Two weeks after Leshchenko began work, Gongadze disappeared. “I thought maybe he wandered off somewhere, went on a bender,” Leshchenko recalled recently. “He could have met a girl, gone to L’viv, or maybe Georgia.” Two months later, Gongadze’s body was found in a forest outside Kiev. He had been decapitated, his body doused in chemicals and burned. Leshchenko had never expected journalism to be a deadly profession, but now that it was it didn’t seem right to do anything else. “There was no going back,” he said.
At Ukrayinska Pravda, Leshchenko was left to work alone with Olena Pritula, the site’s co-founder and publisher. “He never raised a question of his own safety,” Pritula told me. “He just quietly and calmly showed up at work. This was akin to heroism.” Leshchenko rapidly mastered the maze of relationships among Ukraine’s oligarchs and the intricacies of its natural-gas trade. He was “rigorous to the point of being a bore,” Pritula said, and prone to a stubborn and inflexible precision that made him a trying conversationalist but a brilliant reporter. In time, he became Ukraine’s premier investigative journalist. He is now thirty-six, with a trim beard, thick black eyeglasses, and a regular uniform of slim-cut dress shirts and dark jeans.
In contrast, the path that led Mustafa Nayyem to journalism was marked by happenstance. He was born in Afghanistan, where his father was a deputy education minister. His mother died when he was young; in 1989, when Nayyem was eight, his father moved the family to Moscow, and then, in the waning moments of the Soviet Union, to Kiev. Nayyem is thirty-five, with a sculpted goatee, heavy black eyebrows, and an immaculately shaved head.
As a child, Nayyem quickly became fluent in Russian—Ukrainian came more slowly—but his immigrant status made him an outsider at school. He compensated with wit and charm. At university, in Kiev, he studied aerospace engineering. When he graduated, in 2003, he couldn’t find employment, so he bounced between various jobs, played drums in a rock band, and performed in an experimental theatre troupe. In 2004, he began work as a political reporter for a local news agency. “I found I liked to get to the bottom of things,” he recalled. “To reveal all these arrangements and internal stories.” He soon found himself covering one of modern Ukraine’s foundational events.
In the 2004 Presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, an old-school political roughneck from the country’s industrial east, ran against Viktor Yushchenko, a shrewd political insider who presented his candidacy as signalling the pursuit of a more open, European future. During the campaign, Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned with dioxin, and his face was left pockmarked and scarred. In November, in what was widely considered a fraudulent vote, Yanukovych was declared the winner.
Thousands protested in Kiev’s Maidan, a central square that serves as both the commercial and the civic heart of the city. Shortly afterward, under pressure from Western governments, the authorities called for a new vote, and Yushchenko won. The Orange Revolution, as it is called, marked a euphoric moment in Ukraine’s post-Communist history, a chance to become a modern liberal state. “It seemed like magic,” Leshchenko told me not long ago, recalling the promise of a new regime. “One leaves, another comes in his place, and everything changes.”
But in Ukraine’s years of independence its political culture had become dysfunctional. It had not managed to create strong institutions, relying instead on clannish relationships among the country’s rich and powerful individuals. Before long, Yushchenko was pursuing the same oligarchic and nepotistic politics that he had promised to transcend. Six months after he took office, he was questioned at a press conference about allegations that his nineteen-year-old son was dropping cash in night clubs and speeding around Kiev in a hundred-and-twenty-thousand-dollar BMW. Yushchenko lashed out at the reporter who had published the initial article. “Act like a polite journalist and not like a hit man!” he said, adding that he had told his son to take his restaurant bills and “throw them in the journalist’s face.”
The journalist was Leshchenko. Nayyem was also at the press conference. The two men kept running into each other in Ukraine’s tight journalist circles, and eventually decided to work on some articles together. They became allies and confidants, their profiles and stature rising in tandem. Nayyem’s poise and gift for repartee made him an obvious fit for television, where, as an on-air host, he deployed his natural ease and charm to discomfit politicians. Savik Shuster, a journalist who hired Nayyem as a correspondent for his political talk show, recalled that he was skilled at asking blunt questions: “ ‘And so how much money did you steal yesterday?’ That sort of thing.” In 2013, Nayyem, along with some friends and colleagues, founded a television channel, Hromadske, and he became its most visible correspondent. It was the country’s first independent news network, run without the backing of an oligarch or interference from the state.
Yushchenko’s Presidency became so ineffective and mired in scandal that in the 2010 election Viktor Yanukovych, the original villain of 2004, managed to defeat Yulia Tymoshenko, a charismatic populist, known for her political cunning, who had been one of the heroes of the Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych’s return to power was guided by the American political strategist Paul Manafort, who helped to reinvent his client as a businesslike manager—not necessarily likable but an antidote to the disastrous political circus overseen by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Manafort also counselled Yanukovych to seize on the country’s geographic and linguistic divides, and play to the grievances of his home region, the Russian-speaking Donbass, in the country’s east. Leshchenko described Manafort’s approach: “He tried to create fissures within Ukrainian society and use them to score political points.”
Yanukovych constructed a corrupt machine that answered to him and his two sons, a network known as the Family. The siphoning of wealth that had long defined Ukrainian politics soon reached grotesque levels. The country’s customs and tax services were transformed into agents of feudal tribute, and Yanukovych used inflated state-procurement contracts to enrich those close to him, making little attempt to mask the corrupt nature of the deals. In 2011, the state paid four hundred million dollars for an offshore oil rig whose market worth was two hundred and fifty million, with the difference disappearing into Yanukovych’s inner circle. By 2013, Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr, a former dentist, was running a five-hundred-million-dollar business empire.
Nothing embodied the vulgarity and brazenness of Yanukovych’s personal corruption like Mezhyhirya, a residence he built on three hundred and fifty acres of illegally privatized land outside Kiev. It was said to contain a golf course, ostriches and peacocks, a private Orthodox church, a museum for Yanukovych’s car collection, and a pirate ship moored in the river, used for parties and receptions. Leshchenko wrote dozens of articles about the complex, and about the hidden schemes and contracts that lay behind it. “It was a microcosm,” he told me, “in which you could understand who Yanukovych was as a person.”
Nayyem was one of the few journalists who managed to question Yanukovych directly about Mezhyhirya. At a rare press conference, in 2011, he asked, “Why is it the country is suffering so much but everything is turning out so well for you?”
Yanukovych said that he was overworked and had little time to enjoy “a sweet life.” He chuckled awkwardly, telling Nayyem, “You are always talking about my family. I would like to tell you that I don’t envy you.” Nayyem laughed off the remark, not realizing the threat it represented.
The all of 2013 was expected to be a slow political season in Ukraine. Leshchenko was in Washington, D.C., on a fellowship with the National Endowment for Democracy. Nearly all observers—journalists, politicians, even those in Yanukovych’s immediate entourage—assumed that Yanukovych, after years of skillfully playing the West and Russia off one another, buying time and extracting favors from each side, would sign a long-awaited trade-association agreement with the European Union. For officials in Brussels, the treaty’s virtues were self-evident, but in Ukraine the agreement carried symbolic weight, and the debate surrounding it became a referendum on the country’s future. The E.U. deal also threatened to destroy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of assembling the states on his country’s periphery into Moscow’s own trade union. Western officials insisted that they weren’t in a bidding war, but they were, and Russia sealed the deal by promising Ukraine fifteen billion dollars in government-bond purchases and cheaper gas. On November 21st, Yanukovych announced that he would not sign the E.U. agreement.
Nayyem was stunned. He saw the promise of change stolen from him and his generation; for a moment, it had appeared that Ukraine, after so many years of wavering, would once and for all declare that its future lay with Europe and with a path of reform and transparency. “We were dreaming about something, understanding that maybe it was silly to dream, but we did so anyway,” he said.
The role of journalistic bystander suddenly seemed constraining. Nayyem turned to Facebook. “Come on, guys, let’s be serious,” he posted. “If you really want to do something, don’t just ‘like’ this post. Write that you are ready, and we can try to start something.” An hour later, he posted again: “Let’s meet at 10:30 p.m. near the monument to independence in the middle of Maidan.”
That evening, hundreds of Ukrainians assembled on the square. Over the next few days, they were joined by thousands. Although others had called for demonstrations as well, the historiography of the uprising credits Nayyem’s post with sparking the protests.
At first, Nayyem helped coördinate the protests, ordering food and hiring security guards. But, as leaders of Ukraine’s various opposition movements descended on Maidan, he decided to revert to being a journalist, covering the events for Hromadske. “I spent my whole life writing about politicians, and I wasn’t ready to become one myself,” he said. He listened to the speeches that opposition leaders gave to the crowd. “I didn’t have the sense that the people onstage were all that different from Yanukovych,” he said.
Leshchenko, in Washington, suspected that Maidan would turn out to be “some kind of one-off demonstration,” but he watched a live stream from Kiev on his laptop each day and inundated Nayyem with questions.
The Maidan Revolution reached its dénouement in late February, 2014, with several days of sniper fire and rolling street battles between antigovernment protesters and riot police. More than seventy people were killed. The endgame of the protests, and of the Yanukovych government, remains unclear. Maidan was a storm that gathered force over time, sweeping up those who tried to control it—Yanukovych, Putin, Western leaders. The story of Maidan contains facts that are uncomfortable for all sides: from the role of far-right elements in battling Yanukovych’s police to efforts by Putin to bribe Yanukovych in the hope that he could restore order. Western officials were more circumspect than Putin. Though they disliked Yanukovych and sympathized with the liberal opposition that had become Maidan’s public face, they did not anticipate what would happen if, in fact, their side won.
On the morning of February 22nd, just hours after agreeing to hold early Presidential elections in a deal brokered by three European foreign ministers, Yanukovych fled the capital. Protesters headed to Mezhyhirya. In Washington, Leshchenko woke up to see on his laptop scenes of people strolling its grounds. He flew to Kiev that night.
The next day, Leshchenko and Nayyem went to Mezhyhirya. Hundreds had gathered, and were amusing themselves with the assortment of gilded kitsch they found on the property: monogrammed golf clubs, Yanukovych-branded bottles of vodka, a block of gold shaped like a loaf of bread. Activists used the sauna to dry out documents that Yanukovych’s guards had thrown into the river before fleeing. The two journalists ended up sitting on the bed in Yanukovych’s bedroom, watching his DVDs, including footage of beachfront land in Crimea that he wanted to acquire.
Amid the upheaval, many of Ukraine’s institutions ceased to function, including the Army. By the end of the day, Vladimir Putin was exploiting the country’s disarray. “Little green men” —unacknowledged Russian soldiers—began popping up in Crimea, making way for the Kremlin’s operation to annex the peninsula. By mid-April, separatist insurgents, stirred up by Russian propaganda and aided by Russian intelligence officers, had begun to take over towns in Donbass. War followed, a conflict that has left nearly ten thousand dead, and continues in violent spurts to this day.
Only one oligarch publicly backed the protesters at Maidan: Petro Poroshenko, known as the Chocolate King. He was a billionaire who had built his business empire around a candy company and, in typical oligarch fashion, also owned a television channel and other holdings. He was known to be a workaholic and something of a political chameleon: over the years, he had found a place for himself regardless of the ruling order. He had served on Yushchenko’s national-security council and, later, as the trade minister under Yanukovych.
During the uprising, news broadcasts on Poroshenko’s TV channel supported the protesters’ cause, and he gave money to their organizational efforts. He associated himself with Maidan just enough to build public trust while avoiding responsibility for unpopular decisions made during the crisis. In May, he was elected President, and launched his own party, Bloc Petro Poroshenko, to compete in parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall. Given the country’s endemic graft and the public’s assumption that politicians were invariably corrupt, his wealth actually stood in his favor. Sevğil Musayeva-Borovyk, a journalist who became the editor of Ukrayinska Pravda in 2014, explained the prevailing mood: “He is a billionaire. He already has all he needs.”
After months of chaos, Nayyem was worn down, and in July, 2014, he left for California. He had been accepted into Stanford University’s annual summer course for activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and government officials from around the world. (Leshchenko had attended the summer before.) The program is led by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama. “We teach them about the structures of democracy as if they were Stanford undergraduates—this is what different political systems look like, here is how you can effect political change,” Fukuyama told me. “Getting the dictator out is the easy part. The really difficult part is exercising power in a way that is legitimate and self-sustaining.” In Ukraine, he was certain, “unless you make that transition, the Maidan Revolution is going to fail, just as the Orange Revolution failed.”
Fukuyama urged Nayyem to go into politics, and introduced him to others who had made a similar transition. On his way back to Kiev, Nayyem stopped in Washington, and gave a talk at the National Endowment for Democracy. When asked whether he and others from Maidan were thinking of entering politics, he demurred, saying of Ukraine’s ruling class, “They will use us, but we don’t know how to use them.”
Nadia Diuk, a vice-president of the organization, who is of Ukrainian descent, could tell that he was tempted by the chance to take part in building a new Ukraine but wary of associating himself with a universally reviled system. For people like Leshchenko and Nayyem, Diuk said, “their reputation was built on them being clean.” She added, “And politics, especially in Ukraine, is a dirty business.”
When Nayyem returned to Kiev, he told Leshchenko about Fukuyama’s suggestion, and said that he was thinking of running for parliament. Leshchenko laughed, but in the coming days he and Nayyem talked about how the post-revolutionary rupture was likely to present a fleeting moment for outsiders to enter parliament—an opportunity that might never recur.
They discussed their options with Svitlana Zalishchuk, a veteran democracy activist from Kiev who had dated Leshchenko for several years and was close to both men. She, too, had attended Fukuyama’s Stanford course, in 2011. They would form a bloc of three—it would be all of them in parliament or no one. Zalishchuk knew that even if they won they would be, at most, “troublemakers, not decision-makers,” she told me. But the chance seemed worth taking. “The old system was much more powerful in terms of media, resources, money, infrastructure. What did we have? Public trust, and some new ideas.”
One night, they shared the news of their decision with Olena Pritula and her longtime partner, Pavel Sheremet, a forty-two-year-old Belorussian journalist who had left Minsk under political pressure, then made his way to Moscow, and finally landed in Kiev, in 2013. Pritula was a kind of den mother for the young journalists, and Sheremet was not only a friend and a colleague but also a mentor—a repository of stories of intellectual resistance to the post-Soviet world’s authoritarians. Pritula told me that she and Sheremet were “in shock” at the idea of the pair leaving journalism but nevertheless supported the decision. “Even though Pavel was skeptical of politics himself,” Nayyem recalls, “he told us, ‘Go for it!’ —unlike a lot of our colleagues.”
Elections were scheduled for October, a month away—not nearly enough time to raise the necessary funds and support to start a new party. Instead, the three friends went to see President Poroshenko and asked if they could join the Bloc Petro Poroshenko. The logic was obvious: Poroshenko’s party would gain credibility from the involvement of three well-known young reformers—and, in return, they would ride what Leshchenko called Poroshenko’s political “tramway” into parliament.
Poroshenko put them on his electoral list, and all three gained seats in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. They were among a small but potentially decisive number of first-time legislators. The mood in the country had changed, and the population had lost its fear of the state. “People believe now that they can change their rulers, remove a President from his post,” Leshchenko told me. But could Maidan, unlike the previous revolution, revitalize the country’s political culture as well?
In Parliament, Nayyem was given a seat on the floor of the Rada next to Zalishchuk, with Leshchenko one seat over. It all seemed bizarre to Leshchenko, as he practiced pressing his red, yellow, and green voting buttons. The Rada was scheduled to vote on a new Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former Presidential candidate. Yatsenyuk presented himself as a Western-friendly technocrat, and he had won his shot at the premiership thanks in part to Western support. In a phone call secretly recorded during Maidan, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, told the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine that Yatsenyuk was “the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” and intimated that Washington might want to back him. (That conversation became best known for Nuland saying “Fuck the E.U.!” when talking about the role of E.U. diplomats as mediators in the protests.)
At first, Yatsenyuk, who had his own party, agreed to meet with members of Poroshenko’s party before the vote; then he changed his mind. The head of the Bloc Petro Poroshenko in the Rada declared that they should all vote for Yatsenyuk, anyway; when Leshchenko protested, the party head shouted, “You’re not in charge here!” It was to be the first of many such conflicts.
“Absolutely no one even tries to hide his own financial interests,” Nayyem said. At the same time, Zalishchuk told me, many of their fellow-newcomers in the Rada were filled with a post-revolutionary sense of righteousness, which could easily turn into an excuse for bad behavior. “If they don’t follow laws, agreements, or even the constitution, they think it’s O.K., because they are the good guys, they came out of Maidan, they are doing it for a good cause,” she said.
The Rada did carry out many reforms, instituting a new, transparent system of public procurement and stringent regulations on income declarations by state officials. But a budget bill pushed through by Yatsenyuk at five in the morning was stuffed at the last moment with odd items, such as nearly a million dollars for a music festival, or inflated sums for toilet paper at a government ministry. Nayyem and Leshchenko grew even more suspicious of Yatsenyuk after learning that Swiss prosecutors were investigating one of his close allies in the Rada for soliciting a twenty-nine-million-dollar bribe. (Yatsenyuk’s ally has denied the allegations.) The mistake of the United States, Leshchenko told me, was to see Yatsenyuk as a counterweight to Poroshenko. “It was actually more a case of collusion,” he said. The two divided up spheres of interest. “They came to an agreement about mutual silence on corruption.”
Poroshenko created the National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine, an independent body with the power to pursue high-ranking bureaucrats and politicians, and said it was proof of his willingness to tackle graft, but his administration didn’t provide the political and technical backing to make it functional. “At first, Poroshenko’s people were accepting of the idea, but once they understood what this actually meant—well, suddenly things became much more difficult,” a Western diplomat told me. Western officials had to pressure the government to double the bureau’s annual budget, so that the bureau could pay for computers and staff. “Let’s just say the President was afraid to lose control,” the diplomat said.
The police in Ukraine have long been one of the country’s most corrupt institutions—and, as the public face of the predatory state, one of the most widely loathed. After Maidan, the interior ministry agreed to create a new patrol unit to walk the streets and respond to calls. The aim was that the new service would eventually replace the old.
In Kiev, I spoke to Khatia Dekanoidze, the chief of the new national police force, about the logic of building such police units from scratch. Dekanoidze is from Georgia, and helped lead reforms there after the 2003 Rose Revolution. “There are some things you can’t just reshuffle or restructure,” she told me. “What happened with the old police? They lost their dignity—they did not have good salaries, good uniforms, good cars, or even gas for their cars. All that they got from their bosses was the instruction ‘Here’s your badge, do whatever you like.’ ” Less than six per cent of the new recruits came from the existing police force, and officers in the patrol services were given salaries two and a half times larger than those in the old force.
In parliament, Nayyem became involved in plans to reform the police force. He took responsibility for recruiting some of the new officers, and spent several months visiting ten cities, six of which bordered on the rebel-held territories in the east. He came to realize that the country’s problems ran much deeper than those which Maidan had set out to address. “You sit here and see two oligarchs, or three ministers, and they are stealing something, and you think that, if you can just get rid of them, then everything will be O.K.,” he told me. But people had become used to not paying taxes and to not expecting much from the government in return; when they needed the state to work for them, they paid bribes. The patrol police would prove that the country’s institutions were actually worth trusting.
So far, the reform has been a mixed success: officers in the new force have been deployed to twenty-nine cities, where they have earned a reputation for cheerfulness and honesty. But criminal investigations are still the domain of the old force, and panels in charge of deciding whether officers who have been fired for corruption or incompetence should be reinstated are stocked with revanchist figures from the interior ministry’s old order.
Vladyslav Vlasiuk had worked as a private defense attorney in Kiev and joined the police after Maidan, eventually becoming Dekanoidze’s chief of staff—only to quit this spring. “Reform worked in isolation, but, when you try and combine something new with something old, that’s when the problems begin,” he told me.
The usual image of a Ukrainian member of parliament is a guy with a big belly and a lot of money, sitting in the Rada deciding people’s destinies,” Zalishchuk said. “But Sergii and Mustafa are two young, stylish guys—hipsters—who are the antithesis of the old style of Ukrainian politics.” Leshchenko and Nayyem still hang out with the same friends at the same Kiev bars, and Leshchenko is a regular at Closer, the city’s premier underground techno club. In the Rada, they annoy their colleagues by posting embarrassing details from internal party meetings. Leshchenko once relayed how the head of the Poroshenko party in parliament had lashed out at the E.U. Ambassador to Ukraine, saying that the Ambassador needed to stop “getting hammered” so often with a prominent anticorruption activist.
Leshchenko and Nayyem remain each other’s most loyal ally, but they are very different politicians. Leshchenko is obsessed with facts and documents, calling out corruption or nepotism. “He can be maniacal, but he always gets his result,” said Musayeva-Borovyk, the editor of Ukrayinska Pravda, to which Leshchenko still contributes. Until recently, he kept a desk, piled high with papers and books, at its editorial office. “It turns out politics didn’t ruin him,” Musayeva-Borovyk said.
Victoria Voytsitska, another new Rada member—she has an M.B.A. from Brandeis University—is close to both Leshchenko and Nayyem, and contrasted the two men: “Nayyem always has a joke for every occasion,” whereas Leshchenko “keeps a lot of thoughts to himself.” Leshchenko is more likely to publish damning documents on Ukrayinska Pravda than he is to make a rousing speech from the floor of the Rada. Nayyem is more willing to make deals in the service of passing legislation that he deems important. Nayyem described Leshchenko to me as the “custodian of values” of their partnership. Leshchenko told me, “I don’t even talk to a lot of people in parliament. But Mustafa can fight with people and, despite everything, maintain a decent relationship with them.” Nayyem’s energy is more frenetic and less focussed, and he is liable to commit to a wider range of projects than he can realistically accomplish. A Maidan supporter who worked on police reform with Nayyem called him a balabol—a person who says more than he delivers.
Throughout Ukraine’s twenty-five-year history of independence, politics has served the country’s oligarchs, the few dozen men—they are all men—who amassed huge fortunes in the nineteen-nineties by using their connections to take control of large firms trafficking in raw materials and heavy industry.
According to a 2013 estimate, the assets of Ukraine’s fifty richest individuals make up more than forty-five per cent of the country’s G.D.P., compared with less than twenty per cent in Russia (and less than ten per cent in the United States). Ukraine’s oligarchs are enabled by the state: either they leech cash from ostensibly state-run enterprises, shunting costs onto the public budget and taking profits for themselves, or they take advantage of state subsidies to produce materials cheaply and sell them at market prices. “Business for them is a scam,” Andrew Wilson, a professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London, who has written extensively on Ukraine, told me. “It’s basically just a form of math in which they end with a profit, which usually involves them robbing the budget.”
Oligarchs funnel much of their profits back into the political system, which they use as an arena to resolve disputes and insure their continued privileges. Everything has to be bought, from the backing of television anchors to the loyalty of municipal-election officials, making the country’s election campaigns among the world’s most expensive. According to Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in 2004 Yanukovych and Yushchenko together spent about a billion dollars, significantly more than George W. Bush and John Kerry spent in the United States that year.
One of the most influential oligarchs is Igor Kolomoisky, who assembled a $1.4-billion empire through aggressive corporate raiding. Known for his florid, profane speech and for a gigantic shark aquarium in his office, he enjoyed for years effective control over Ukrnafta, a nominally state-owned oil company that sold crude oil at below-market prices to Ukraine’s largest petroleum refinery, which he also controlled. The refined oil was then put on the market and sold for huge profits.
In the months after Maidan, Poroshenko appointed Kolomoisky the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, which borders the separatist-held enclaves in Donbass. At a time when the Army barely functioned, Kolomoisky funded volunteer battalions, and managed to keep pro-Russian groups from making inroads in Dnipropetrovsk.
In March, 2015, Leshchenko got a tip that Kolomoisky was plotting to seize control of Ukrnafta. The government had recently changed the structure of the company’s board, threatening Kolomoisky’s ability to siphon profits from what, on paper, was a state firm. On March 20th, Leshchenko went to the Ukrnafta building, in Kiev, and found armed men blocking the front entrance and welding grilles onto the windows. One of the militiamen told him that he was from the Dnipro-1 Battalion, a pro-Kiev unit financed by Kolomoisky in his role as a regional governor. To Leshchenko, it looked like an oligarchic coup, with mercenaries carrying out the will of a businessman.
Two nights later, well past midnight, Nayyem made his way to the Ukrnafta office. At the barricades, he ran into Kolomoisky, who, with his soft face, bushy gray beard, and black leather jacket, looked like a cross between an elf and a mafioso. Television cameramen had staked out the building, and the two men had a testy, almost theatrical exchange. “What are you doing here?” Kolomoisky asked, with an arch smile. “Are you a journalist or a parliamentary deputy?”
“Are you a governor or a businessman?” Nayyem responded.
Their encounter captured the anomaly of Ukrainian politics: two men who weren’t really politicians facing off over the country’s most urgent political question. Several days later, Poroshenko fired Kolomoisky as governor and announced a “de-oligarchization” campaign, saying, “The caste of the privileged will be eliminated.”
Leshchenko was happy to see an outright crisis of authority averted, but he suspected that the ultimate balance of power hadn’t shifted much.
By last fall, public dissatisfaction with Poroshenko had crystallized around his choice for General Prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, a veteran politician who had known Poroshenko for years. At first, Shokin advanced several corruption cases against former associates of Yanukovych. But when parliament lifted the immunity of Serhiy Klyuyev, a lawmaker and former close associate of Yanukovych who was charged with corruption, the General Prosecutor’s office stalled on issuing an arrest warrant, giving Klyuyev time to slip out of the country. Shokin also hindered the investigation of two men known as the “diamond prosecutors,” high-ranking state prosecutors who were arrested on suspicion of corruption; raids on their homes turned up a Kalashnikov, four hundred thousand dollars, and sixty-five diamonds. Even more discouraging, not a single person suspected of killing protesters on Maidan was brought to trial.
In Ukraine, the office of the General Prosecutor assumes outsize importance. The President and other top officials can cut deals, trading political decisions for commercial preferences, and vice versa, with the prosecutor acting as the system’s ultimate enforcer. Daria Kaleniuk, a prominent anticorruption activist, explained Poroshenko’s reluctance to break this model. “I have kompromat”—compromising material—“against you, you have kompromat against me, I have some prosecutors, you have some judges. Let’s not fight publicly but come to an agreement,” she said. It’s the only way Poroshenko knows how to operate, no matter how virtuous his goals. She added, “If the President were to agree to true reform of the judiciary or law enforcement, these new rules would likely turn against him.”
After initially supporting Shokin, U.S. and E.U. officials soured on him. To pressure Poroshenko into removing him, the Obama Administration withheld a billion dollars in loan guarantees. (Ukrainians began calling Shokin “the billion-dollar man.”) A senior official in the White House told me that Vice-President Joe Biden spoke to Poroshenko by phone every few weeks and made it clear that, as far as additional loan guarantees were concerned, “you can meet every single other condition, but until you replace this guy you are not getting this money.” At a protest in Kiev, Leshchenko called on parliament to vote on removing Shokin from office. His fellow-deputies, he said, had to decide “whether they are with the people or with the corrupt officials.” Finally, in February, 2016, Shokin announced his resignation—though not before, in his final hours in office, firing a reform-minded deputy who had pursued the diamond-prosecutors case.
One of the government’s more well-regarded officials was the economy minister, Aivaras Abromavičius, a forty-year-old reformer who had worked in private equity in Kiev and joined the government after Maidan. Abromavičius carried out a number of important reforms to bring transparency to the finances of state-owned corporations, including the hiring of talented managers to run them. One day, he received a text message from a man who announced that he would be Abromavičius’s new deputy at the economy ministry. The man’s background, in the oil-and-gas trade, suggested that he was meant to keep an eye on companies in the energy sector—a portfolio that, owing to Western pressure, had recently been transferred to the economy ministry.
In Ukrainian politics, such moles are called smotriashchy, or “watchmen.” They are embedded in companies or ministries by powerful figures, and allow powerful interests to divvy up control—and thus revenue—of the country’s more profitable sectors.
Abromavičius wrote back to his putative deputy, “We aren’t able to create a new position.”
“I think they will make one,” the man replied, and added that the offer had come from Ihor Kononenko, the deputy chairman of the Poroshenko party, who had known Poroshenko since the nineteen-eighties, when they served in the Soviet Army together. The two later became co-owners of a bank.
With his independence and authority in doubt, Abromavičius felt he had no choice but to resign. He wrote in an open letter:
Neither I nor my team has any desire to serve as a cover-up for the covert corruption, or become puppets for those who, very much like the “old” government, are trying to exercise control over the flow of public funds.
The resignation triggered a political crisis, and for a moment Poroshenko’s Presidency teetered on collapse. Yatsenyuk was replaced as Prime Minister. Abromavičius told me that when he came into government he had expected resistance from factory bosses and mid-level ministry employees but not from people in the President’s circle. “The main obstruction to reform came from the very people who hired us to do this job,” he said.
Leshchenko had been warning for some time of a caste of “gray cardinals,” spread throughout Poroshenko’s government, who occupy positions that keep them out of sight, but who wield power over important appointments and revenue streams. “He’s an organizer, roughly speaking,” Leshchenko said of Kononenko. “He thinks up all types of schemes of how to siphon money for some kind of corrupt purposes, or political needs, and distributes this money around. He says, ‘In this company you will be director, and you should bring a certain amount of money back.’ ” (“Sergii Leshchenko’s allegations do not correspond to reality,” Kononenko said.)
Yet when I spoke with Abromavičius recently he emphasized that he still sees a new generation of young technocrats, including him, eager to work within the system, and he believes that the momentum is toward more reform, not less. He told me how his ministry closed a loophole that had allowed Kolomoisky to buy oil from the state at a fifteen-per-cent discount, depriving the government of as much as three hundred million dollars a year. Now those funds are paid into the budget. “Not all reforms have to be painful,” Abromavičius said. “They will be painful to someone—but not to the vast majority of Ukrainians.”
One afternoon, I visited Kononenko at his spacious office in the Rada. He is fifty-one, bald, and muscular. He was voluble but gracious. He denied trying to install a proxy at the economy ministry, and said that the man who wrote Abromavičius had taken a “personal initiative.” Kononenko was eager to show me a report from the prosecutor’s office stating that it had found no criminal misdeed in his actions. When I asked him what he made of his reputation as a “gray cardinal,” he told me, “The word ‘cardinal’ isn’t really so bad. But ‘gray’ I don’t understand. I’m generally pretty accessible and public.” He projected the air of a man who didn’t see why everyone was making such a fuss. “I came from business,” he said—Kononenko has interests in construction, banking, and manufacturing. “I’m a man of the system, I consider myself a good organizer. And, sure, some people don’t like this.” When the conversation turned to Leshchenko and Nayyem, he didn’t affect any warmth. “Those who try to advance their political or civic agenda should be careful not to rock the boat, because this could end badly for the country,” he said.
Late one night last winter, at the height of the scandals around Shokin and Kononenko, Leshchenko received a summons to the President’s office. Poroshenko asked him not to write critically about Shokin and Kononenko, arguing that the accusations were false and that the men were practically “members of my family.” Leshchenko said little and left upset, sure that the President was lying to him.
When I had dinner with Leshchenko one night this spring, he showed up with a thick logbook full of barely intelligible scribbles. A folder had mysteriously, and anonymously, appeared in his mailbox at the Rada, and its contents would be his next investigative project: a secret ledger of unrecorded cash payments made by Yanukovych’s political party before Maidan. Next to each line item was the name of the person who was to receive the cash. “You can see what sorts of amounts were being spent for what purposes,” he said. “It’s the dark side of politics.”
The secret ledger contained a record of sixty-six million dollars in corrupt payments: a million dollars to buy votes in parliament, three million dollars designated for officials at the central election commission, a million dollars a month to air sympathetic news reports on Ukrainian television. It also became clear that, as had long been suspected, Yanukovych’s party had financed other Ukrainian political factions in order to create a puppet opposition. In May, Leshchenko published the materials on Ukrayinska Pravda.
Other, more complete ledgers subsequently made their way to the anticorruption bureau. These recorded two billion dollars in undisclosed cash payments over five years. In August, the bureau announced that Paul Manafort, who had become Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign manager, was listed on the ledgers as the intended recipient of twenty-two payments, totalling more than twelve million dollars. Leshchenko got copies of those ledgers, too. (He declined to tell me how he came into possession of them.) One morning this summer, Leshchenko pulled out a stack of papers: the Manafort ledgers. He showed me where Manafort’s name was listed next to various opaque payments: a million dollars for “services,” six hundred thousand for “sociology,” a likely reference to opinion surveys. (Manafort has not received “any such cash payments,” his lawyer said.) The ledgers also showed expenses for a thirty-thousand-dollar project simply called “Rumors,” and a fee of more than two hundred thousand dollars for Larry King to come to Kiev and interview Yanukovych’s Prime Minister. “Yanukovych spared no expense,” Leshchenko said. “He stole so much that he could afford it.” (King denies receiving any money.) Leshchenko recalled seeing Manafort at Yanukovych’s inauguration, on a snowy day in February, 2010—the strange, lone American who had somehow ended up at the center of Yanukovych’s entourage.
Leshchenko found it amusing that Manafort’s past had become a central issue in American politics. “Sooner or later, it was going to come out,” he told me. He was barraged with inquiries from American reporters and campaign strategists, and on August 19th he held a press conference in Kiev. He pointed out that none of the payments intended for Manafort had been officially registered or taxed, which in his view meant that they were illegal. Holding up the ledgers, he added, “The money was transferred in cash and it is impossible to trace the transactions, but I have no doubt as to the authenticity of these documents.” A few hours later, under mounting pressure, Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign.
After two years of paying steady attention to Ukraine in the wake of the Maidan Revolution and the war in Donbass, the United States and Europe are moving on. Washington is consumed with the upcoming election; Obama will likely leave office as the first U.S. President in decades not to visit independent, post-Soviet Ukraine. Donald Trump has signalled that as President he would have little sympathy for or interest in Kiev’s position. He seemed to deny the obvious in arguing that Russia had not in fact invaded Ukraine, and said that the people of Crimea “would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
Leaders in France and Italy are beginning to question continuing sanctions against Russia, and the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, criticized nato military exercises as “sabre rattling and warmongering.” The Brexit vote, in June, further complicated Ukraine’s position, as E.U. officials now had more serious worries than Ukraine.
A European diplomat in Kiev told me that E.U. officials have become frustrated by what they see as Poroshenko’s attempts to manipulate European sympathy for Ukraine. “He knows perfectly well that we cannot allow Ukraine to fail, that we have invested a lot in this country, and we need to have Ukraine as a success story,” the diplomat said. “And he is abusing that knowledge. It is infuriating.”
Still, Ukraine is hoping for three billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund and 1.2 billion euros from the E.U. Leshchenko and Nayyem think that officials in Washington and Brussels could be tougher on Poroshenko and his ministers. Western capitals have ended up “prisoners of this government,” Nayyem told me. Foreign donors pay for various reform projects, he said, while the government in Kiev merely “talks about reforms” but often doesn’t see them through. If Ukraine were unable to count on unconditional Western money, Poroshenko might have to get serious about reform. “Poroshenko played a small game,” Nayyem said. “It’s not worthy of the kind of leader we wanted to see after Maidan.”
At home, polls show that only seventeen per cent of the Ukrainian public is satisfied with Poroshenko’s leadership. He now has a lower popularity rating in some parts of Ukraine than Yanukovych did in the months before the Maidan Revolution. Leshchenko and Nayyem suspect that Poroshenko will turn out to be a transitional President, a placeholder, who kept the state in one piece in order to hand it over to younger, more courageous politicians.
Both Leshchenko and Nayyem are convinced that the tolerance for old political habits is lower than the ruling élite estimates. In late June, along with Zalishchuk and several other young reformers, the two men announced that they would be launching a new movement. The founding platform calls for “transforming Ukraine into a modern European country.” It will be Ukraine’s first party in twenty-five years to have an ideological foundation, instead of relying on the personality of one leader and the financial backing of an oligarch. The next parliamentary election could be as distant as three years away. For the new party, that might be a good thing. “The problem of the previous generation of politicians is their corruption,” Nayyem said. “Our problem is our inexperience—we lack competency in a lot of questions.”
Meanwhile, the newly created National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine has come under attack by rivals in the General Prosecutor’s office. In the bureau’s first months, anticorruption agents brought some small cases against judges and mid-level politicians, and its investigations gradually inched closer to members of Poroshenko’s inner circle. But in mid-August agents from the prosecutor’s office raided the bureau’s offices on flimsy charges of illegal surveillance; a week later, a group of prosecutors detained two anticorruption investigators, beating them and jabbing at their eyes with a knife.
Nayyem was outraged, and turned to Facebook to call for a protest. The next morning, a sunny, clear day in Kiev, a crowd of several hundred gathered in front of the prosecutor’s office. This was no Maidan: disappointment prevailed in Ukrainian society, and most people had retreated into their private lives, leaving only the most committed and politically engaged to protest. Both Nayyem and Leshchenko addressed the crowd. Nayyem, his voice booming and staccato, declared that the attacks on the anticorruption bureau amounted to a “counterrevolution.” He was contemptuous of the country’s rulers. “They are again plundering the country, again falling back on clan intrigues.”
On the morning of July 20th, Pavel Sheremet, the Ukrayinska Pravda columnist, who, along with Pritula, had urged Nayyem and Leshchenko to enter politics, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the center of Kiev. He had been a gadfly, writing unfavorably of the volunteer paramilitary battalions in the east and of the oligarchs ensnared in corruption scandals. He also hosted a morning radio program—he was driving to the recording studios when the bomb went off. His death was a macabre echo of Gongadze’s murder, and it, too, crystallized the fear and disorder of the times.
Nayyem told me that he considered the assassination “an act of terror, a demonstration, and a threat—to journalists, activists, politicians, a huge group of people, which also includes Sergii and me.” So far, investigators have turned up little. Any number of people could have ordered Sheremet’s killing, from rogue elements inside Ukraine’s security services to Russian intelligence agents looking to discredit Kiev and stir up political upheaval.
In late July, two days after Sheremet’s murder, thousands of mourners gathered in a slow line that snaked its way around Sheremet’s open casket, which stood, under sprays of dark-red roses, in the middle of a cavernous hall. Poroshenko came and laid a bouquet. After Leshchenko walked past the casket, he stood to the side, huddled with friends. Nayyem remained by Sheremet’s body for several minutes and then went outside, where he stopped to speak to local television crews that had gathered. Nearly everyone in the crowd knew Nayyem personally, from his years as a correspondent. He began by offering solemn words of comfort, but quickly switched to a different conversational mode, speaking as a journalist addressing his peers and colleagues. “When we heard the news—let’s be honest, we’re all in a tight circle here—who didn’t think the same thing could happen to one of us?” he said. “That fear is real, it’s strangling, and that’s exactly what this murder was meant to achieve. It is an attack on the whole country.”
A few weeks later, I sat with Leshchenko at an outdoor café across the street from the apartment building, set on a hill in a leafy, charming neighborhood in the center of Kiev, where Sheremet had lived with Pritula. Leshchenko reminisced about the day that he and Nayyem had told them they were running for parliament. “Pavel said that an important process had started, and we had a role to play,” Leshchenko recalled. “He also said, ‘Don’t fuck up.’ ”