KYIV -- Ukrainians long angered by Paul Manafort’s work to bring what they regard as a kleptocratic, pro-Russia administration to power in Kyiv celebrated news of the American political consultant's indictment on October 30.
Manafort, who spent months as chairman of U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, surrendered to the FBI along with his longtime business partner Rick Gates after days of speculation as to who was targeted in a sealed indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The charges from Mueller -- who was tasked by the U.S. Justice Department with investigating alleged Russian attempts to meddle in the election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials -- maintain that Manafort laundered millions of dollars in Ukrainian payments through overseas shell companies and used the money to buy real estate, luxury cars, and fancy suits.
Already a seasoned Washington hand, Manafort was widely credited with masterminding the political comeback in Kyiv of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, six years after Yanukovych's flawed election victory sparked Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution.
The indictment is chiefly about Manafort’s work in Ukraine and does not directly tie Manafort to Moscow or name him as a suspected collaborator in the alleged Russian operation to disrupt the election.
“That’s great news!” Serhiy Leshchenko, the Ukrainian lawmaker who helped expose the notorious “black ledger” that appeared to show $12.7 million in secret cash payments earmarked for Manafort from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions between 2007 and 2012, told RFE/RL by phone from the Barcelona airport.
Since Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014, Ukrainian officials and journalists have accused him and his administration of stealing millions of dollars in public funds, and authorities are currently trying him for allegedly ordering troops to fire on peaceful demonstrators at the height of the 2013-14 unrest.
“I’m very much satisfied, because Manafort was involved in high-level corruption in Ukraine. He helped one of the most corrupt persons in the world to be elected president,” Leshchenko said, alluding to Yanukovych.
Leshchenko added: “I believe this is money stolen from Ukrainian taxpayers.”
The “black ledger” revelations in August 2016, first reported by The New York Times, led to Manafort's resignation from the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s office said in a statement that Manafort and Gates were indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts including “conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, unregistered agent of a foreign principal, false and misleading FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act] statements, false statements, and seven counts of failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.”
If convicted, Manafort could face decades in U.S. prison.
Specifically, the indictment asserts that between at least 2006 and 2015 -- a period that exceeds the “black ledger” dealings -- Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents for Yanukovych, his government, his Party of Regions, and that party’s successor, known as the Opposition Bloc,
Yanukovych fled Ukraine with many of his allies in 2014, in the wake of the so-called Euromaidan protests -- for pro-Western policies and against widespread corruption -- that turned violent. Opposition Bloc leaders, many of whom remain in Kyiv, could not immediately be reached for comment on the indictment.
Manafort's longtime associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, who told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview in February that during the 2016 election campaign, “I was briefing him on Ukraine,” also did not reply to multiple attempts to reach him for comment.
Manafort laundered more than $18 million “to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States without paying taxes on that income,” the indictment reads.
Gates is accused of transferring more than $3 million from offshore accounts.
Fresh Ukraine Probe?
The news was welcomed by many in Ukraine, where Manafort has not been actively pursued, much to the dismay of many Ukrainians, especially anti-corruption campaigners and investigative journalists.
“While American journalists report about the ‘surrender’ of Manafort, Ukrainians openly rejoice,” tweeted Novaya Vremya investigative journalist Kristina Berdynskykh.
"[T]oday is a holiday on the street of Serhiy Leshchenko," popular Ukrainian blogger Alyona Yakhno wrote on Facebook. "Without any irony. He was the first to start all this."
It also led some in Ukraine to speculate that Ukrainian authorities would open their own investigation into Manafort’s dealings there.
But the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, who has worked on the “black ledger” investigations and said he was surprised by news of Manafort’s indictment, told RFE/RL it was too early to say whether Kyiv would open its own probe.
“It’s interesting,” Kholodnytsky said when told of the U.S. charges against Manafort, adding that he welcomed the news. He said his office is now studying Mueller's indictment.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's administration declined to comment on the indictment. A leading member of Poroshenko's ruling party in parliament, Volodymyr Ariev, told RFE/RL, "I cannot say [Manafort's indictment] is good or bad. We'll see."
If U.S. authorities reach out to Kyiv for assistance in this or other investigations, Ariev said, "all legal assistance will be provided by the Ukrainian side, no doubt."
U.S. authorities did get assistance from Leshchenko, who confirmed that he turned over documents to the FBI in March that allegedly show Manafort tried to hide $750,000 tied to his work for Yanukovych.
Ukraine does not appear to have actively pursued Manafort or his associates here.
Ukrainian prosecutors have wanted to interrogate Manafort in the case since 2015, and several times requested help from U.S. authorities to do so. But those requests have reportedly gone unanswered.
In September, Kilimnik, who told RFE/RL he has not been on Manafort's payroll since 2014 but has remained in contact with him, seemed to allude to an impending indictment of Manafort.
“They are tough investigators and probably will get Manafort for some financial crap,” Kilimnik said of the Mueller investigation via WhatsApp. “With that many years of international clients no one can be 100% clean."