When Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky publicly accused Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko of corruption. Lutsenko denied that allegation and punched Chernovetsky in the face. Chernovetsky sued him, and Kyiv prosecutors launched a criminal case against Lutsenko. In return, police, whose boss is Lutsenko, re-opened an old case against Chernovetsky. Neither of the two is going to step down, and both have been openly using the legal system to settle scores, which raises questions about moral standards in Ukrainian politics.
Chernovetsky was the first to break the news of a brawl with Lutsenko on January 18. He issued a statement saying that Lutsenko had “barbarously assaulted” him “in the presence of high-ranking officials” at a meeting of the presidential National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) earlier that day. Chernovetsky said he received first aid and had to take sick leave.
Lutsenko did not deny that he had punched Chernovetsky in the face, but he said that he was not going to apologize, either. Lutsenko explained that Chernovetsky had “lied” to President Viktor Yushchenko at the meeting, saying that Lutsenko had asked him to allocate a land plot in Kyiv, otherwise his son would be jailed. Lutsenko said he had never threatened Chernovetsky’s son, a banker, with jail, and that he had asked for land not for himself, but to build affordable housing for policemen. Lutsenko claimed that Chernovetsky also hit him in the knee under the table. When Yushchenko left, Lutsenko said, he approached Chernovetsky and slapped him in the face “like a man.”
Reactions from politicians were mixed. Opposition leader and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych said that Lutsenko “committed an emotional act not worthy of a cabinet member.” President Yushchenko instructed prosecutors to thoroughly investigate the case, and he said that the behavior of both Lutsenko and Chernovetsky “discredits the state.” Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko expressed support for Lutsenko.
On January 24, Lutsenko announced that he had uncovered serious corruption involving land distribution by Chernovetsky, and he urged the Prosecutor-General’s Office to investigate immediately. Late on the same day, a deputy prosecutor in Kyiv launched a criminal case against Lutsenko for assaulting Chernovetsky. If he is found guilty, Lutsenko could face up to two years in prison. Lutsenko reacted by claiming that Chernovetsky had bribed Kyiv city prosecutors by illegally allocating land plots near Kyiv to them.
On January 25, the Interior Ministry re-launched a probe into a car accident dating from 2003, in which Chernovetsky’s car killed a man. The case was closed several years ago as officially no evidence of Chernovetsky’s guilt was found, but now the Interior Ministry “believes that the case was closed too early.” Chernovetsky said this was Lutsenko’s revenge for criticism at the NSDC meeting.
Lutsenko was one of the main figures in the Orange Revolution protests in 2004 that brought Yushchenko to power. A grateful Yushchenko appointed him interior minister in the first government of Prime Minister Tymoshenko in 2005. Lutsenko served in this position until December 2006, when he had to go amid accusations of corruption and a lack of professionalism leveled against him by Yanukovych’s coalition – the accusations he denied. Lutsenko returned to the post of interior minister this past December, when Tymoshenko became prime minister again.
In 2007 Lutsenko was widely viewed as the main rival of Chernovetsky in a possible early mayoral election in Kyiv; hence, their personal enmity. Lutsenko on many occasions accused Chernovetsky of abusing land resources in Kyiv, buying votes in the 2006 mayoral election, and drug abuse. Chernovetsky denied all the accusations. Lutsenko was not the only individual to make those accusations, but no official charges were brought against Chernovetsky.
Lutsenko has had problems with the law himself. He was accused of illegally giving pistols as presents to “Orange Revolution heroes” when interior minister, and of holding an Israeli passport (dual citizenship is forbidden in Ukraine). Lutsenko won these respective court cases. He was also accused by his rivals of using government aircraft for private purposes, and of lobbying to secure a contract for his wife’s employer to sell communication services to the police. Lutsenko denied those accusations.
Ukrainians expect higher moral standards from their politicians, according to a popular opinion poll conducted among Kyiv residents by the Razumkov Center. The opinions of 15% of them about Lutsenko changed for the better after the scandal, but 23% were bitterly disappointed. Chernovetsky’s popularity suffered even more: 4% said they now think better of Chernovetsky, and 33% think worse. The same poll showed that 70% of Kyiv residents believe that Chernovetsky is involved in illegal operations with public land resources.
(Interfax-Ukraine, January 18, 21-25; Channel 5, January 19; Zerkalo nedeli, January 26; Kommersant-Ukraine, Gazeta po-kievski, January 28)