The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has become embroiled in a new scandal. The main opposition force, the Party of Regions (PRU), has accused the SBU of playing political games after SBU servicemen carried out a controversial search at the Kharkiv City Council. Although the SBU has been firmly pro-Orange since Viktor Yushchenko came to power in early 2005, the teams of both Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have distanced themselves from the SBU raid.
The scandal has raised legitimate questions about the role of the SBU in Ukrainian politics and may result in an early mayoral election in Ukraine’s second-largest city. Kharkiv Mayor Mykhaylo Dobkin is suspected of corruption. Earlier this month parliament voted to hold an early election in the capital city, Kyiv, whose mayor Leonid Chernovetsky was also accused of corruption by his opponents (see EDM, March 20).
SBU operatives stormed the Kharkiv City Council on March 18 and seized documents. The SBU explained that the Council is suspected of embezzling some $300,000. While the search was underway, a local court banned it. The search, however, continued, which outraged Dobkin, a PRU member who believes that he was the main target. Dobkin tried to stop a car driven by SBU operatives from taking documents out of the Council, but the car sped away, reportedly grazing Dobkin.
The Council called on Yushchenko and parliament to punish the SBU for what it called “the armed seizure of a public office.” The PRU on March 19 demanded that the SBU and the Prosecutor-General’s Office report to parliament on the Kharkiv events. However, lawmakers did not support this demand, as only 224 of them voted in favor of inviting SBU people and prosecutors to parliament, two short of the needed number for the motion to pass. PRU leader Viktor Yanukovych threatened to disrupt parliament and even to take people to the streets to protest the SBU actions.
Dobkin says that the SBU has targeted him because he belongs to the opposition, while the government has tried to distance itself from the scandal. Yushchenko’s chief of staff, Viktor Baloha, chided the SBU, warning against “destabilizing the political situation” in Kharkiv. Mykola Tomenko, one of the leaders of the Tymoshenko bloc, called it “an act of provocation that does the SBU no credit.”
Dobkin’s relations with the SBU have been strained for a long time. The mayor believes that the secret services were behind a scandalous video that appeared on YouTube in October 2007 featuring him using foul language when preparing an election campaign speech. Also last year, the SBU denied Dobkin a security clearance, saying that he had violated a relevant law. Dobkin claimed that this was revenge from Kharkiv Region Governor Arsen Avakov, who belongs to the Orange camp, for Dobkin’s failure to report to him about Dobkin’s visit to a neighboring region in Russia.
This past February, Dobkin accused SBU staff of siding with one private company in a dispute over a construction site in Kharkiv. On March 14 Dobkin said that SBU operatives had tried to plant narcotics in his luggage when he was returning from a foreign trip. SBU acting chief Valentyn Nalyvaychenko reportedly assured Dobkin that he had nothing to do with that incident.
The Kharkiv events may prevent Nalyvaychenko from securing the position of SBU chief. Nalyvaychenko has been acting chief of the SBU for more than a year. Yushchenko backs him for the post of permanent SBU chief, but parliament may be reluctant to approve his nomination after the Kharkiv scandal.
The ProUA website suggested that the search at Kharkiv Council could be an act of provocation directed against Nalyvaychenko. According to ProUA, the SBU chief in Kharkiv, Andry Mukhataev, is a protégé of Oleksandr Turchynov, of Tymoshenko’s right-hand man and her first deputy in the Cabinet. Mukhataev’s chief Nalyvaychenko has been very loyal to Yushchenko, against whom Tymoshenko is widely expected to run in the presidential election in 2010, so it would be logical for her to try to get rid of Nalyvaychenko ahead of the election campaign.
Dobkin’s position is shaky, too. Earlier this month, parliament formed an ad-hoc commission to investigate the activities of Dobkin and the Kharkiv City Council leadership, many of whom are suspected of corruption. The commission is gathering files for a report that may serve as grounds for an early mayoral election in Kharkiv, as was the case in Kyiv. And on March 20, another ad-hoc commission was set up by the anti-corruption committee in parliament. It is tasked with checking the claims by a group of Kharkiv City Council deputies that the Council, the mayor, and several other Kharkiv officials were involved in illegal drug trafficking, including cocaine and heroin.
(ICTV, February 1; Channel 5, March 18, 19; NTN TV, Interfax-Ukraine, March 19; Ukrayinska pravda, March 19, 20; Proua.com, March 21)