06012020What's Hot:

Who Is Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukraine President in the Trump Impeachment Crisis?

KIEV, Ukraine — As a television actor in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky played an idealistic schoolteacher whose tirade against corruption is filmed by his students, winds up online and suddenly goes viral, propelling him to the presidency.

The show was a comedy. But the message of fighting back-room wheeling and dealing proved so popular that Mr. Zelensky started a political party named after the program, “Servant of the People,” and ended up becoming Ukraine’s president for real — with a life-mimics-art campaign that built his image as an anti-corruption crusader.

Now, Mr. Zelensky, a 41-year-old political novice who took office in May, is at the center of an impeachment debate in the United States over whether President Trump tried to pressure him into betraying the principles that catapulted him into office.

Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, have said publicly that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. should be investigated in connection with his son’s role in a Ukrainian energy company.

Mr. Trump acknowledged raising the corruption allegations in a phone call with Mr. Zelensky on July 25, intensifying claims by Democrats in Congress that Mr. Trump inappropriately pressed a foreign government to undermine one of his main challengers in the 2020 American presidential race.

The uproar grew after senior administration officials said that Mr. Trump personally ordered the suspension of $ 391 million in aid to Ukraine in the days before the call. One of the big questions is whether Mr. Trump used vital funds for Ukraine — a country battling pro-Russian separatists — as a cudgel to dig up dirt on his political rival in the United States.

Mr. Trump has described his call with Ukraine’s president as “totally appropriate” and said there was “no quid pro quo” linking American aid to a Ukrainian investigation into Mr. Biden.

But while the issue has put Mr. Zelensky in an uncomfortable bind, he has not announced any new investigations into Mr. Biden or his son.

In fact, during his call with Mr. Trump in July, Mr. Zelensky told Mr. Trump that the new Ukrainian government had a policy of not intervening in the nation’s criminal justice system, according to a presidential aide, Andriy Yermak.

Mr. Yermak, who discussed the call during an interview in August — before it became a focus of congressional investigations in the United States — said he had already conveyed the same message to Mr. Giuliani, who had been openly pressing Ukrainian officials to investigate Mr. Biden.

“I know that Mr. Zelensky, in a conversation with Mr. Trump, said the same: that the principle of the new government in Ukraine is openness and respect for law and lack of interference of the government in the judicial system,” Mr. Yermak said of the phone call between the two presidents.

The controversy has thrust Mr. Zelensky — who is scheduled to meet with Mr. Trump on Wednesday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly — directly onto center stage in a standoff between Mr. Trump and Democratic members of Congress who want to impeach him.

In past interactions between Ukrainian and American officials, the Americans have typically been the ones lecturing their Ukrainian counterparts about rooting out political influence over the courts, a problem in most post-Soviet countries. The practice even has a name — “telephone justice” — referring to the surreptitious phone calls placed by politicians to prosecutors and judges.

But in this case, the roles were reversed — and the new administration in Ukraine did not bend to the American pressure, said a senior Western diplomat in Kiev familiar with the exchanges between Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani and the Ukrainian government.

Still, the encounters with Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani have left Mr. Zelensky and his aides a bit shocked, the diplomat said.

Mr. Giuliani’s pressure for an investigation of Mr. Biden began before Mr. Zelensky’s inauguration in May, placing the new government in a tough position, said Serhiy M. Marchenko, a deputy chief of staff under Ukraine’s former president.

“If we help the Trump administration in some process that damages Biden, in the long run we harm relations with the Democrats,” Mr. Marchenko said. “If we help the Democrats, we anger Trump.”

Mr. Giuliani has pressed the Ukrainians to investigate Mr. Biden’s younger son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, as well as the actions of the former vice president.

Mr. Trump’s allies contend that Mr. Biden was trying to protect the company from prosecution when he called for Ukraine’s top prosecutor — who had investigated the company — to be fired in 2016.

People familiar with Mr. Trump’s phone call with Mr. Zelensky in July said the American president repeatedly urged him to speak with Mr. Giuliani as well.

Mr. Zelensky initially rebuffed Mr. Giuliani’s appeals for a meeting to press for an investigation of Mr. Biden.

After that, the senior Ukrainian aide, Mr. Yermak, said he called Mr. Giuliani to convey the government’s response, which was essentially the same as the campaign promise not to interfere in the criminal justice system.

Then, after the phone call on July 25 between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Trump, Mr. Yermak said he met with Mr. Giuliani in Madrid. In the interview in August, Mr. Yermak said he told Mr. Giuliani that the new government in Kiev would “guarantee everybody inside the country and foreign citizens and companies open and honest justice.”

Mr. Yermak said he explained that, under the new administration, the justice system would be fair and open to investigating any possible crimes, but that the government would not intervene.

Mr. Giuliani, however, said he came away from his interactions with Mr. Yermak over the summer “pretty confident they’re going to investigate” Mr. Biden.

Now that the exchanges have become such a focal point in the congressional debate over Mr. Trump’s conduct, Mr. Zelensky and members of his administration have largely sealed their lips. Mr. Yermak and other officials have declined additional interviews, apparently wary of being caught up in the caustic American political battle.

Corruption is likely to come up again at the meeting with Mr. Trump on Wednesday. As if to underscore the theme — a bread-and-butter issue for people in his country — Mr. Zelensky posted a video online before leaving for the United Nations that asked Ukrainians to call a hotline if an official solicited a bribe.

“Ukraine is a very young democracy, like a child,” said Daria M. Kaleniuk, director of the Anticorruption Action Center. “The United States is an adult. But sometimes children behave as adults, and adults as children.”

Source: NYT > World News

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic