On September 3, Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) received Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko’s official request for permission to arrest former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko. This time around the charges involve Lazarenko’s involvement in two high-profile murders: of former National Bank of Ukraine chairman Vadym Hetman in 1998, and of people’s deputy Yevhen Shcherban in 1996. Potebenko’s request, however, seems redundant. The 1999 Rada decision that stripped Lazarenko of immunity on the basis of embezzlement remains in force, despite his flight to the United States, where he was arrested by the local authorities and is still awaiting trial on charges of money laundering and trafficking stolen money.
Potebenko’s motion may be regarded as an attempt to save the face of the Kyiv prosecution, which has failed to solve the murders of journalists Georgy Gongadze last fall and Ihor Aleksandrov this past July. The Prosecutor General’s Office was also helpless during the tape scandal late last year and early this, when fugitive bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko accused President Leonid Kuchma of both kidnapping Gongadze and corruption, and later took refuge in the United States.
Since Lazarenko’s escape from Ukraine in 1999, the presidential administration, the state media and the oligarchs have not missed an opportunity to say a bad word about him. There have been many such opportunities and the words have come easily. Lazarenko, after all, can scarcely or properly defend himself while in custody in San Francisco. This demonizing has been something of a wild pitch, however. Lazarenko is currently viewed by the Ukrainian on the street as a scapegoat of sorts, as one of many corrupt bureaucrats who is paying more for his falling out with Kuchma than for his crimes.
The Prosecutor General’s Office has been especially active in the demonizing. It went so far as to accuse Lazarenko of financing the mass protests across Ukraine during the tape scandal, though these accusations were counterproductive, given that public opinion was with the protesters. Meanwhile, Potebenko’s security in his post became very shaky: The Rada twice requested his dismissal for bungling the Gongadze case, and Potebenko submitted his resignation, which President Leonid Kuchma declined, not wanting to lose a very loyal official. At the same time, the Rada and the media have also not bypassed the opportunities to recall that the Prosecutor General’s Office under Potebenko did not solve a single high-profile murder. Observers therefore met Potebenko’s sensational claim in an August 18 newspaper interview that Lazarenko ordered the murders of Shcherban and Hetman with skepticism. On August 20, in a letter to Potebenko, Lazarenko denied the charges.
There is a legal debate over whether Potebenko’s submission from September 3 was necessary, given that Lazarenko has lost his immunity. Furthermore, because the United States and Ukraine do not have an extradition treaty, the prosecution has little chance of getting their hands on him again. He will remain in prison in California until the U.S. charges against him are settled. Potebenko, however, will be able to claim, to his credit, that he has solved two of Ukraine’s most sensational murder cases. Only the impossibility of bringing the key suspect back to Ukraine will have prevented him from dotting all the i’s and crossing the t’s (UNIAN, April 19; Zerkalo Nedeli, August 18; Ukrainska Pravda, August 18, 20; Korrespondent.net, AP, September 3; see the Monitor, July 19).