KIEV – On the morning after the plea deal between special counsel Robert Mueller and U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was released, Ukraine’s political elite gathered in Kiev at the annual Yalta Europe Strategy conference, organized and financed by Ukrainian Jewish business leader Viktor Pinchuk. (Full disclosure: This writer was a guest of the conference). One after another, party leaders and potential presidential candidates took to the stage to set out their platforms.
High-level panels debated Ukraine’s future, stuck between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and a European Union at war with itself. No one wanted to talk about what had been revealed in Washington the previous evening about the American strategist who had been pulling the strings behind the scenes in Kiev for a decade.
The only mention of the plea deal on the stage came during an interview with the former prime minister, now front-running candidate in next year’s presidential election, Yulia Tymoshenko. When asked whether she thought the Ukrainian public has forgiven her for signing a natural gas deal with Russia in 2009, causing the country economic damage and putting it at the Kremlin’s mercy, she answered laughing, “Well, apparently the Russians tried to smear me.”
That was the only hint at the fact that Manafort, according to the Mueller indictment, had in 2012 orchestrated a smear campaign against Tymoshenko on behalf of former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and oligarchs close to him, and with the cooperation of an unnamed Israeli government official, intended to portray her as an ally of anti-Semites.
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One could have expected that at least Tymoshenko and her supporters would have been interested in pouncing on these revelations and calling for an investigation into the involvement of Russia, American and Israeli figures in their internal politics. But Tymoshenko and other speakers would not be drawn on the issue.
“Of course these questions should be asked,” says parliament member Svitlana Zalishchuk, who also sits on the Rada’s foreign affairs committee. “We should be asking who paid Manafort, who was he connected to besides Yanukovych, because some of those people are still around.”
“No one wants to the ask the questions because it could involve those still in power,” says the former investigative journalist and now member of parliament Sergii Leshchenko. “And it could jeopardize our critical relationship with the current administration in the U.S. The last thing they want is to get into trouble with Trump.”
“We will try to raise these issues next week when the parliament returns from its recess,” says another young parliament member, Mustafa Nayyem. “But in the political establishment there are those who fear that too many questions on Manafort can bring the whole rotten structure down. We’re not surprised by anything that has emerged from the Mueller investigation, and not [surprised] that they are trying to keep it quiet here in Kiev.”
Ukraine’s politics are divided nowadays between the veterans who were part of the political-financial system before the February 2014 Maidan Revolution that brought Yanukovych down, and newcomers like Zalishchuk, Leshchenko and Nayyem, who as activists and journalists were part of the revolution, and are now trying, not very successfully, to bring about change in the corridors of power.
Ostensibly, both camps share the consensus that Ukraine must grow closer to the West and guard itself from Russian attempts to undermine Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty, but the veteran politicians, men and women who grew up in the U.S.S.R., still have various connections, interests and skeletons in their cupboards, as far as Moscow is concerned. That’s why they are far from eager to delve too deeply into the Manafort case. No need to anger both Putin and Trump. And then, of course, there is the Jewish and Israeli angle that makes it even more sensitive.
“It’s very easy to taint a Ukrainian politician or party with accusations of anti-Semitism,” says Zalishchuk. “There are terrible things that happened here in the past but if you look at the situation today in Ukraine, we have a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, and the far-right anti-Semitic parties have been nearly wiped out of the parliament. They just don’t represent Ukrainian society anymore.”
The accusations against Tymoshenko make Ukrainians laugh, because while she presents herself as a Christian, she is widely believed to have Jewish roots and one of her main supporters is the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the powerful leader of the Jewish community in Dnipropetrovsk.
“Of course there’s still a lot of anti-Semitism in Ukraine,” says a local Jewish leader who preferred to remain anonymous. “But the government is seriously fighting it and trying to keep it out of the public sphere. Putin is the one who has been trying for years to undermine Ukraine’s international standing by portraying it as anti-Semitic, while Russia is just as bad. He has turned this into a political issue.”
In the wake of the revolution in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, there was a concerted campaign by the Kremlin’s official and unofficial international propaganda channels to highlight Ukrainian anti-Semitism. A wave of vandalism took place against synagogues in Ukraine. Most people in Kiev are convinced this was done by Russian agents.
And what about the Israeli angle? No one in Ukraine sounds surprised and yet they prefer to remain silent. “In Ukraine, a weak nation surrounded by enemies, people understand Israel’s situation,” says a veteran diplomat in Kiev. “We understand that Israel has to take Russia’s priorities into consideration. Especially now that Russia controls Syria on Israel’s border. So if Avigdor Lieberman put out a statement against Tymoshenko and if Israel refuses to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine, we understand Israel has special circumstances and no one will attack Israel for fear of being seen as anti-Semitic. That’s why no one will call to investigate the Israeli involvement in the Manafort case and the smearing of Tymoshenko.”