Friday, January 15, 2021

Ukraine’s President Zelensky orders probe into leaked tapes of former U.S VP Biden

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on his law enforcement agencies Wednesday to investigate leaked audio of private phone calls several years ago between then-Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, and said the conversations “might be perceived, qualified as high treason.”

Speaking at a news conference at Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park to mark the first anniversary of his presidency, Zelensky was again pulled into U.S. politics just eight months after a phone conversation between him and President Trump became the subject of an impeachment inquiry in Washington.

The recordings, which were first played at a news conference Tuesday in Kyiv, shed relatively little new light on Biden’s role in ousting Ukraine’s prosecutor general four years ago. But Zelensky’s comments Wednesday could have been aimed at appeasing Trump, discrediting a rival in Poroshenko and deflecting to investigators all in one swipe.

“As to Poroshenko and Biden, yes, I have heard, I will comment,” Zelensky said. “I think it’s not the last sign that Ukrainians will see. The prosecutors, law enforcement bodies should react. The prosecutor general of Ukraine registered criminal proceedings at the request of deputy [Andriy] Derkach yesterday. They will investigate.”

Hours before Zelensky’s news conference, the New York Times published an op-ed in which he said that “the impeachment story was not comfortable for me.”

“It took American and international attention away from the issues that mattered most to Ukraine and turned our country into a story about President Trump,” he added.

The Biden-Poroshenko audio appears likely to have the same effect. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said Wednesday that it has opened an inquiry on counts of high treason and abuse of power or office based on Derkach’s allegation that the tapes point to Biden’s influence on Poroshenko.

Oleksandr Kachura, a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, said Wednesday that he intends to create a “temporary investigative commission” in parliament to look into Derkach’s claims.

The recordings showed that Biden, as he has previously said publicly, linked loan guarantees for Ukraine in 2015 to the ouster of Viktor Shokin, then the country’s prosecutor general. But Derkach, an independent member of Ukraine’s parliament who previously aligned with a pro-Russian faction and has past links to Russian intelligence, used the new clips to make an array of accusations not proved by the tapes.

Derkach said he received the tapes from “investigative journalists” and alleged that Poroshenko made them.

Poroshenko said in a statement Wednesday that Biden “is a friend and an ally of Ukraine” and that the “Kremlin has launched a full-fledged special operation against Ukraine.” His statement also referred to the audio as “bogus.”

“By means of pulling Ukraine into the electoral struggle in the U.S., they are trying to undermine the U.S. bipartisan support of Ukraine,” he said, adding that Zelensky’s news conference “has given rise to a reasonable suspicion about the Office of the President of Ukraine to also have been involved in this special operation.”

The rivalry between Zelensky and Poroshenko dates to the presidential election last year, which Zelensky won in a landslide. Poroshenko accused Zelensky of being a tool of oligarchs and Russian interests, while Zelensky accused Poroshenko and his administration of corruption and gross mismanagement.

“I’m not your opponent — I’m your verdict,” Zelensky told Poroshenko during their only presidential debate.

Since leaving office, Poroshenko has been interrogated as a witness in more than a dozen criminal investigations, and in February, prosecutors threatened to arrest him if he did not appear for questioning.

Western officials have raised concerns that the former president is being singled out for political retribution, but Ukrainian authorities deny there is any political motivation behind the cases.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, who serves as Trump’s personal lawyer, met Derkach during a trip to Kyiv in December. The tapes released offered no evidence to back Giuliani’s long-standing accusation that Biden pushed for Shokin’s removal to help his son Hunter Biden. At the time, the younger Biden was earning $50,000 to $100,000 a month on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, whose owner, a former government minister, was under investigation in Ukraine.

At no point in the clips released Tuesday does Biden mention Burisma or his son. Shokin’s firing was not a unilateral action directed by Biden but was prompted by a push for anti-corruption measures developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

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