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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Ex-Trump aide 'paid Europeans to lobby for Russia-backed Ukraine leader'

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the US probe into Russian meddling, charges that Paul Manafort retained one-time politicians to 'take positions favourable to Ukraine'

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort arrives at federal court in Washington on December 11, 2017. Susan Walsh / AP
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort arrives at federal court in Washington on December 11, 2017. Susan Walsh / AP

President Donald Trump's ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort secretly paid a group of former senior European politicians more than two million euros (Dh9m) to lobby for Ukraine's then Russian-backed leader, US prosecutors have claimed.

The charges, lodged in a Washington federal court by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday, said Mr Manafort retained the so-called Hapsburg Group of one-time politicians to "take positions favourable to Ukraine, including by lobbying the United States".

It came

The group, which operated from 2012-2013, was managed by an unnamed "former European chancellor". who along with other members of the group lobbied US legislators and White House officials, the indictment alleged.

On Saturday, a Ukrainian opposition MP who helped uncover off-the-books payments to Mr Manafort identified this chancellor as being Austrian, Associated Press reported.

Serhiy Leshchenko said he saw the information about the former Austrian chancellor in a ledger of these off-the-books payments.

"I don't remember the name, but I remember the position," Mr Leshchenko told the AP.

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The Hapsburg Group's members were to "appear to be providing their independent assessments of government of Ukraine actions, when in fact they were paid lobbyists for Ukraine", according to the US indictment.

Mr Manafort, 68, has been accused by the team investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and possible collusion with the Trump campaign of money laundering, tax fraud and banking fraud connected to work he did for Viktor Yanukovich from 2006-2014.

Mr Yanukovych served as Ukraine's president from 2010 until he was ousted in 2014 as the result of a popular uprising.

After that, Mr Manafort stopped working for him, eventually returned to the US. In 2016 he joined Mr Trump's presidential election campaign.

Backed by Moscow, Mr Yanukovych was eyed suspiciously at the time in much of Europe for his pro-Russia stance and widespread accusations of deep corruption.

Mr Manafort is believed to have been behind Mr Yanukovych's spectacular political comeback after huge protests dubbed the Orange Revolution overturned his fraud-tainted victory in 2004.

With Mr Manafort's help, Mr Yanukovych's Party of Regions won parliamentary elections in 2006 and in 2010 he beat rival Yulia Tymoshenko in a presidential poll.

Mr Yanukovych's allies say that the shrewd political strategist had enormous influence over Mr Yanukovych.

A report in the Atlantic magazine said the two men developed a "highly personal relationship" and even swam naked together outside Mr Yanukovych's bathhouse.

The former Ukrainian leader currently lives in Russia and is wanted in Ukraine for high treason.

The Hapsburg Group was meant to "act informally and without any visible relationship" to the Ukraine government, a memorandum written by Mr Manafort in June 2012 read.

While the latest indictment did not charge Mr Manafort with any crime specifically tied to the Hapsburg Group, those activities were cited to show he had been actively lobbying for Ukraine and had allegedly broken laws by not registering as such in the US.

In Kiev, Ukrainian prosecutors said on Saturday they wanted to co-operate with Washington over Mr Manafort.

Sergiy Gorbatyuk, head of special investigations at the Ukrainian General Prosecutor's Office, said his country's prosecutors would be sending a letter to Mr Mueller in the coming days.

"We want to understand how they will be co-operating with us," said Mr Gorbatyuk. "We have criminal proceedings under way where we are looking into Paul Manafort's activities."

"The accusations made against him overlap with our investigation and co-operation is important to achieve results," he added. "That's what we should say in the letter to Mueller."

He said Ukrainian prosecutors wanted to question Mr Manafort several years ago but that a formal request sent to the US authorities went unanswered.

"Until now we had practically no co-operation," he added.

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