Ex-Trump aide paid Europeans to lobby for pro-Russia Ukraine: papers

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort allegedly secretly paid a former European chancellor and other ex-politicians to lobby for Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych's government

Donald Trump's ex-campaign chief Paul Manafort secretly paid a group of former senior European politicians more than two million euros ($2.5 million) to lobby for Ukraine's then-leader backed by Russia, US prosecutors have claimed.

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

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.

They 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 indictment.

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 Yanukovych from 2006-2014.

Austrian media reported that the former European chancellor in question was Alfred Gusenbauer, the country's leader from 2007-8.

Gusenbauer on Saturday denied to the Austria Press Agency and to public radio that he had conducted any such lobbying work, however, adding that he had never heard of the Hapsburg Group.

"I met Manafort two times I think... but I had nothing to do with Paul Manafort's activities in Ukraine or with Yanukovych's Party of Regions and his activities in the US," Gusenbauer, 58, told radio station Oe1.

- 'Highly personal relationship' -

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

After that, Manafort stopped working for him, eventually returned to the United States and, in 2016, joined Trump's presidential election campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

Yanukovych 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 Manafort in June 2012 read.

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

- Ukraine wants to cooperate -

In Kiev, Ukrainian prosecutors said Saturday they wanted to cooperate with Washington over Manafort.

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

"We want to understand how they will be cooperating with us," Gorbatyuk told AFP. "We have criminal proceedings under way where we are looking into Paul Manafort's activities," he added.

"The accusations made against him overlap with our investigation and cooperation is important to achieve results," Gorbatyuk said. "That's what we should say in the letter to Mueller."

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

"Until now we had practically no cooperation."