From her second-story walk-up office in Kyiv’s old Perchersk neighborhood, Daria Kaleniuk has been fighting the fire-breathing dragons of Ukrainian corruption — oligarchs and politicians and judges on the take.
Little did she know she would also be going up against the most powerful man on Earth, Donald Trump.
Kaleniuk is one of a new generation of Ukrainians who grew up in a freshly independent former Soviet republic that struggled to break free of Russia and to build institutions of basic governance. These young reformers speak English, aspire to Western values, reject their country’s Soviet past, have turned away from Moscow — and now fear that the U.S. has turned away from them.
Their work to battle graft and demand change belies the Ukraine that President Trump portrays.
According to testimony before the House impeachment inquiry by Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Trump once said of Ukrainians, “They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people.” Trump has also suggested, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
There’s no question that Ukraine has a serious corruption problem. Transparency International, which ranks countries according to their level of perceived corruption, lists Ukraine as 130th out of 180 nations, with No. 1 being the cleanest. That makes it among the most corrupt countries in Europe, barely ahead of Russia.
Yet activists, academics and politicians here insist the real Ukraine is making significant progress in fighting corruption. And these Ukrainians are angry that Trump has dragged them into U.S. politics by asking their new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“We are desperately trying to change the country ... from a very corrupt kleptocracy to a democracy,” Kaleniuk said on a recent chilly, gray morning in her office. “This is Ukraine’s moment, the moment to help. And instead, we got a knife in the back.”
As part of the movement undertaken by a robust post-communist civil society, and often working with U.S. development grants, Kaleniuk’s Anti-Corruption Action Center and other grass-roots organizations have helped create a new anti-corruption court in Kyiv, replace several dishonest prosecutors and expose illicit campaign contributions, money-laundering schemes and political backroom deals.
They were instrumental in the Maidan revolution of 2014, a popular revolt that led to the ouster of an unpopular, pro-Russia president and ushered in Western-leaning governments, including that of Zelensky, a TV comedian who won a landslide victory this year.
Supporters call them nothing short of fearless.
“The fight isn’t over yet,” said Sviatoslav Yurash, a newly elected member of parliament in Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. “Our goal is to see a completely different country in five years.” At 23, Yurash is the youngest member of parliament in Ukraine’s history and another participant in the reform movement.
Former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigned successfully to have recalled from Kyiv in May, was an enthusiastic supporter of the reformers, as is her replacement, William B. Taylor Jr. , fulfilling his second stint as America’s senior diplomat in the country.
“This new government has appealed to young people who are so idealistic, pro-West, pro-United States, pro-Europe, that I feel an emotional attachment, bond, connection to this country and these people,” Taylor testified before the congressional panel investigating Trump.
The turning point for the generational shift was the Maidan revolution that forced out President Viktor Yanukovich who, along with his business associates, robbed the country of around $100 billion. He fled to Russia, confronted by the massive demonstrations in which more than 100 protesters died.
Weeks later, the Kremlin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and backed separatist militias in Ukraine’s east, where fighting continues.
“Maidan was about fighting corruption and an authoritarian government,” said Yulia Marushevska, 30, another of the new generation of anti-corruption crusaders in Kyiv. “How can a country that lost a hundred people on Maidan in the fight against corruption and authoritarianism be called the most corrupt country in the world?”
The Maidan revolt set into motion an anti-corruption movement led in part by young activists such as Kaleniuk and Marushevska. Their work led Ukraine to overhaul the police system in an attempt to eliminate bribe-taking. It established a transparent, online system for public procurement. It created the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine to investigate graft.
When a new, pro-Western government was elected in March 2014, Marushevska was appointed to the Odessa regional government and eventually put in charge of reforms in the Black Sea city’s notoriously corrupt ports and customs office.
The Maidan street revolution had another, perhaps more important outcome for Ukrainians, Marushevska said.
“Empowerment,” she said. “People now understood that we have the power to change the country.”
In May, long before the scandal broke in the U.S., Kaleniuk’s organization and 19 other Ukrainian groups petitioned the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist former Ukrainian Atty. Gen. Yuri Lutsenko, the man who initially worked with Giuliani to smear the former U.S. ambassador, Yovanovitch, and spread unsupported stories about Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine. Treasury took no action.
Lutsenko, in a September interview with The Times, recanted the claims he made, but they had already reached, and convinced, Trump.
All of the work earned Kaleniuk and her organization the enmity of Ukraine’s most powerful people: billionaire tycoons backed with armies of lawyers and highly paid American crisis management public relations firms. This was no surprise, she said.
But then Giuliani added his voice.
In public appearances, Giuliani painted the anti-corruption group as a dubious tool of George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist who founded the Open Society Foundations. Like many pro-democracy groups across Europe, Kaleniuk’s organization receives funding from Open Society, last year to the tune of about $150,000, or about a quarter of the Ukrainian group’s budget. But branding people or groups as having ties to Soros has become a trope, often tinged with anti-Semitism, used by the American right wing, which considers Soros a leftist partisan.
Slightly more than half of the money the Anti-Corruption Action Center has received since 2012 comes from the U.S. government.
In some cases, attacks have been even more direct. The group’s founder, Vitaly Shabunin, 34, whose investigations exposed Yanukovych’s gross abuse of power and illicit resources, was doused with a green substance while he and dozens of other activists were demonstrating in a Kyiv square last year. The substance, a harsh chemical commonly used as an antiseptic here, left burns on his face and eyes.
The broadsides from the Trump administration have made the anti-corruption crusade that much more difficult, Kaleniuk said, and given sustenance to the recalcitrant, old-school oligarchs “who try to protect themselves through all possible means.” And that, she said, ultimately helps Russian President Vladimir Putin, who benefits from a weak Ukraine.
“It is in the interest of Russia to portray us as a ... hopelessly corrupt country ... [and] a constant place of instability,” ineligible to join Western institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union, Kaleniuk said. “This is about more than corruption and Ukraine. It’s about an autocratic regime fighting the liberal democratic world.”
Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and continues to occupy it. Russia-backed separatists are fighting a deadly war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Ukrainians have noted that Trump often seems to be using Putin’s talking points when discussing Ukraine, telling filmmaker Oliver Stone in June that “Russians and Ukrainians are actually one people” and dismissing Moscow’s aggression. By contrast, many foreign policy experts and geopolitical strategists argue that Ukraine is the key bulwark against an expansionist Russia, caught as it is in a tug-of-war between East and West.
“The future of Ukraine is the future of Europe,” said Daniel Hamilton, a former diplomat who specializes in Europe at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
As the young reformers confront that challenge, they also worry now, amid the Trump impeachment inquiry, that they are also losing the traditional bipartisan U.S. congressional support they have enjoyed for years in executing reforms and building democracy.
Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a progressive think tank in Kyiv, is a foreign policy expert and ardent supporter of the new generation of reformers. Trump’s antagonism toward the country and its endeavors is clearer than ever, she said. Trump has made Ukraine a “political football,” a position the country does not want. And she fears that the topic of Ukraine has become “toxic” in the halls of Congress.
“All the major reforms [were] launched with major U.S. support and involvement along every step of the way,” she said. “That is why it would be harder to push for them without the U.S. It would not stop the process, but it would slow it down. And we can’t risk that.”
Times staff writer Wilkinson was recently on assignment in Kyiv. Ayres is a special correspondent.