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Yanukovych aide works for Trump

Maksym Sydorzhevskyj and Markian Ostaptschuk / wsJuly 28, 2016

Donald Trump's campaign chief Paul Manafort previously helped run electoral campaigns in Ukraine. Former president Victor Yanukovych was one of those he led to victory. What role does he play in politics?

Paul Manafort Wahlkampfberater Donald Trumps
Image: Getty Images/W.McNamee

The US has been rocked by yet another political scandal. Prior to the Democratic Convention that formally nominated Hillary Clinton as a candidate for president, WikiLeaks published thousands of Democratic National Committee (DNC) e-mails. They seemed to indicate that from the outset, the DNC favored Clinton over her rival Bernie Sanders. "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" newspapers both quote cyber experts who claim that those emails had been hacked by the Russian government. Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook said the hack was in Donald Trump’s interest.

Trump, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, was quick to write on Twitter: "The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC emails, which should never have been written, because Putin likes me." The assumption, however, that Russia's president "likes" Trump, may not be far-fetched.

Ukraine as an indicator

The Ukrainian issue is indicative of Trump's attitude towards Vladimir Putin's policies. It has become the hot-button issue in US-Russian relations. During their recent convention, Republicans scrapped a call to supply Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons from their party platform.

Boldkombo Hillary Clinton Donald Trump Emotionen
Competitors in the race for the White House: Hillary Clinton and Donald TrumpImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ngan

Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and now a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, told DW: "Irrespective of who's behind that initiative and of what the motives are, ultimately the platform is different from what a number of leading Republicans had called for in Congress - military aid for Ukraine, in the form of lethal weapons."

Paul Manafort's role

US media reports say the wording of the Republican Party platform's Ukraine-related chapter was watered down after an intervention by Paul Manafort (pictured above). For many years, Trump's campaign manager had been the key aide to former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych and the latter's "Party of Regions."

Manafort's team surfaced in Ukraine in 2005. Initially, it advised oligarch Rinat Akhmetov's holding company, System Capital Management (SCM). Later on, Akhmetov connected the American political advisor and his team with the "Party of Regions." Manafort managed to successfully alter the party's image, and that of its leader. Yanukovych began to speak Ukrainian in public, rather than Russian. His speeches became more concise and convincing. In addition, the party's electoral events and advertising improved.

Parliamentary and presidential election triumphs

Some of Manafort's former employees told the US online political magazine Politico that their boss had honestly believed in Yanukovych as a leader, doubting that Ukraine would fare better under the president's pro-Western opponents. At the same time, Manafort appears to have been paid generously for his services. Exact amounts are not known, but according to former journalist and current Ukrainian MP Mustafa Nayyem, Manafort earned up to 20 million dollars (18 million euros).

Inauguration von Viktor Janukowitsch
Victor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in February, 2010Image: picture alliance/dpa

Aided by its American political advisors, the "Party of Regions" became the main political force in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of 2006 and 2007 – garnering roughly a third of the vote. Observers point out that Manafort also made an important contribution to Yanukovych's victory in the 2010 presidential elections.

"Until recently, Manafort supported Yanukovych, who greatly appreciated having him in his team," Ukrainian political advisor Serhij Hajdaj told DW.

Still active in Ukraine after Yanukovych

Yanukovych's escape to Russia in the wake of the mass protests in February, 2014, however, did not mark the end of Manafort's activities in Ukraine. Prior to parliamentary elections in October of that year, he acted as a consultant to the "Opposition Bloc," successor to the "Party of Regions." Interviewed by the "Novoye Vremya" newspaper, members of the Bloc admitted that Manafort had supported former "Party of Regions" politicians during the election campaign and had helped them in their bid to secure a seat in parliament under a new label.

Talking to US broadcaster ABC in April, Manafort himself pointed out that he was very picky with his customers. The aim of his work in Ukraine had been to lead the country "closer to Europe," which he had achieved, argued the political strategist. However, critics like Steven Pifer think that Manafort has promoted a rapprochement with Russia instead. Consequently, the former US ambassador to Ukraine Pifer believes that Manafort, in his new position as Donald Trump's campaign manager, will act in favor of Russia as well: "If he becomes president, Trump will seek more cordial relations to Russia and reduce US support for Ukraine."