Ukrainian lawmakers yesterday, by a vote of 310 to 39, lifted the immunity from former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko, the leader of the Hromada party and faction and the presidential candidate for the upcoming October elections. The parliament effectively endorsed prosecution and arrest of the former premier who has been under investigation in both Switzerland and Ukraine since December for money-laundering. Only the Hromada and its most loyal allies, the socialists of the former speaker, Oleksandr Moroz, dissented in lifting the immunity. The consenting vote of the Communists–the largest faction, which hesitated until the last moment–was instrumental in incriminating Lazarenko (Ukrainian television, February 17, see also the Monitor, December 4, 7, 14, 23, January 25).
Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko preceded the vote with a two-hour long report on Lazarenko’s case. He repeated the earlier publicized charges of large-scale embezzlement, illegal operations with accounts in Swiss banks and abuse of office. In 1993, when he was governor of Dnipropetrovsk Region, Lazarenko reportedly registered in Switzerland a fictitious firm LIP Handel AG, to whose account he siphoned almost 4.5 million Swiss francs and over US$2 million between 1993-1996. Over US$1.2 million of this amount had been stolen from accounts of the Dnipropetrovsk-based state farm Naukovy. Potebenko had earlier asked the parliament to lift the immunity also from the MP Mykola Ahafonov, Naukovy’s former director. Lazarenko is also charged both with using almost 1 million hryvnyas from state coffers to renovate his dacha near Kyiv and with being involved in sales to the government of Panama-manufactured prefabricated houses at inflated prices.
Despite the lifting of his immunity, Lazarenko is now out of reach from the prosecution. On February 15, he reportedly departed to Greece from Dnipropetrovsk airport by a flight of the United Energy Systems–the private corporation, which had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on sales of natural gas in 1996-1997, under Premier Lazarenko. Opening the parliament hearing yesterday, Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko read aloud Lazarenko’s letter, in which Lazarenko asked the parliament to postpone the vote on his immunity. A medical report attached to the letter explained that Lazarenko was hospitalized with a heart condition in Greece on February 15. Lazarenko wrote that he does not renounce his intention to answer the prosecution’s charges openly before parliament and “overturn the unjust accusations.” By an overwhelming majority, however, the parliament decided to vote in his absence. The Ukrainian embassy in Greece reportedly confirmed Lazarenko’s arrival. In an interview with STV, however, Ukraine’s former acting Prosecutor General, Oleh Lytvak, cited sources in the Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry denying that Lazarenko is in Greece. Lazarenko had earlier reportedly “evacuated” his family to the United States (Ukrainian agencies, STV, Studio 1+1, February 17; Fakty i kommentarii, February 18).
Despite President Kuchma’s undeniable role in promoting Lazarenko and turning a blind eye on his reported misdeeds, the parliament’s incrimination of Lazarenko is a great victory for Kuchma, who is eyeing a second term in office. Along with the elimination of Lazarenko, the position of Kuchma’s probably strongest presidential rival, Moroz, is now significantly weaker. The socialist leader, Lazarenko’s tactical ally since last year’s parliamentary elections, initially defended Lazarenko–both to the media and in public speeches–from what they both described as “political persecution.” Moroz and Lazarenko had been expected to support each other in the upcoming elections.
GEORGIA BRANDISHES HUGE RUSSIAN IOU.