Guest post by Ilya Plotnikov, a Ukrainian journalist and foreign policy analyst
A Ukrainian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin and Donald Trump, who is ducking criminal charges in his homeland by living in exile in Spain, says he will run against President Petro Poroshenko in 2019.
With his links to Russian power brokers, including the spy-agency successor of the KGB, Oleksandr Onyshchenko is the Kremlin’s choice to depose Poroshenko, a pro-Western leader whom Vladimir Putin despises.
Onyshchenko fits the mold of Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian president who was ousted in Kiev’s Maidan uprisings in 2014 and is living in Russia. In fact, Onyshchenko was a Yanukovych water boy as a member of Parliament from Yanukovich’s Party of Regions.
Although an Onyshchenko run at the Ukrainian presidency could cause tumult in the country’s politics in 2019, it could also be a distraction in Trump’s expected 2020 presidential re-election bid.
That’s because Onyshchenko, a convicted criminal, was a business associate of Trump for more than a dozen years and still considers himself a friend of the Donald. In fact, he has told journalists, he congratulated Trump on his 2016election victory.
Onyshchenko bought the rights to the Miss Ukraine Universe pageant from Trump in 2006. The winner of that contest goes on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump owned from 1996 until 2015.
The only Ukrainian oligarch with ties to Trump, Onyshchenko fled his country in 2016 to avoid embezzling charges. He is accused of stealing $120 million from Ukraine’s state-owned natural gas trading company Ukrgazvydobuvannya, with which his company partnered under a production-sharing agreement.
In addition, Onyshchenko, who also runs the Miss Ukraine pageant, has been accused of soliciting prostitution for wealthy foreigners — and Ukrainian authorities hint that some of the women were under-age girls.
Onyshchenko contends he has recorded conversations purporting to show several members of the current government engaging in corruption, although he has released only a snippet of one conversation. Ukrainian journalists have speculated that, if the tapes are legitimate, they came from the Russian FSB. This is the same agency whom the Christopher Steele dossier contends has a tape of Trump watching Moscow prostitutes pee on a hotel bed that President Barack Obama slept in.
Onyshchenko is also accused of arranging prostitutes for wealthy overseas clients or would-be clients.
“When I first stood up against President Poroshenko, I received overwhelming support,” Onyshchenko told the German daily newspaper Die Welt in announcing his Ukrainian presidential run. He has denied both the embezzlement and soliciting charges.
The voter support he received standing up to Poroshenko “gives me strength and motivation, as according to current legislation, I can run for office even while in exile,” he said. Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014 partly on an anti-corruption platform, has lost much of his credibility with voters because of corruption allegations swirling around his own team.
Onyshchenko would be able to return to Ukraine with impunity if he ran for president because of a provision in Ukrainian law — some would say an outrage in the law — that prevents a candidate from being arrested while campaigning for the country’s top job.
As with Paul Manafort, the American PR whiz who made millions by helping the convicted felon Yanukovych become Ukraine’s president in 2010, Onyshchenko could be a distraction in Trump’s re-election campaign. Manafort was Trump’s 2016 election campaign manager for awhile, but stories raising questions about his work in the former Soviet Union became a liability and he bowed out.
Onyshchenko loves beauty contestants and models swirling around him, partly because it helps him forge deeper ties with alpha male business leaders.
One of his business contacts was the American casino magnate Phil Ruffin, who married Miss Ukraine2001, Alexandra Nikolaenko.
Another American who married a Miss Ukraine was the late high-powered Manhattan attorney and business executive Charles Kotick. His wife, Natalia Shvachko, was Miss Ukraine 1996. Kotick died of cancer at 65 in 2005.
A third American who married a Miss Ukraine is financier William Kaye, whose wife, Ludmila Bikmulina, won the 2007pageant.
Rich Americans aren’t the only ones who have benefited from Onyshchenko’s Ukrainian beauty connections. Another was Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi, the favorite son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The bottom line on Onyshchenko’s beauty interests is that they have led to connections with Trump and other movers and shakers that have allowed him to expand his business, journalists have written.
Ukrainian prosecutors have contended that not all of the introductions that Onyshchenko has made between the well-to-do and beautiful Ukrainians have been above-board.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry suggested that the charges involved under-age solicitation by noting that Onyshchenko
organized beauty contests involving young girls.
The pimping case also accused Onyshchenko and showman Walid Arfush of trafficking women for the purpose of sexual exploitation to the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates.
Onyshchenko made a lot of his fortune by trading gas in Central Asia.
A key reward he received for supporting Yanukovych was the seat in Parliament, which in Ukraine’s scheme of things opens the door to riches through connections and corruption. Soon after he obtained the seat, journalists said, he was paying for ministerial positions for himself and others, a common practice in Ukraine.
In an interview with Britain’s Independent, Onyshchenko bragged that he spent $30 million to discredit and drive from office Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a virulent Yanukovich opponent who assumed his position after Yanukovich was ousted. Many Ukrainians saw Yatsenyuk as a reformer.
“The media campaign lasted 10 months and cost $3 million each month,” Onyshchenko said of his Yatsenyuk smirching effort.
Onyshchenko’s connections to Russia’s security service, the FSB, date to his military service in East Germany during Soviet times, where he met Putin, who was then a KGB agent. This is how he ended up receiving a Russian passport later, journalists contend.
His blasts against Ukrainian authorities on Russian state television as the war in eastern Ukraine was raging only endeared him with the Kremlin.
Given Onyshchenko’s coziness with the Kremlin, and the fact that Russian support helped elect Yanukovich, no one should count Onyshchenko out of the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election.
Ukrainian political pundits think the FSB has the kind of dirt on Onyshchenko that would make him a useful Kremlin tool if he won.
Not only could Russia use him to destabilize Ukraine, it could force him to bring back to power the politicians of the Yanukovych era, many of whom are desperate to return.
An unmistakable sign that the Kremlin will support him is that a time when Russian state TV doesn’t have a good word to say about Ukraine’s leaders, it is lionizing Onyshchenko. The blubbering praise is coming from none other than Vladimir Solovyov, a television commentator who is the main broadcasting mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda effort.
Through his prime-time show “Evenings with Vladimir Solovyov,”which reaches millions of Russians, Onyshchenko is trying to paint a scary image of the Ukrainian authorities and the country itself, while justifying Yanukovych and his associates.
Yanukovych sympathizers are always welcome on Solovyov’s show.Onyshchenko cashes in by serving up pro-Russian sentiments and fantasizing about a coup in Ukraine.
“As has happened before, Onyshchenko hit the ground running and spoke on a bunch of Russian federal TV channels to educate viewers about the terrible realities of life in modern-day Ukraine. Well, of course, who wouldn’t, when the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine initiates a corruption investigation against you? You really do need all the Russian TV channels you can get to broadcast your message,” said Olesya Yakhno-Belkovskaya, a Ukrainian political scientist.
“On April 25, appearing on another one of Solovyov’s programs, he went on and on about ‘political persecution.’ As he is such a forward-thinking politician advocating for Ukraine, naturally he was a victim of the country’s repressive regime,” Yakhno-Belkovskaya said sarcastically. “Yanukovych said something along these lines and so did his associates. By the looks of it, it seems fairly reasonable that the idea of the so-called tapes was born in Russia. After all, that is where Onyshchenko ran after fleeing Ukraine. And Russia will always offer a shoulder to cry on to those who need it most.”
For now, with the embezzling charges facing him, Onyshchenko cannot return to Ukraine.
He has permanent residency in Spain, where he has claimed he is a political dissident and has applied for political asylum.
Ukraine has issued a fugitive warrant for him and asked the European Union to extradite him. But when there is even a small shred of evidence that a person from the former Soviet Union is a dissident rather than a criminal, the EU has usually given the person the benefit of the doubt and refused to extradite.
The status of presidential candidate would grant Onyshchenko immunity from prosecution in Ukraine while the campaign lasts. So for the most part, he has nothing to lose.
The Kremlin views his candidacy as a win-win situation that would help it continue to subvert Ukrainian democracy while giving it a chance to roil the U.S. presidential election in 2020 if it chooses to do so.
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