KYIV, UKRAINE - Ukraine’s new prosecutor general has only been in office since the end of August, but he will likely be central to the future course of any investigations relating to the impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump and the conduct of his possible rival, Joe Biden, in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats say Trump tried to blackmail Ukraine to get it to investigate the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter Biden, when he sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Republicans deny the blackmail accusation and say there are legitimate questions that must be answered about the role of both Bidens in Ukrainian affairs.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, was appointed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and, at a press conference, he pledged to conduct an "audit" of all major cases investigated by his predecessor, including some involving Hunter Biden.
“After reviewing ...those cases we will understand which decisions can be accepted, and which decisions have to be made. I cannot guess what kind of decisions will be taken,” Ryaboshapka told reporters October 4 in Kyiv.
He said 15 of those cases under review involve Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden sat on the board.
Burisma’s activities are difficult to track down. The company is registered in Cyprus and is based in Kyiv, but there are no listed headquarters in the Ukrainian capital.
Owner Mykola Zlochevsky reportedly lives in Monaco; the only trace of him in Kyiv is a luxury shoe store called Zlocci, which is registered to Burisma Holdings. Zlochevsky has faced corruption allegations before but investigations have not revealed any wrongdoing by Hunter Biden or Joe Biden.
So how deep will the audit of the previous Burisma investigations go? Former opposition lawmaker Serhiy Leshenko, who served on the parliamentary anti-corruption committee in the previous administration, says Ukraine’s new prosecutor is trying to be diplomatic in the face of demands from the American president.
“We will look (at the cases). In reality it means nothing because ‘look’ doesn't mean ‘investigate,'" Leshenko told VOA. "It’s an attempt to put Ukraine as this battlefield between two big political forces in the U.S. And for Ukrainian success, we have to stay as far as possible from this mess.”
Chief Prosecutor Ryaboshapka was a key member of President Zelenskiy’s team that swept to power in April's elections.
“At the same time, he has his reputation as a very independent and a very unbiased person who resigned under the pressure of the previous president and his prosecutor general,” adds Leshenko.
Leshenko himself was involved in another corruption case involving the United States – the prosecution of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years on fraud and conspiracy charges.
Another key player in the Manafort prosecution was Viktor Trepak, former deputy head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), who has now been appointed deputy prosecutor general.
President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has previously suggested that Ukraine’s help in the prosecution of Paul Manafort was an attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to benefit the Democrats. Leshenko rejects that claim and says investigations have shown there is no evidence.
“Nothing happened in the sense of interference in the American elections. It was just part of a conspiracy theory constructed by the previous prosecutor general and Mr. Giuliani was happy to believe in this,” Leshenko told VOA.
New Prosecutor General Ryaboshapka is tasked with transforming a dysfunctional system, says Brian Bonner, Editor of the Kyiv Post newspaper.
“There’s one thing you should know: in 28 years of Ukrainian national independence since the break-up of the Soviet Union, nobody has been convicted of any major corruption,” Bonner said.
That has to change, says former deputy prosecutor David Sakvarelidze – who was also fired after clashing with the previous administration in Ukraine.
“Otherwise the country is just drowning into corruption. Ukraine can have a stimulus for example and a chance of really launching a very aggressive anti-corruption policy in this regard. And Zelenskiy’s team possesses and has every instrument to achieve this goal. They have a majority in the parliament, they have 100% of their government,” Sakvarelidze told VOA.
Ruslan Ryoaboshapka and his new team will be central to that formidable task.