Ukrainian prosecutors have come up with the gravest charges thus far against embattled former Ukrainian Premier Pavlo Lazarenko (1996-1997). On February 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) charged Lazarenko with commissioning the assassinations of two influential politicians–Yevhen Shcherban in 1996 and Vadym Hetman in 1998. Lazarenko had earlier been accused of money laundering in Switzerland and the United States–where he is currently imprisoned–and embezzlement in Ukraine. He has refused to plead guilty and claims to be the victim of political persecution.
Also on February 7, Ukrainian lawmakers voted 337-0 with one abstention to cancel Lazarenko’s deputy immunity mandate. The move had a symbolic rather than practical meaning, as Lazarenko was stripped of the immunity in 1999. A new parliament (Verkhovna Rada) will be elected regardless on March 31 without Lazarenko. Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Obykhod announced the same day that the PGO has again requested the United States to extradite Lazarenko. This request, like previous similar ones, is unlikely to achieve anything, however, because the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
According to the official PGO version of the case, US$2 million was transferred from Lazarenko’s accounts to that of a criminal boss in Donetsk for the murder of Shcherban, and US$850,000 was paid out for the murder of Hetman. Obykhod asserted that Shcherban “got in the way of some commercial structures, including the United Energy Systems (UES), which Lazarenko backed,” and that Hetman was done away with “to clear the obstacles preventing some issues in the Ukrainian financial sector from being resolved to Lazarenko’s benefit.” Parliamentary deputy Shcherban, then leader of the Donetsk industrial elite, reportedly opposed Yulia Tymoshenko’s UES invasion of the Donetsk energy market. Hetman chaired the Interbank Currency Exchange in Kyiv.
The Ukrainian prosecution holds the same Donetsk criminal gang responsible for contract killings of twenty-three more prominent Ukrainians in the 1990s. The Donetsk gang is also accused of killing Shakhtar soccer club owner Akhat Bragin and metal trader Oleksandr Momot in 1995. According to the prosecution, the gang also plotted to kill former head of the Naftogaz Ukrainy oil and gas monopoly Ihor Bakay, and President Leonid Kuchma’s former key aide, reputed oligarch Oleksandr Volkov. The gang leader, a certain Yevhen Kushnir, was later killed himself, Obykhod said.
It would seem that the culprits are found and justice will soon triumph. Yet doubts remain. The PGO has long been under fire by critics who have accused it of being unable to solve these crimes. Now it accuses one criminal gang, whose boss is dead, of having committed all of them, and Kuchma’s arch-foe of having commissioned the two most sensational ones. It has also named UES–the family business of Kuchma’s ardent opponent and parliamentary candidate Yulia Tymoshenko–in connection with a serious crime. Furthermore, the announcement of PGO’s new findings coincides with serious accusations against Kuchma himself. It would seem that the Prosecutor General’s Office, ever a presidential loyalist, may have timed its newest accusations against Lazarenko (however well founded) in order to distract media and political attention from the problems Kuchma now faces (New Channel TV, UT-1, February 7; Zerkalo Nedeli, February 9; see the Monitor, September 11).
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