On April 22, Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko called a press conference to announce his retirement. He had, he said, submitted his resignation to President Leonid Kuchma last week and suggested a replacement, but refused to disclose the name of that candidate.
Potebenko, 65, has headed Ukraine’s prosecution since July 1998. His sole achievement in this post was to indict former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko on corruption charges in 1999. Among the marks against him are the unsolved murders of MP Yevhen Shcherban in 1996, former central bank chief Vadym Hetman in 1998 and journalists Georgy Gongadze and Igor Aleksandrov in 2000 and 2001. Several times parliament tried to dismiss Potebenko for poor performance and his refusal to investigate reports of corruption by top officials, including Kuchma’s aides. But Kuchma favored him, and Potebenko remained at his post.
Potebenko tendered one resignation in late 2000, after the disappearance of journalist Georgy Gongadze and the subsequent tape scandal, but Kuchma rejected it. During the course of 2001, Ukraine’s non-Communist opposition demanded the resignations of several law enforcement officials. Kuchma did dismiss two of them–Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko and security service chief Leonid Derkach–but remained loyal to Potebenko.
This time around, however, Potebenko’s departure seems a done deal. Running as Number 20 on the Communist Party of Ukraine list, Potebenko was elected to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) on March 31. Given a choice, he said at his April 22 press conference, he would prefer to work on a Rada committee dealing with law enforcement agencies.
Ukraine will thus get a new chief prosecutor, but not quickly. The constitution requires that the president submit a new candidate to the parliament, which then must approve. But the newly elected Rada will not convene until May 14. And when it does, it will certainly (and logically) want to establish standing committees and elect a speaker before it begins discussing a new prosecutor-general. Potebenko, as a member of parliament, cannot continue, even on a temporary basis, in his old post. Kuchma will therefore have to appoint someone as caretaker prosecutor.
Pundits have named several of Potebenko’s soon-to-be former deputies–Oleksy Bahanets, Mykola Harnyk, Mykola Obykhod and Yury Vinokurov–as possible replacements. Other candidates include Olha Kolinko, a former deputy prosecutor-general and now presidential adviser, and Kyiv Prosecutor Yury Haysynsky. Haysynsky is close to the United Social Democratic Party. This past January, several media reported that Haysynsky had replaced Potebenko, but the alarm was a false one. If the right-wing opposition manages to form a strong coalition in the Rada, it may try to install their candidate, Viktor Shyshkin, who held the post in 1991-1993. Shyshkin, who is close to Yulia Tymoshenko, took part in the anti-Kuchma National Salvation Forum last year.
Potebenko’s resignation was welcomed by Hanne Severinsen, a rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who is due to arrive in Ukraine soon to monitor the March 31 election outcome. She expressed the hope that the investigation into Gongadze’s disappearance may now be undertaken in earnest. According to her, the Prosecutor-General’s Office under Potebenko blocked establishing an international commission to examine the Gongadze case. Most recently, it has refused to cooperate with the FBI experts who arrived in Kyiv in early April to assist in Ukraine’s investigation, citing a legal ban against imparting confidential information to foreigners (New Channel TV, The Washington Times, April 22; Ukrainska Pravda, April 23; see the Monitor, January 8).
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