Ukraine’s recently appointed prosecutor general, 41-year-old Iryna Venediktova, is a woman to watch. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, expects her to investigate and prosecute his predecessor. She seems more than enthusiastic about that, and it’s a process that's been set up from the start to (once again) try to smear Donald Trump’s leading challenger for the presidency of the United States, Joe Biden.
On the night of May 19, Venediktova personally approved the beginning of criminal proceedings against former President Petro Poroshenko for high treason and abuse of office. The move was triggered by 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.
Before her appointment as prosecutor general in March, Venediktova—a graduate of Ukraine's police academy who holds the rank of captain—had served Zelensky as acting chief of the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR). She reportedly launched investigations into Poroshenko while in that position, and is said to have clashed with the well-respected prosecutor general at the time, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, because of the way she conducted them. Ryaboshapka was dismissed in March, clearing the way for her to take his position.
The nature of the private Biden-Poroshenko recordings and the way they were leaked is reminiscent of the way the Soviet KGB exploited wiretaps and disinformation, but that has not prevented Zelensky and Venediktova from sensationalizing what’s now been put on the record.
It was first presented at a press conference given on May 19 by Andriy Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who has a very pro-Moscow past. Derkach, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a graduate of the former Soviet Union’s Higher School of KGB, the foreign intelligence training facility now known as the FSB Academy.
In recent years Derkach has worked closely with Trump’s personal attorney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to promote accusations that Biden as vice president strong-armed the Ukrainian government to try to protect the interests of his son, Hunter Biden, who was serving in a lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma.
Anyone familiar with the history of Ukrainian corruption knows that Biden’s pressure on the government in 2015 and 2016 was part of a major campaign by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, as well as the Obama administration, to get Poroshenko to clean up his act. Hanging in the balance were $40 billion in IMF loan guarantees, with a $1 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. opening the way.
At the time, one key symbol of reform was the replacement of Poroshenko’s long-time crony, Chief Prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was notorious for not convicting any major oligarchs or public officials known for corruption—even those from the infamous regime ousted by the Maidan Revolution in 2014.
Starting in the mid-1990s, general prosecutors in Ukraine acquired reputations for exploiting corruption rather than fighting it. Often, prosecutions in Ukraine have been launched to shake down the targets rather than put them in prison.
According to an extensive report in the British newspaper The Independent based on multiple interviews with lower level prosecutors, an investigation of the owner of Burisma, the company with Hunter Biden on the board, fit that shakedown scenario precisely.
“Neither Shokin nor Poroshenko wanted to investigate [Burisma owner Mykola] Zlochevsky,” former deputy prosecutor David Sakvarelidze told The Independent. “They simply began a criminal case, arrested a few assets, and began negotiating with the corruptioneer for a bribe.”
So, there are no real revelations in the Biden-Poroshenko conversations. What’s revealing is the use that Venediktova, Derkach, and Zelensky are making of them.
“The leaked recordings are a nothingburger,” says Poroshenko’s defense lawyer, Ilya Novikov, borrowing a term from Biden’s spokesman. “But Venediktova rushed to open the case late in the evening after Derkach had published the leaks,” Novikov told The Daily Beast. “That to us indicates that President Zelensky personally expected his prosecutor to begin the process before his own press conference [the next day].”
In fact, there is no mention of Burisma on the Derkach recordings. But the tough talk does force Ukrainian listeners to realize once again, as they did when they read the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call last year, just how dependent on Washington Kyiv has become.
Poroshenko clearly was reluctant to dismiss Shokin, who had been “his” prosecutor on and off for a dozen years, well before Poroshenko (an oligarch who made his fortune selling chocolate candy) moved up the political ladder to the presidency.
Poroshenko can be heard on the recording telling Biden he’s willing to ditch Shokin even though, according to Poroshenko, Shokin had done nothing wrong. In a subsequent call, Biden congratulates Poroshenko on appointing a new general prosecutor.
“I know there’s a lot more of that that has to be done,” says Biden. “But I really, I really think that’s good, and I understand you’re working with the Rada [Ukraine’s parliament] in the coming days on a number of additional laws to secure the IMF [loan guarantees], but congratulations on installing the new prosecutor general. It’s going to be critical for him to work quickly to repair the damage Shokin did, and I’m a man of my word, and now that the new prosecutor general is in place we’re ready to move forward in signing that new $1 billion loan guarantee.”
When Derkach presented these recordings to the press in May, he publicly accused Biden of offering Poroshenko $1 billion of U.S. taxpayers’ money “in exchange for maintaining Burisma schemes and international corruption.” As Derkach described his version of the events, "Biden leaves for Kyiv to put pressure on Petro Oleksiyovych [Poroshenko] regarding Shokin. There's a powerful argument… in Biden's pocket... a $1 billion loan guarantee... such was a price to save [Hunter] Biden from prison."
Then Derkach took the recordings to Venediktova. If charged, Poroshenko could face up to 15 years in prison.
When President Zelensky marked the end of his first year in power the day after Venediktova drew up the treason charges against Poroshenko, he left no room to doubt he supported them and found the recordings incriminating.
“I think it’s not the last sign that Ukrainians will see. The prosecutors, law enforcement bodies should react,” said Zelensky. “The prosecutor general of Ukraine registered criminal proceedings at the request of deputy [Andriy] Derkach yesterday. They will investigate.”
During the impeachment proceedings that grew out of the U.S. President Trump’s notorious July 25, 2019, phone call pressuring Zelensky for dirt on Biden, Zelensky did his best to avoid taking sides. That will be harder to do if Venediktova continues to pursue the treason case based on Biden conversations.
The Ukrainian president still enjoys rare popularity with an approval rating of more than 60 percent, but that is a steep decline from nearly 80 percent last year and Zelensky is the target of increased criticism. Marking the first anniversary of his presidency by threatening his predecessor with accusations of high treason does not look good. “I do not believe Zelensky,” Kristina Berdyskykh, a leading Ukrainian political journalist, said on Ukraina 24 television. “All young and progressive members have left Zelensky’s team.”
As these controversies develop, Zelensky’s prosecutor will be at the center of them.
Less than two years ago, Iryna Venediktova was teaching law at a university in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. “She specialized in theory of civil and corporate law at a not very significant faculty, not on criminal justice,” a civil society activist in Kharkiv, Volodymir Rysenko, told The Daily Beast. But in a matter of months, Venediktova’s career jumped from a university teacher to a seat at the Rada.
She is a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, and she was made number 3 on its electoral list last year, virtually guaranteeing she would get a seat. Then she was given another head spinning job when Zelensky appointed her to be the acting director of the State Bureau of Investigation.
Finally, in March, Venediktova was appointed to be Ukraine’s prosecutor general, the first woman to hold that position.
“When we look at Venediktova from Kharkiv, we see nothing to be proud of,” says Rysenko. “We hear Venediktova accusing people in her interviews without any understanding of what presumption of innocence really means.”
“She has little experience for such a huge job and was appointed on the basis of being a political buddy of Mr. Zelensky,” says global affairs analyst Michael Bociurkiw. “She’s reversing the reforms of her predecessor which were lauded by civil society, diplomats and the international community. She has already made several controversial appointments, reinstated incompetent or politically tainted prosecutors rightfully sacked by her predecessor, and blocked civil society and foreign partners from vetting some appointments.”
The executive director of the non-governmental Anticorruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, does not see any legitimate grounds for triggering a criminal case of high treason based on the recordings.
“In my opinion Derkach deserves to be investigated for treason for his long-term work with people like Giuliani, for spreading disinformation and conspiracies, which undermine U.S.-Ukraine strategic relationships," Kaleniuk told The Daily Beast. "I think Zelensky still clearly indicates that he doesn’t want to interfere in the American elections and to support any side there; but I am concerned he has appointed Venediktova, who among other strange things—like blocking prosecution reform—makes this nonsense case based on Derkach audio. It shows the lack of professionalism of both the prosecutor general and the president.”
For progressives in Ukraine, a huge question looming over the treason case is how the Biden-Poroshenko recordings were obtained in the first place, and who passed them on to Derkach. He claims he got them from some “investigative journalists,” but nobody knows the journalists’ names.
Kyiv-based experts following the Bidens, Burisma and Trump ordeal in detail want prosecutor Venediktova to pay serious attention to the source of the leaked recordings.
"I personally know Derkach,” says Yevgeny Kiselev of the TV show Real Politics. “He sounds like he is the bridge between the Ukrainian and Russian special services. In our conversations he bragged about his meetings and connections in Moscow; his father, former head of the Security Service of Ukraine, was involved in publishing compromising recordings to discredit President [Leonid] Kuchma and now Derkach junior is leaking very dubious recordings."
"The former foreign minister, Pavel Kilimkin, told me that Poroshenko, Biden and Kerry had lots and lots of conversations about financial aid and about the Congress approving money,” Kiselev told The Daily Beast. “He also said that Poroshenko used to invite all sorts of people to those virtual conversations, mostly to show how important he was; one of them must have recorded the conversations—that is a matter for an investigation.”
The Daily Beast asked Prosecutor General Venediktova if her office has also been investigating the source of the recordings but did not receive any answer.
—Christopher Dickey also contributed to this article.