MINSK – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Wednesday that prosecutors have opened a criminal inquiry into leaked tapes that allegedly feature the country's former leader discussing conditions for a $1 billion loan with former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
The tapes, which are yet to be authenticated, were released on Tuesday by Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who long has aired unsubstantiated corruption accusations against Biden and his son, who used to serve on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
The recordings don't appear to contain anything that would incriminate Biden or his son and were seen by some observers as a political effort to help U.S. President Donald Trump's reelection bid.
The Ukrainian investigation was opened on treason and abuse of office charges, indicating it was mostly directed against former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko rejected the tapes as a fabrication by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
There was no immediate sign that the probe could be directed against Biden. The Prosecutor General’s Office gave no further details.
Trump last year pressured Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens in a phone call that triggered his impeachment.
Zelenskiy, who carefully avoided taking sides in the U.S. impeachment inquiry, said his predecessor could be in trouble over the tapes.
“They governed the country in such a way that they could face many twists and convictions,” said Zelenskiy, who has repeatedly accused Poroshenko of corruption, accusations the former president has categorically denied.
In a Facebook statement, Poroshenko said the tapes were fabricated and described their release as part of a Kremlin-driven effort to “undermine bipartisan support of Ukraine in the United States.”
He called Biden a “friend and ally of Ukraine” and criticized Zelenskiy for eroding Western support for Ukraine to Moscow’s benefit.
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and has supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed 14,000 people in six years. The U.S. and the European Union have responded with a slew of sanctions against Russia.
The Biden campaign declined to comment on the latest Ukraine developments.
Derkach, an obscure figure who has repeatedly changed his political affiliation, doesn't belong to Zelenskiy's camp, but several lawmakers who are members of the governing party announced Wednesday that they would set up a parliamentary panel to conduct their own inquiry into the tapes.
Derkach, the son of Ukraine's former security chief, has held a succession of official jobs after graduating from a spy academy in Moscow in 1993. He is reportedly linked to Ihor Kolomoiskiy, a billionaire who owns a TV channel that broadcast a sitcom that made former comedian Zelenskiy widely famous.
Since his election, Zelenskiy has sought to distance himself from Kolomoiskiy, who hoped to regain control over his bank that was nationalized under Poroshenko's watch. The Ukrainian parliament recently passed a bill that outlawed the bank's return to private hands.
In December, Derkach met with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Kyiv, a move widely seen as part of a campaign against Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and Trump's rival in the 2020 presidential election.
Derkach alleged Tuesday that Biden promised Poroshenko in 2015-16, when both were still in office, $1 billion in loan guarantees in exchange for “keeping Burisma's schemes and international corruption in place” by ousting then Prosecutor General Victor Shokin to prevent him from investigating the company.
But on the tape Derkach released, the two men introduced as “Vice President Biden” and “President Poroshenko” discuss replacing Shokin as a condition for the loan guarantees, but make no mention of Burisma.
Biden has previously said the loan was linked to the removal of Shokin as part of an anti-corruption effort backed by the U.S. government, EU and international lenders.
In one of the edited fragments, “Poroshenko” says he convinced Shokin to resign as a “second step” of keeping the promises he made to Biden in a bid to get the loan guarantees.
Shokin was eventually fired in March 2016.
In another fragment, ”Biden" says that "now that the new prosecutor general is in place, we’re ready to move forward in signing that new $1 billion loan guarantee.”
Derkach said he obtained the recordings from unnamed “investigative journalists” and claimed they were made by Poroshenko.
Commentators in Ukraine believe that Derkach was trying to help Trump win the 2020 election.
“Derkach clearly plays for Trump,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the independent Kyiv-based Penta think tank, told the AP.
Fesenko noted, however, that the tape doesn't offer anything incriminating.
“There is nothing super sensational in these conversations. Where is the dirt on Biden? Where is the reference to Burisma?" he said. "None of it is there. Instead these are conversations between a dependent foreign politician and his boss, which is a sad but natural reality for us here, but is unlikely to impress the Americans.”