The palatial Mezhyhirya estate on the outskirts of Kyiv may be a long way from the corridors of power in Washington. But those fighting the political corruption that has long plagued Ukraine say this place has a relevance Americans shouldn’t ignore.
The mansion and the 340 acres surrounding it are colloquially referred to as Ukraine’s “Museum of Corruption,” a national park meant to serve as a warning about the ability of money and power to corrupt.
The massive estate was owned by former president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine during the 2014 uprising after four years in power, during which, his critics say, he systematically ripped off the country’s treasury. He was charged with treason in absentia, while his property has been preserved as a testament about political greed, waste and excess.
“When President [Yanukovych] was in power, we had no understanding of how much he was corrupt, how much money was spent and how he built this personal paradise in a very poor country,” said Sergii Leshchenko, an anti-corruption activist, journalist and former Ukrainian parliamentarian.
“People can now come and see with their own eyes how corrupt politicians can be, and also an example of how to keep politicians under control,” he said.
The mansion is filled with opulent — and often gaudy — decorations.
On a brief tour, a CBC News crew saw plate-mail suits of armour decorating the dining area, taxidermied animals, including an adult lion, adorning a gym and boxing ring, and a $3-million US chandelier hanging in the mansion’s expansive entryway.
Outside, the vast estate includes a golf course, a private zoo, and a showroom for a collection of vintage automobiles. Most of it was barely used before Yanukovych was ousted.
No one knows the true cost of what Yanukovych poured into the estate; the subject was off limits and kept off the books for the whole time he was in power. Some estimates put the total at more than $2 billion US — in a country where the average monthly wage is just $300.
On an unusually warm fall day this week, the grounds were packed with visitors from tour and school groups.
“What is happening in America is the business of America; Ukraine has its own problems to worry about,” said 86-year-old tourist Gregory Khramov, alluding to the saga over U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing impeachment proceedings, which have ensnared Ukraine’s government.
“But for us, it is important that whatever happens in America has positive implications for Ukraine — not negative ones,” he said.
Political pressure in U.S. being felt abroad
Khramov is echoing a widespread worry here that Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government to investigate his political rivals may ultimately harm the country’s efforts to clean up corruption at home.
Leshchenko fears the same.
Over the past three years, he’s played a central — and at times controversial — role in a succession of revelations about Trump’s connections in Ukraine.
Leshchenko was among the first to reveal that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, received millions of dollars from former president Yanukovych. In response, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, accused Leshchenko of being part of a Democratic conspiracy.
At the time, he was a close adviser to the incoming president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and he says the controversy likely cost him a shot at a prominent job in the administration.
“A conspiracy does not exist without enemies, and I was one of the targets of this conspiracy,” he said.
Nonetheless, Leshchenko remains a supporter of Zelensky and said he believes the new president’s early moves to create stronger anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine.
Recalling the first time he read the transcript of the July 25 phone call at the centre of the impeachment probe, where Trump appeared to link nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine to a request for political dirt on Democrat Joe Biden and his family, Leshchenko called it “a shock.”
“The U.S. government was supportive of anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine for so many years,” he said.
‘Corruption is transborder’
Other Ukrainian activists have also been singled out by Guiliani for being “anti-Trump,” including Daria Kaleniuk, of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Centre.
“When the president of the United States is calling the president of Ukraine and asking to interfere in the work of law enforcement agencies, this undermines all these good governance lessons,” she said in an interview.
Kaleniuk said she fears the Trump impeachment inquiry could lead to a loss of bipartisan U.S. support for Ukraine, which could leave the country significantly weakened, especially as it seeks to end a costly five-year war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
“We will not be able to resolve alone Russian aggression against Ukraine,” Kaleniuk said.
Like Leshchenko, Kaleniuk praises Zelensky for appointing what she calls “the best of the best” to work prosecuting corruption in Ukraine — although she notes not all of the new laws he promised have yet been passed.
She also says the U.S. has to close its own loopholes that allow the dirty players in Ukraine to hire expensive American lobbyists to take on their enemies, including her own organization.
“There is an elite group of lobbyists and PR firms which are ready to provide services to the most corrupt, dirty people in our part of the world,” she alleged.
“Corruption is transborder. Change has to come in Ukraine but it also has to come from the United States.”