukraine,” and few seem willing to spell the name of our capital the way that we do, which is “Kyiv.” Others foster grave misconceptions regarding Ukraine’s multicentury struggle against Russian colonial rule or about its continuing war against a Russian invasion.
Many Americans point out to me that the scandal involving Trump’s misconduct in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will never really be about Ukraine: it is all about the integrity of democracy in the United States.
I disagree. This scandal is all about Ukraine, but not in the way most Americans expect.
Since the Trump-Zelenskyy call went public, many Americans have come to use the word “Ukraine” interchangeably with “corruption.” Let’s get the facts straight: Ukraine is not the most corrupt place on earth. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, at least 60 countries are doing much worse than Ukraine. Among them are Russia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Iran. Moreover, Ukraine has recently made audacious anticorruption reforms and elected new leadership on the fiercest anticorruption platform in the country’s history.
My homeland used to be dreadfully corrupt, however. So corrupt that it robbed my parents’ whole generation of any chance at a decent life. Corruption robbed me of opportunities as well. But I’m not here to make you care about Ukraine’s multi-decade struggle with corruption. Rather, I think that understanding certain features of the corrupt Ukrainian past could shed some light on political corruption in today’s United States.
Understanding certain features of the corrupt Ukrainian past could shed some light on political corruption in today’s United States.
When I looked through that infamous readout of the phone call between Zelenskyy and Trump, I had a powerful flashback to my past in eastern Ukraine in the 1990s. Trump had put the Ukrainian leader in an impossible position: Zelenskyy had the choice either to bend domestic laws in order to fabricate political dirt on an opponent of the U.S. president or to alienate the White House, which would mean saying goodbye to aid that Ukraine badly needs in order to fight off Russia’s invasion. Ukraine was sandwiched between two bad options, and the scenario reminded me of nothing more than how racketeers used to shake down my father.
A Ukrainian truck driver employed by the state, my father was left with literally nothing after the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991. To save our family from starvation, he had to quickly put together an impromptu small business. But Ukraine in the early 1990s had neither the rule of law nor a proper banking system, so credit was hard to come by. And so the Mafia stepped in. One gang bullied my dad into accepting a “line of credit” that looked more like a debt trap. Another gang offered paid protection from the first gang. Both threatened to take away his only truck if he refused their offers. His small business was dead in the water. Later, he compared his story with those of other shakedown victims and figured out that the so-called fixers from the two gangs had coordinated their extortions.
The fixer is the character who links my father’s story and Zelenskyy’s. In his dealings with Ukraine, Trump worked first through his (now imprisoned) aide Paul Manafort and, later, through his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. In his turn, Giuliani employed his own fixers: the recently arrested business associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. To those of us who lived through the wild 1990s and 2000s in eastern Europe, this strong reliance on shady fixers is all too familiar. Every racket thrives on a shakedown. And every racketeer conducts business through fixers. In English you can also call them “mob’s men”; in Italy they are called consiglieri; and in Ukraine we call them reshaly.
The irony to this story is that the power of our Ukrainian reshaly has greatly diminished in the last 15 years, thanks in part to anticorruption reforms that foreign allies, including the United States, demanded as a prerequisite for aid. I especially like this next example: most Americans are now aware that in 2015, Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Ukraine and, speaking from the floor of our parliament, called for the dismissal of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Giuliani tried to fit this moment into his larger conspiracy theory about Biden’s business interests in Ukraine. But the truth is that Biden was responding to a coordinated push from Ukrainian civil society, including independent journalists like me, who convinced him to call for Shokin’s ouster.
We saw Shokin as an agent of the old, corrupt system. He was a powerful force for rolling back the fragile progress we had achieved after forcing out a kleptocratic regime in 2014. Petro Poroshenko, who was then the president, feared rapid change, and Shokin was his fixer: he kept alliances with oligarchs intact, often at the expense of justice.
Back in 2015, we relied on the solidarity of our U.S. and European allies to push our elites to take the right steps—steps that would make Ukraine less corrupt and strengthen the rule of law. Today the tables have turned. Ukraine’s closest ally apparently thought nothing of soliciting a favor at the expense of all the progress that Ukrainians and Americans had worked so hard to achieve. The world of 2019 is one in which a country suffering from a foreign invasion cannot count on automatic international solidarity against rule breakers. Rather, for such a nation, assistance depends on just how useful its leaders can make themselves in digging up dirt for a foreign election.
In eastern Europe, we paid a terrible price for having once allowed an unrestricted stream of big money into our political systems.
I don’t mean to preach or to presume a Ukrainian position of moral authority. Zelenskyy made mistakes of his own in the notorious phone call. He shouldn’t have promised anything likely to undermine the rule of law in Ukraine. He shouldn’t have badmouthed Ukraine’s European allies, which have sent our country about five times as much aid as the United States has since 2014. He should have refused to engage in a nontransparent way with any Trump associate. Relying on confidentiality in communicating with a U.S. administration under so much legal scrutiny was a naive mistake. But putting the call between leaders aside, we Ukrainian citizens have a tip or two to offer the American public at this moment of political crisis.
In eastern Europe, we paid a terrible price for having once allowed an unrestricted stream of big money into our political systems. Those Ukrainian fixers and thugs who terrorized my father later started buying up local elected officials. Then, together with other mobsters, they brought their “business” to the Ukrainian parliament, paying MPs to write laws to their liking. Then they decided that paying parliament members to do what they wanted wasn’t efficient—so those fixers and their bosses got themselves into parliament, through election rigging and vote buying. In the end, they ran the country exactly the way they ran their rackets. The two enterprises became inseparable. In our region, we call it a “captured state.”
A recent wave of popular uprisings, from Ukraine and Moldova to Armenia, has brought some of those captured states down and somewhat diminished the power of oligarchs over our governments. Russia’s state remains captured, though, and the Kremlin still runs in reshaly fashion.
Having lived through two anticorruption revolutions, I won’t suggest one as your number one option for dealing with political vice. But now just might be the perfect time for Americans to learn from Ukraine’s corrupt past—so that it does not become your future.