Former Sumy region governor Volodymyr Shcherban has returned to Ukraine from self-imposed exile in the United States. In Ukraine, he is suspected of several crimes, and for those who helped Viktor Yushchenko come to power in 2004, Shcherban epitomizes the corrupt regime of former president Leonid Kuchma. For many years Shcherban was a member of Kuchma’s entourage. Ukraine, however, has changed since early 2005, when Shcherban left Ukraine, and now Shcherban hopes he will not be punished. His tarnished reputation, however, may prompt his former allies to shun him, and his return to politics remains highly questionable.
Shcherban was governor of Sumy from 1999-2005, with a short break in 2002. He fled to the United States in April 2005 “so as not to be lynched” by Orange Revolution activists in Kyiv, as he recently explained. Shortly after his departure, Ukrainian prosecutors accused him of election fraud, extortion, tax evasion, and abuse of office. In July 2005 he unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States, and in October 2005 he was imprisoned in Florida after his visa expired. He was later released on bail, only to be arrested again in May 2006. In early 2006, Kyiv asked Washington to extradite him.
Shcherban returned to Ukraine on November 4, and Kyiv police escorted him to the Prosecutor-General’s Office. The prosecutors, however, released him almost immediately, as three parliamentarians from the Party of Regions (PRU) of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych vouched for him. Since then, Shcherban has given numerous interviews to journalists, denying the accusations against him and claiming to be a victim of political persecution. Despite Shcherban’s release, however, no case against him has been closed, and the investigation is continuing.
Yushchenko expressed his disagreement with Shcherban’s release, saying that the deputies’ vouching for him was “a dubious gesture.” He warned them of possible negative consequences to their reputation. Shcherban said that he returned to Ukraine voluntarily, but Yushchenko maintained that Shcherban’s case was “the expulsion of an individual suspected of serious criminal offences,” and expressed his gratitude to the U.S. government for sending him back home. Internal Affairs Minister Yuriy Lutsenko expressed his dismay over the prosecutors’ decision, speaking after a meeting with Interpol director Ronald Noble in Kyiv on November 7. He complained that police had encountered difficulties detaining Shcherban at the airport, as other law-enforcement agencies, which Lutsenko did not name, “interfered.”
Apparently there is not much that Lutsenko can do, as he has no authority over the prosecution, and, moreover, the chair under him is shaky. On November 2 the PRU-dominated parliament passed a motion asking Yanukovych to suspend Lutsenko over allegations of official abuse at his ministry. Lutsenko doubted the legality of the move, and both Yushchenko and Yanukovych came to his defense, saying that he will carry on as minister. Yanukovych, however, made it clear that he may change his mind. Speaking on TV on November 3, Lutsenko linked the threat to suspend him to Shcherban’s upcoming return.
Shcherban is apparently confident of his future. Speaking on his arrival, Shcherban announced that he would like to return to politics and said he hopes for protection by well-positioned “friends” who, he noted, are not only members of the PRU, but also of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party and the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. Among such friends, he named Yanukovych, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Vitaly Hayduk, Hayduk’s business partner and board chairman of the Industrial Union of Donbas (IUD) Serhy Taruta, and people’s deputy Renat Akhmetov, reportedly Ukraine’s richest tycoon.
In an interview with Ukrayinska pravda, Shcherban told amusing anecdotes about several of these friends, including Akhmetov and Hayduk with whom, according to Shcherban, he founded the IUD in 1995. He hinted that he might tell more about people in top positions. Many of them hail from Donetsk, and Shcherban, who was Donetsk governor in the mid-1990s, was the cradle of “the Donetsk clan,” now Ukraine’s most influential regional group.
Association with the disgraced Shcherban may taint the PRU’s image, Segodnya quoted analyst Mykhaylo Pohrebynsky as saying. Pohrebynsky should know, as he helped the PRU in previous election campaigns. Shcherban is a political hot potato now. Those who helped Yushchenko come to power using the famous slogan “Bandits to Prison,” like Lutsenko, cannot do much about Shcherban, as their hands are tied. And the heavyweights like Hayduk and Yanukovych are unlikely to be happy to hear Shcherban calling them his friends. Speaking at a press conference on November 8, Yanukovych reluctantly admitted that he used to be on friendly terms with Shcherban, but tried to distance himself from him. “I just don’t remember,” he said, when asked by a journalist whether he once presented Shcherban with the gun that police found at Shcherban’s home in 2005.
(1+1 TV, ICTV, November 3; Interfax-Ukraine, November 4; Channel 5, November 4, 7; Ukrayinska pravda, November 7; UNIAN, November 8; Segodnya, November 9)