Those who have watched the Netflix series House of Cards may be surprised to read how close it is sometimes to reality. Both candidates in this year’s election for president of the United States – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – have accepted donations from Ukrainian oligarchs and Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who is in hiding in Russia. Yanukovych is wanted by Interpol and by Ukraine for mass corporate raiding of Ukraine’s state budget and leaving the country bankrupt, murdering EuroMaidan protestors and committing treason when he supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The convention of the US Republican Party (GOP) last week resembled not a centre-right political party, but one that has been hijacked by the nationalist-populist Donald Trump, who is far from conservative. A similar analogy would be that of Italian populist Silvio Berlusconi becoming leader of the British Conservative Party. Both Trump and Berlusconi are megalomaniac narcissists. The appointment of Paul Manafort as Donald Trump’s election campaign chief added to the surrealism of Trump’s populist takeover of the GOP. Manafort headed Ukrainian president and Party of Region leader Yanukovych’s election team and political consultants for a decade between 2005 and 2014. On top of that is the scandal of Russian intelligence hacking the US Democratic National Committee and leaking emails on the day of the Democratic Party convention that shed a bad light on the treatment of Bernie Sanders and boosting Trump’s campaign by showing divisions in the Clinton camp.
Former President Yanukovych and the Party of Regions had lobbied influential Republican Party policymakers and consultants in the past. Vin Weber, who was awarded the Democracy Service Medal in recognition of his service as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Chairman in 2001-2009 for his commitment to advancing the principles of democracy and human dignity, is a clear example. Weber, who had been a Mitt Romney foreign-policy adviser in the 2012 election, was a registered lobbyist for the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU) funded by the Party of Regions that Yanukovych led for most of its existence. This represented a clear contradiction: Weber, after promoting democracy for the first decade of this century, became a lobbyist for a government that was dismantling the democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution.
Weber’s cynicism is not unique to the GOP. Former Freedom House president, Adrian Karatnycky, who once told me he was a “Clinton Democrat”, was widely believed to be a Yanukovych lobbyist, but reinvented himself as CEC’s Senior Partner responsible for Ukraine, a company established and headed by Marek Matraszek, a long-time Conservative.
On the Democratic Party side there are Ukrainian skeletons in the closet as well. The Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk nurtured good relations with former President Bill Clinton by providing a donation to the Clinton Library and financially supporting the William J. Clinton Foundation’s programme to combat HIV/AIDS. When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, the Clinton foundation received 8.6 million US dollars from the Pinchuk Foundation.
In addition to Weber, the ECFMU hired the Podesta Group to lobby Yanukovych’s public image in Washington DC. Anthony (Tony) Podesta, like Weber, is among to the top lobbyists in the US and is close to the Democratic Party, while his brother, John Podesta, is a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton’s administration and an advisor to President Barack Obama who is also Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.
Podesta Group staffers Tony Podesta plus Stephen Rademaker and David Adams, the last two former assistant secretaries of state, are also US lobbyists for Russia’s biggest bank Sberbank. As reported in Observer, the Podesta Group lobbies to “lift some of the pain of sanctions placed on Russia in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, which has caused real pain to the country’s hard-hit financial sector”. More importantly, Sberbank is controlled by Russia’s Central Bank, making it “functionally an arm of the Kremlin, although it’s ostensibly a private institution.” Sberbank is allegedly “used to support clandestine Russian intelligence operations, while the bank uses its offices abroad as cover for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR”. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has accused Sberbank of channelling funds to separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
Cynicism is a dominant feature of Francis Underwood, the Democratic Party President from House of Cards. This feature extends to Manafort and other US political consultants more broadly. Similar to Trump’s instrumental approach to the rule of law, Manafort during the entire period of time working for Yanukovych never registered at the Department of Justice’s FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act (https://www.fara.gov/), a requirement for US political consultants working for foreign governments. What is more, Manafort is no stranger to highly corrupt and authoritarian clients, including Zimbabwean and Egyptian authoritarian leaders Robert Mugabe and Hosni Mubarak respectively, a business group tied to Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines and Lynden Pindling, the former Bahamian prime minister who was accused of ties to drug traffickers. Some reports believed that Manafort’s long experience in Ukraine, running four election campaigns and coping with a popular uprising, would be invaluable to Trump but import dirtier East European election tactics into the US.
Trump, Vladimir Putin and Yanukovych appear similar in many aspects such as populism, plagiarism and ties to crime. Also similarly, less educated and marginalised voters seeking a paternalistic leader have voted for the Party of Regions, Putin’s United Russia party in Russia and Trump in the US primaries.
Yanukovych and Putin are clearly authoritarian, while Trump seems to lean this way as well. As the Economist notes, they “constructed and now inhabit post-fact worlds, in which the truth is malleable and disposable”. The wealth of Trump and Putin “plays to a popular cynicism, even despair, regarding politicians”. Meanwhile, both belittle their political adversaries and critical journalists with impunity. They “incoherently occupy a broad, populist political terrain: they offer protectionism to some low-wage workers and the promise of rising pensions, combined with an enthusiasm for money-making” and “in their extravagant tastelessness and shared macho posturing’s at the same time leave little political space for their opponents.”
In addition, plagiarism was commonplace for Yanukovych and Putin and now seems so for the Trump campaign. Raisa Bohatyriova, secretary of the National Security and Defence Council under Yanukovych, gave a graduation speech at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy that was lifted almost word for word from a speech by Steve Jobs to Stanford University’s class of 2005. Putin’s PhD thesis was heavily “borrowed” from a 1978 textbook titled Strategic Planning and Public Policy by University of Pittsburgh Professors David I. Cleland and William R. King. The first day of the Republican convention was overshadowed by Melania Trump’s speech which seemed to plagiarise Michelle Obama “nearly verbatim” from her 2008 speech. After making countless denials the Trump campaign admitted the plagiarism.
In addition, allegations of ties to crime have been made against Yanukovych, Putin and Trump. A detailed investigation concluded: “What Trump has to say about the reasons for his long, close and wide-ranging dealings with organised crime figures, with the role of mobsters in cheating Trump Tower workers [and] his dealings with Felix Sater” should be explained to US voters. Sater was a senior Trump advisor and son of a reputed Russian mobster.
Manafort was also accused by former opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko of having facilitated the parking of “millions of dollars in offshore real estate investments, according to documents released as part of a federal racketeering suit”. The documents submitted to the court “offer a glimpse of Manafort’s financial ties to [Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro] Firtash who is wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation over bribery allegations” and “show how Manafort set up investment vehicles at Firtash’s behest in order to funnel his considerable fortune into real estate ventures in the United States and elsewhere”. Tymoshenko’s lawsuit alleged that “by inviting Firtash to utilise the various US based companies to facilitate Firtash’s money laundering and political corruption activities, Manafort gave Firtash the opportunity to expand the scope of his money laundering activities into the United States.”
Another similarity includes good relations with Russia. Here we clearly see how far Manafort has been able to move the traditional Republican Party foreign policy approach with Trump as its candidate. This is reinforced by an extensive analysis of ties between Trump and Russia which concluded that if Putin could “design a candidate to undermine American interests and advance his own, he would resemble Trump”.
Ohio Governor and Republican candidate John Kasich has said that the Republican Party should reject all of the ideas and values that underpin Trump’s foreign policy. Trump’s dismissal of NATO is totally at odds with traditional Republican Party values and places him on the isolationist-nationalist right of US politics. This year’s US elections were described by the Atlantic magazine as “Hillary Clinton running against Vladimir Putin” while Kasich’s most vehement attack was on Trump’s views of Russia, Ukraine and Putin.
In the lead up to the Republican Convention, the Trump campaign had “gutted” the Republican platform by watering down assistance to Ukraine and removing support for sending arms to Ukraine, a move that most Republicans had previously supported. As one of his foreign policy advisers, Trump has hired Carter Page, “a globe-trotting American investment banker who has built a career on deals with Russia and its state-run gas company [Gazprom].” Page is a critic of US-led sanctions against Russia and a “reliable defender of Russian intentions” portraying US policymakers as “stuck in an outdated Cold War mind-set”.
As we watch the US presidential election unfold this year, it is striking how close to real life the Netflix portrayal of Washington DC is in House of Cards. Putin and Yanukovych must be toasting vodka in Moscow as Trump defied the pundits and became the GOP’s 2016 candidate.
Taras Kuzio is a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and author of the 2015 book Ukraine. Democratization, Corruption and the New Russian Imperialism.