As NABU sought to fulfill its anti-corruption mandate, it found itself clashing with other parts of the bureaucracy, including Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin.
By 2016, Western governments and institutions like the World Bank were fed up with Shokin, who they believed was impeding corruption investigations, including those into Zlochevsky and his firm, Burisma.
After a months-long pressure campaign, it fell to Vice President Joe Biden to seal Shokin’s removal. In a March 2016 trip to Kiev, he told the country’s leaders that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin got the boot. It worked.
Biden spoke on behalf of other Western leaders, and Shokin had in fact been accused of improperly helping Burisma’s owner. But the vice president’s role in the firing while Shokin’s office had an open investigation of a firm whose board his son sat on has raised concerns from ethics experts and become fodder for his critics — chief among them Donald Trump, who told Ukraine’s current president in July, according to the White House record of their conversation, “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
After the Ukrainian parliament accepted Shokin’s resignation, it installed as its top prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who did not have a law degree but did possess a credential that was more relevant in post-revolution Ukraine: He had been imprisoned under the previous regime.
Manafort, who had remade Yanukovich into a slick Western-style politician only to watch his client be overthrown by a popular revolt, had been laying low since Ukraine’s regime change. In March 2016, he resurfaced in the U.S. as a top adviser to Trump’s insurgent primary campaign. Soon attention turned to his work advising foreign despots, including in Ukraine.
In August 2016, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau published the “black ledger,” a document that allegedly recorded illegal off-the-books payments made by Yanukovich’s Russia-backed Party of Regions to its cronies, including millions of dollars to Manafort. A lawyer for Manafort denied he had received “any such cash payments,” but within days he resigned as chairman of Trump’s campaign.
Even after Shokin’s firing, the general prosecutor’s office, under Lutsenko, continued to clash with the anti-corruption bureau.
Also in August, employees of Lutsenko’s office allegedly detained two NABU detectives in a basement for several hours and tortured them, seeking information on NABU’s investigations of Ukrainian prosecutors, according to AntAC, an anti-corruption nonprofit in Kiev that receives funding from the liberal American financier George Soros.
In October 2016, NABU indicted a deputy to Lutsenko, Kostiantyn Kulyk, on corruption charges. Instead of getting fired, Kulyk was promoted.
Trump’s upset presidential win the next month prompted two reactions in Kiev: Consternation over the government’s role in implicating his campaign chairman and hope that a Trump administration would ease pressure on the government to clean up corruption.
But to the chagrin of Poroshenko’s government the U.S. Embassy in Kiev continued to prioritize corruption.
For this, Ukrainian officials blamed Soros, who finances the watchdog AntAC group, and the U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat appointed to that post by President Barack Obama.
As investigations of suspected Trump campaign collusion with Russia dominated U.S. politics and led to the imprisonment of Manafort on charges unrelated to collusion, efforts against Yovanovitch ramped up.