Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko cancelled her first official visit to Russia this week. The Russian Prosecutor-General’s office has continued to insist that she be brought in for questioning in connection with a long-forgotten case from the 1990s in which she is accused of bribing Russian Defense Ministry officials. Ukrainian authorities under former president Leonid Kuchma unsuccessfully tried to smear her with these and other charges in 2001-2003.
Russia, in a bid to demonstrate its support for Kuchma last year, placed Tymoshenko on the Interpol wanted list. Interpol meanwhile, removed her from all wanted lists on March 3-4; now she cannot be arrested on the charges laid out by Russia. Yet Moscow doggedly insists that the case remains open.
Although Tymoshenko has diplomatic immunity, the Ukrainian government decided to cancel the visit for legal reasons and to protest Russia’s refusal to close the case. The cancellation confirms that Russia still is unable to come to terms with Viktor Yushchenko’s election victory last December.
Moscow is at a loss about what to do with a Ukraine under Yushchenko. This bewilderment compounds Russia’s pre-existing inability to deal with Ukraine as a truly foreign country. In an interview given to Kommersant (April 12), Russian President Vladimir Putin compared Russia and Ukraine to East and West Germany. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry dismissed this comparison as both “absurd and illogical” (Ukrayinska pravda, April 13).
What then is the source of this newfound uncertainty in Moscow? As Sergei Karaganov, deputy director of the Institute of Europe, pointed out, it is the threat of the entire western ex-USSR joining NATO and then moving on to join the EU (RIA-Novosti, April 11). The idea of Belarus and Moldova joining NATO is far fetched for now, as one is ruled by a neo-Soviet autocrat and the other by Communists who only have set their sights on the EU. The reality, as Izvestiya (April 8) explained, is that Ukraine and Russia see the United States and the West in different ways, with Moscow viewing “America through Cold War stereotypes” and Kyiv seeing “America as its ally.”
Tensions between the former allies are likely to increase as Russia increasingly becomes a haven for people fleeing justice in Ukraine.
For example, Maxim Kurochkin, formerly vice-president of the Russian Club in Kyiv, is in hiding in Moscow after Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General launched charges against him. The Russian Club was created in summer 2004 as a lobbying center for Russian interests and the headquarters of the Russian “political technologists” working for Viktor Yanukovych’s campaign. The Russian Club was officially opened by the Russian Embassy and Yanukovych.
Kurochkin is wanted on at least three charges, including extortion and theft of state property through Ihor Bakay, then head of the State Directorate for Affairs, a government branch that controlled Kyiv’s Hotel Dnipro, various markets, and tourist resorts.
Kurochkin is also accused of having links to organized crime and even survived a mafia-style hit in Kyiv in November 2004. The links among organized crime, Russian “political advisors,” and the Yanukovych campaign have been publicly exposed. Deputy Interior Minister Hennadiy Moskal outlined that state property worth close to $1 billion was transferred illegally to this “Muscovite criminal authority” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 22).
Moskal believes that extradition would be a long process, as Kurochkin is both a Russian citizen and “he is an influential person with many ties” (Ukrayinska pravda, April 13). When he resided in Ukraine, “The entire leadership of the Interior Ministry and the presidential administration were his best friends.” Meanwhile, Kurochkin is living quite comfortably in Moscow and is not worried about being deported to Ukraine (Lvivska hazeta, March 24).
Bakay, another high-ranking official from the Kuchma regime, is wanted on countless corruption and money-laundering charges. Bakay’s extradition would also be difficult. According to his former allies in the Social Democratic United (SDPUo) party, Bakay is a Russian citizen. However, Ukraine does not recognize dual citizenship.
Bakay is living near Moscow where he fled in late December. According to Minister of Transport Yevhen Chervonenko, Bakay fled Ukraine with “five sacks full of cash”. One private plane flew Bakay to the Maldives and a second transported his personal property to a dacha near Moscow (Ukrayinska pravda, April 12).
As head of the State Directorate on Affairs between 2002 and 2004 (and formerly CEO of Naftohaz Ukrainy in the 1990s), Bakay is a controversial figure. Kuchma brought him back to divide up remaining state property among his allies as election bribes. The spoils included the Hotel Dnipro, which was transferred to Kurochkin between rounds one and two of the presidential elections. The Prosecutor-General has launched seven serious criminal charges against Bakay that relate to widespread, officially sanctioned theft of state property and theft from the state budget (Ukrayinska pravda, March 22).
Chervonenko linked Bakay and former Transport Minister Heorhiy Kirpa (who committed suicide in December 2004) to Viktor Medvedchuk, head of the presidential administration under Kuchma. Medvedchuk accused Chervonenko of “character assassination” on 1+1 television (April 12). Nevertheless, the connections between Kurochkin’s Russian Club, Bakay’s State Directorate for Affairs, and the presidential administration are easy to prove. Warehouses controlled by Bakay’s State Directorate were used during last year’s elections to store anti-Yushchenko leaflets, while the Russian political advisors used the Russian Club for offices and a press club.