Zelenskyy treading on dangerous ground

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyyy

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to have it in for his predecessor. Several new cases against Petro Poroshenko were brought forward on June 10 – all of which have a distinct odor of political persecution surrounding them.

One was a new charge of abuse of office, brought forward by the State Investigation Bureau (DBR in its Ukrainian acronym). This relates to the appointment of Serhiy Semochko to a position in the Foreign Intelligence Service that didn’t legally exist in July 2018. Poroshenko fired him in April 2019 six months after the National Anti-Corruption Bureau opened criminal proceedings against him for illegal enrichment and journalists reported that Semochko has relatives with Russian passports, real estate worth more than UAH 200 million (C$10 million) and business in Crimea.

In another case, prosecutors said they considered Poroshenko a suspect in the illegal transfer of paintings across the border. On May 26, Poroshenko exhibited the paintings in question at the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv, after which the DBR impounded them and informed the former president that he was no longer considered a witness in the case, but a suspect.

However, the most bizarre and troubling case directed at Poroshenko, is the one Ukraine’s recently appointed prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova had earlier initiated on suspicion of high treason and abuse of office. This came as a result of leaked recordings of confidential conversations that allegedly took place in 2015-2016 between Poroshenko and then Vice President Biden, as well as John Kerry, who was the U.S. secretary of state at the time.

This accusation was first brought forward at a May 19 press conference by pro-Russian politician Andriy Derkach, who himself has a very checkered past. Derkach has also worked closely with U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in an effort to dig up dirt on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

This case can have very serious consequences, not just for Zelenskyy, but for Ukraine as a whole. For one thing, considering Derkach’s pro-Russia ties, the black hand of the Kremlin can easily be seen behind this travesty. Not only is the idea of charging a President who stood his ground in the face of brutal Russian aggression, revitalized a demoralized military which had been emasculated under the tenure of Viktor Yanukovych, stopped further incursions into Ukrainian territory, and helped achieve canonical recognition of the independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, totally absurd, it can severely imperil Ukraine’s relations with the United States.

Despite kowtowing to Trump both publicly and privately, Zelenskyy has loudly proclaimed that he will not interfere in U.S. elections and up to this point has not.

But this changes matters. In proceeding with this case Zelenskyy will be perceived as siding with Trump. This, in itself, displays extremely poor judgement. Right from the beginning, Trump has extolled the virtues of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin – even to the point of taking his word against those of his own intelligence services. He deliberately and unconstitutionally withheld badly needed military aid to Ukraine – which had been overwhelmingly approved by Congress — for purely political purposes. This is what led to his impeachment. Not only would a Biden Presidency be much more beneficial to Ukraine’s national interests, but he has so far led in most opinion polls and is well placed to defeat Trump in November. For one thing Zelenskyy is backing a probable loser who has showed nothing but contempt for Ukraine. For another, he runs the risk of imperilling the steadfast bipartisan support Ukraine enjoys in the U.S. Congress.

This campaign against Poroshenko has gained momentum ever since Venediktova was appointed prosecutor in March, replacing the much-respected Ruslan Ryaboshapka who was reluctant to participate in this political vendetta. And a vendetta is what this is. If readers have a sense of déjà vu, that’s because Zelenskyy’s persecution of Poroshenko draws obvious parallels with Yanukovych’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko.

While Zelenskyy has engaged in trying to pin something on Poroshenko, he has also come under fire for defending Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Avakov is the quintessential Teflon man, who has been in that office since February, 2014 despite accusations of corruption, stalling reforms and failing to investigate attacks on journalists and activists.

The most recent calls for his dismissal came after police tortured and raped a 26-year-old woman in the central Ukrainian town of Kaharlyk, on the night of May 23.

A week later, in a residential suburb of Kyiv, some 100 gunmen from two rival criminal gangs engaged in a shoot-out in broad daylight. The melee, a video of which went viral, left several people wounded and spawned comparisons to the anarchic, hyper-violent video game Grand Theft Auto on social media.

Critics charge that these incidents came about because of Avakov’s failure to reform the police. And while Zelenskyy stated that “the minister himself should be responsible for such things,” during an interview with Ukrayinska Pravda, he also said that he didn’t ask him to resign. What’s more, since assuming the Presidency, Zelenskyy has twice reappointed Avakov as interior minister despite the fact that with his absolute majority in the Verkhovna Rada, he could easily remove any minister should he wish to do so. But apparently, Avakov has managed to expand his powers to such an extent that, as opposition Holos (Voice) Party MP Oleksandra Ustinova put it, he “totally controls” the Parliamentary Committee on Law Enforcement and can get most members to “vote as he says.”

This vendetta against Poroshenko and the defense of Avakov all point to an increasingly dangerous trend in Zelenskyy’s recent actions. It’s time for him to stand back and reflect upon the reasons for his landslide victory. He was elected to tackle corruption and institute reform — not to become a clone of Viktor Yanukovych.