Ukraine’s Former President Returns to Face Treason Charges
(Bloomberg) -- Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko returned to Kyiv on Monday to fight charges of treason, accusing his successor of crossing a “red line” with allegations that he denies.
The legal standoff pressed by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration injects a level of political instability in the region as Russia amasses troops on Ukraine’s eastern frontier, a move that’s prompted Western allies to raise the specter of a full-scale invasion. Russia has repeatedly said it doesn’t plan to invade.
Poroshenko led Ukraine for five years after the 2014 Maidan uprising that toppled the country’s Kremlin-backed leader. He now faces accusations of high treason for coal-trading deals with separatists supported by Russia in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Still active politically, he leads a party in opposition to Zelenskiy.
Addressing a crowd of supporters outside the airport in the Ukrainian capital upon his arrival, Poroshenko said Zelenskiy’s administration had “crossed the red line” with charges that could send him to prison for up to 15 years if convicted. The former head of state then attended a preliminary court hearing.
It’s a dramatic shift of fortune for Poroshenko, the chocolate-magnate-turned-politician lauded by the U.S. and European Union for his tilt toward the West in the years after President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Poroshenko stood for greater integration with the EU and NATO while Putin broke fully from the West.
But the wealthy tycoon has come under the scope of Zelenskiy’s administration, which has made a concerted effort to curb the political influence of oligarchs and stem corruption that’s become endemic in the former Soviet republic.
Late last year Zelenskiy took aim at Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who has vast holdings in the country’s east, as well as its largest private power utility, DTEK. Akhmetov was being dragged into a Russian-backed coup attempt against him, Zelenskiy claimed, a charge the billionaire strongly rejected.
The maneuvering has led to unease among western allies that potential political chaos in Kyiv could complicate efforts to secure unity as the country faces a Russian threat.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, fretted in a tweet Saturday that Zelenskiy was “more focused on arresting” Poroshenko than uniting the country.
The U.K.’s top envoy to Ukraine echoed the sentiment.
“All political leaders in Ukraine need to unite against Russian aggression right now,” British Ambassador Melinda Simmons posted on Twitter. “So important at this time not to lose sight of this or be distracted by polarising domestic politics.”
A court previously ordered the seizure of Poroshenko’s assets, including real estate and companies listed in the state registry, prompting the former president and his allies to cry foul at what they called a politically motivated attack.
Tetyana Sapyan, a spokeswoman for the State Bureau of Investigations, denied allegations of a political motive behind the case.
“Politics are for politicians, and facts are for detectives,” she said on Monday. “The investigation is on.”
For Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta research institute in Kyiv, the politics of the legal standoff was central -- with Zelenskiy and Poroshenko both benefiting, the former with a powerful attack and the latter making claims of political repression.
“We are watching loud political statements, whereas what is needed is efficient work by the law enforcement in investigating this case,” Fesenko said by phone. “Poroshenko turned his arrival to court today into a show, a spectacle, and his opponents gave him this chance.”
Poroshenko, who is worth $860 million according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, is accused of using state finances to buy coal from mines controlled by Donbas separatists in 2014 and 2015, thus impeding diversification of energy sources and causing increased dependency on Russian fuels.
Last week, prosecutors said they would seek his detention or bail of 1 billion hryvnia ($35.7 million) upon his return to Ukraine as part of pre-trial investigation.
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