By Emily Holland
In the long-list of incendiary and shocking comments to have escaped from Donald Trump’s mouth in recent months, his recent call inciting the Russian intelligence services to conduct cyber-espionage against his opponent Hillary Clinton is amongst the most shocking. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press”, exclaimed Trump in a press conference this week. In this wake of this comment, news outlets have pounced on Trump’s soft stance towards and apparent connections with Russia. But his borderline-treasonous remarks aside, Trump’s calls for improved relations with Moscow are not unreasonable. What is more troubling is not that his associates have links to Moscow, but the fact that they are his associates at all.
Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has worked extensively with disgraced and exiled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, helping him win the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. Yanukovych was famously overthrown in the Maidan Revolution, his now abandoned Mezhyhirya palace a symbol of dictatorial opulence. Although Manafort’s association with Yanukovych is distasteful, it is hardly illegal. But what is seriously worrying is the fact that Manafort worked extensively in Ukrainian politics at all: as I have written before, Ukrainian politics is amongst the most corrupt and venal in the world. If Manafort helped Yanukovuch win the 2010 election, he necessarily participated in corrupt practices.
Manafort is not the only Trump associate to have links to an extremely corrupt industry. The coordinator of the Washington diplomatic corps for the Republicans in Cleveland was Frank Mermoud, a former state department official and director of Club Energy, a Ukrainian oil and gas company. My own dissertation research demonstrates the endemic corruption of the oil and gas industry in many former Soviet states. Ukraine’s energy industry is shockingly corrupt: the murky ties between Moscow, Kiev and third-party “gas middlemen” are extensive. This in part explains why Ukraine has been so unsuccessful at weaning itself of dangerous energy dependence on Moscow despite two major crises in 2006 and 2009.
In the wake of the 2006 Russo-Ukrainian “gas war”, which left Ukraine without access to natural gas supplies in the middle of winter for several days, Gazprom, the Russian state gas conglomerate, and Naftogaz Ukraine, the Ukrainian state energy company, signed a new contract to end the dispute. One of the provisions of the contract stipulated that Russia would not deliver gas directly to Ukraine but would deliver instead to a third party: RosUkrEnergo. RosUkrEnergo is co-owned by Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who has made billions by buying Russian gas on the cheap and selling it to Ukraine at inflated prices. In my estimation, at certain point between 2006 and 2009, Firtash’s RosUkrEnergo was making between $3 and $5 million a day in profits at the expense of the Ukrainian state. Why would Kiev sign such an unfavorable contract? The answer is simple: corruption.
So what does all of this have to do with Donald Trump? First, Manafort has also made millions off Ukraine’s energy insecurity: he worked as a consultant for none other than Dmitry Firtash. None of this is new information that Trump could possibly be unaware of: Manafort’s relationship with Firtash was first exposed in 2011, in a racketeering lawsuit that was later dismissed. Firtash, now in exile in Moscow, is now under indictment in the US. Second, Manafort also helped Firtash channel Russian money into influencing the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential election. During the time he worked with Manafort, Firtash used an $11b loan from bankers closed to Putin to back pro-Russian Yanukovych in his successful 2010 presidential campaign.
Manafort and Mermoud are not the only Trump associates who have worked extensively in corrupt industries: Carter Page, Trump’s foreign policy advisor, worked closely with Gazprom for many years. To be clear, US politics is not squeaky clean. US campaign finance and lobbying are dirty businesses and are in need of profound restructuring. But Trump’s associates have made their careers working in some of the most corrupt industries in the world: the fact that Manafort has worked in Ukraine’s energy industry and has been involved in the installation of a pro-Russian president in a Ukrainian presidential election means that he has no scruples. The Ukrainian people have been embroiled in violence, revolution and now civil war in an attempt to rid themselves of endemic corruption of the political system, largely without success. The fact that Trump willingly chooses associates that perpetuated this corruption should be far more worrying to the American people than the prospect of a thaw in relations with Moscow.