The team of Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has mounted an offensive against Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, one of a handful of ministers loyal to President Viktor Yushchenko. Lutsenko spearheaded the anti-corruption campaign that was launched after Yushchenko came to power in 2005. Several Donetsk-based Yanukovych cronies were among the targets of that campaign. Now Lutsenko is the target of several investigations himself. He and Yushchenko dismiss them as political persecution.
It is technically easier for Yanukovych to get rid of Lutsenko than the two other Yushchenko loyalists – Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko – although Yanukovych dislikes them as well. Tarasyuk and Hrytsenko were appointed to Yanukovych’s cabinet on Yushchenko’s quota, and nobody but he can replace them, but Lutsenko’s appointment was the result of a separate agreement between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. Parliament, in which Yanukovych controls a majority, can dismiss Lutsenko any time, according to the constitution.
Parliament started its attack with a warning shot. On November 2, a parliamentary commission was set up to investigate allegations of corruption against Lutsenko, which were published in the September 8 issue of the 2000 weekly. The paper claimed that he or his family were involved in car ownership irregularities – an allegation flatly dismissed by Lutsenko. On the same day, parliament approved a recommendation to Yanukovych to suspend Lutsenko for the duration of the commission’s work.
However, Lutsenko has not been suspended. Yushchenko came to his rescue the same day. His spokeswoman said that Yushchenko did not understand parliament’s move and that the legality of it was doubtful. Lutsenko told 1+1 TV on November 2 that parliament has the right to dismiss him, but there is no law allowing parliament to suspend him. Lutsenko dismissed the action against him as “revenge of those who have legal problems.” He said Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU) and the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYT) were behind the controversial motion.
Lutsenko spoiled relations with the BYT last year when he publicly accused Tymoshenko’s right-hand man, Oleksandr Turchynov, of eavesdropping on top officials when Turchynov headed the Security Service (SBU) in February-September 2005. Turchynov denied the accusation. On November 17, the BYT press service reported that a Kyiv district court had upheld Turchynov’s libel suit against Lutsenko, obliging Lutsenko to issue a denial. The BYT has the second-largest faction in parliament, and if it backs the PRU on Lutsenko’s dismissal, nothing can save him.
Interviewed on the national TV on November 13, Yanukovych said Lutsenko must choose between his work in the cabinet and pursuing a party career. Yanukovych was probably reacting to Lutsenko’s fiery speech at the November 11 congress of Yushchenko’s People’s Union-Our Ukraine party, when he did not rule out becoming the leader of a new political force in spring 2007 (see EDM, November 15).
On November 14, Segodnya, a daily sympathetic to the PRU, quoted sources in parliament as saying that Lutsenko would be dismissed shortly. On the same day, Deputy Prosecutor-General Renat Kuzmin, a PRU loyalist, told a press conference that Lutsenko was suspected of “very serious corruption.” He said that Lutsenko had given firearms to people who were not authorized to carry arms, and that he ad granted officer ranks illegally. Lutsenko did not deny the instances mentioned by Kuzmin, but said that those were his mistakes, rather than deliberate legal violations.
On November 20 the Pechersky district court in Kyiv – the same jurisdiction that had ruled in favor of Turchynov – ruled that Lutsenko was guilty of corruption and fined him the equivalent of $65. The size of punishment clearly demonstrated that Lutsenko’s “corruption” was probably not very “serious.” Lutsenko promised to appeal anyway. The headlines about “the interior minister’s corruption,” however, have been conspicuous in newspapers, and the psychological pressure on Lutsenko is mounting. The parliamentary investigative commission that was set up on November 2 to grill Lutsenko is scheduled to report on its findings in early December.
Yushchenko is prepared to strike back. The chief of his administration, Viktor Baloha, has accused Kuzmin of deliberately discrediting Lutsenko. Speaking in an interview with Zerkalo nedeli, Baloha also accused Kuzmin’s boss, Prosecutor-General Oleksandr Medvedko, of “destabilizing society,” and suggested that he should resign. The daily Delo quoted its sources as saying that Medvedko’s dismissal was only a question of time. Yushchenko has been unhappy not only with the treatment of Lutsenko by the top prosecutors, but also with their recent decisions not to arrest a well-connected Crimean deputy who had been suspected of serious crime, and to release controversial former Sumy governor Volodymyr Shcherban, who returned from self-imposed exile in the United States (see EDM, November 10).
(UNIAN, November 2; 1+1 TV November 2, 3, 14; Silski visti, November 10; UT1, November 13; Delo, November 15; Zerkalo nedeli, November 18; Ukraina moloda, November 21)