Forget Trump and Biden. For Ukraine, the scandal is still corruption.

Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka said Friday that Ukraine is reviewing past investigations into the owner of a company that once employed former Vice President Joe Biden's son as a board member.
Image: The offices of NABU, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, on Oct. 1, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine.
The offices of NABU, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, on Oct. 1, 2019, in Kyiv, Ukraine.Sean Gallup / Getty Images

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By Matt Bradley and Gabe Joselow

KYIV, Ukraine — When Ukraine’s new top prosecutor announced Friday that his office would review a number of past corruption cases, it raised questions about whether the country's government had acquiesced to the same Trump administration pressure that is now driving an impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill.

But to Kyiv’s political class, Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka’s announcement landed with a mix of relief and confusion.

Though shrouded in legal ambiguity, many hope the move to “audit” previous cases that were handled by former prosecutors with tarnished reputations might combat years of rampant corruption while allowing Ukraine to get in front of a worsening diplomatic crisis.

“It’s very unpleasant because Ukraine became smashed into a very high-profile American scandal,” David Sakvarelidze, a former Ukrainian deputy general prosecutor, said.

“For me, it’s also a little bit confusing because what does it mean auditing? You either investigate or not. There is no legal procedural term like ‘auditing’ the case.”

Ukraine's prosecutor-general Ruslan Ryaboshapka speaks to the press on Friday Oct. 4SERGEI CHUZAVKOV / AFP - Getty Images

The prosecutor’s office said Friday that the review could include around 15 cases involving Burisma Holdings, the gas giant that employed former Vice President Joe Biden’s son as a board member from 2014 until early this year.

He did not clearly specify which prosecutors’ cases would come under review, nor details of the review procedure. It was not clear whether any of the cases were from the time Hunter Biden was employed by the company.

The inquiry would be aimed at cases that “have been closed in violation of the law or other procedural violations,” Riaboshapka said — possibly leaving the door open for them to be revived.

But he was clear that the review was not instigated by the president’s office.

“Their office does not interfere with our work," he told NBC News on Friday.

However, the timing of Friday's announcement nonetheless drew frenzied press coverage in the United States.

Full coverage: Trump impeachment inquiry

During President Donald Trump’s midsummer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump asked his counterpart to look into why the country's former prosecutor apparently had ended a probe into Burisma.

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Zelenskiy implied he might do so and that an incoming chief prosecutor will be “100 percent my person” and will “look into this situation.” Riaboshapka assumed office in August a few weeks after the phone call.

Texts released late Thursday showed how two U.S. ambassadors also pushed Ukraine to publicly announce they were investigating Trump's political opponents, explicitly linking this request to whether Zelenskiy would be granted a visit to the White House.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Trump claims that the elder Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its former prosecutor because he was investigating the firm paying his son.

In fact, the then vice president was among many international figures — including the European Union and the International Monetary Fund — calling for the prosecutor's removal. This was because he was widely seen as too weak on fighting Ukraine's endemic corruption problems.

No evidence has surfaced that connects the Bidens with any illegal activity in Ukraine.

'Squeezed in the scandal'

Despite the ambiguity in Riaboshapka’s announcement, at least some Ukrainian lawyers seemed to welcome his initiative while dismissing suggestions that it capitulates to the White House.

Such a response, Sakvarelidze said, allowed Ukrainian officials to get ahead of the fast-moving impeachment inquiry that threatens their vulnerable country.

Ukraine has historically relied on the largesse of foreign powers such as the former Soviet Union, Russia and, more recently, Western Europe and the U.S.

Some Ukrainian politicians worry that the impeachment inquiry will upset the bipartisan support Ukraine has come to expect from Washington.

“It’s not in the best interest of Ukraine to get squeezed in the scandal because it distracts from the main scandal: Russian aggression and economic crisis,” Sakvarelidze said, referring to the ongoing fighting against Moscow-aligned separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

But even more important for some Ukrainians is the chance to tackle the corruption that has beset the country for generations.

Ukraine is routinely mentioned among the countries with the highest levels of corruption. Transparency International, a global anti-corruption advocacy group, ranked Ukraine 120 out of 180 nations in its 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index.

A review of corruption at Burisma Holdings interests Ukrainians far beyond its implications for Trump, the Bidens and the 2020 presidential election, said Katya Ryzhenko, head of the legal office at Transparency International Ukraine.

The company’s founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, was a former minister of ecology and natural resources from 2010 to 2012, years after he founded Burisma in 2002. He fled Ukraine in 2014 under a cloud of suspicion that he had used his government position to enrich himself with oil and gas contracts.

“I can understand that the whole environment around this announcement connects to the impeachment situation in the United States," Ryzhenko said.

“But from the Ukrainian perspective, honestly, we’re more interested in Mr. Zlochevsky himself ... despite any connection or absence of connection to the foreign elements and foreign people involved.”

Yet, even that limited inquiry would not be enough to satisfy Ukrainians’ zeal for restraining the corruption that many feel has long set their country back.

Zelenskiy, a former comic actor who played the president in a television show, won his unconventional campaign on the back of widespread public outrage over corruption and distaste with the political establishment.

Previous general prosecutors so tarnished their office that many ordinary Ukrainians are eager for any kind of reckoning, Ukrainian political and legal analysts said, even if it appears to the outside world like a sop to the Trump administration.

“This Burisma case for Ukraine is not the biggest deal," said Sergei Leshenko, a former member of parliament who is now an investigative journalist who studies corruption.

"We have a lot more criminal cases sabotaged by the previous prosecutor’s office. Including cases that have a lot more money behind them,” he added.

“This case for Ukraine, and the everyday life of people, has much less impact than other cases.”