Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has lost a battle in her crusade against the “oligarchs.” The Supreme Economic Court has ruled in favor of former president Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, in a dispute over the ownership of the Nikopol Ferroalloys Plant (NFZ). Tymoshenko accused the court of bias and suggested that the judge who ruled in favor of Pinchuk should be punished. On the same day, the Security Service (SBU) reported that an assassination attempt against Tymoshenko was in the making, and a rumor was launched that Pinchuk might be behind it. These developments raise serious doubts about the impartiality of the Ukrainian courts, which Tymoshenko openly bullies. And it is a safe bet to say that yet more investors who turned their eyes to Ukraine after the Orange Revolution will now look elsewhere.
Pinchuk’s “Prydniprovya” concern bought 50% plus one share in the NFZ from the state in 2003 — too cheap and rife with procedural violations, according to Pinchuk’s opponents. As in the case of a more famous Pinchuk holding, the Kryvorizhstal steel mill, NFZ’s ownership has been disputed in court by the government almost since the moment Tymoshenko became prime minister in February 2005. A Kyiv district court froze Prydniprovya’s stake in NFZ in February, yet in June the case was closed, and Pinchuk retained the stake. The cabinet and the Prosecutor-General’s Office appealed, and on July 25 the Kyiv Economic Court of Appeals proclaimed NFZ’s sale to Prydniprovya illegal, and asked Pinchuk to return the shares to the state. But the Supreme Economic Court on July 28 overruled the verdict of the appeals court. This happened just hours before the government-scheduled NFZ shareholders meeting was expected to proclaim NFZ to be property of the state and replace its management.
Tymoshenko was outraged. Addressing a press conference in Kyiv on the same day, she said she would ask the Prosecutor-General’s Office to look into the activities of the Supreme Economic Court chief judge, Mykola Khandurin, who had delivered the verdict in Pinchuk’s favor. According to Tymoshenko, Khandurin “grabbed” the case documents from the lower court “at night” in order to pass his own verdict, which was against “state interests.” “I believe we shall soon get rid of judges like Khandurin,” she warned.
Tymoshenko’s news conference had been preceded by a sensational statement from journalist Volodymyr Boyko, who said he was in possession of information from diplomatic sources that an assassination attempt was being prepared against Tymoshenko. “Structures that would lose from the change of NFZ ownership” might be behind the plot, he said. Later on July 28, the SBU, whose chief is Tymoshenko’s long-time ally Oleksandr Turchynov, confirmed Boyko’s statement, saying it had received reports about a plot being prepared against Tymoshenko from several Ukrainian embassies abroad.
Pinchuk accused Tymoshenko of settling personal scores and urged President Viktor Yushchenko to intervene. He reportedly admitted that NFZ had been privatized with violations, but, according to Pinchuk, “95% of companies have been privatized in this manner.” Pinchuk also alleged that a $10 million bribe had been offered to the judges who had earlier ruled against him in the NFZ case.
The reports about the “plot” against Tymoshenko, apart from being a warning to Pinchuk, look like a desperate appeal to public opinion, which has never been on the side of the oligarchs. Local analysts have been skeptical. “This is good advertising with an eye to the election,” UNIAN quoted Volodymyr Malenkovych of the Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research as saying. “If serious people had been preparing a terrorist act, this would have never become known at several Ukrainian embassies at once,” Oles Dony of the Center for Political Values said. Only a “madman” would mastermind an attempt against Tymoshenko, as this would “entirely destabilize Ukraine’s economy and politics,” according to Dmytro Vydrin, a former adviser to Kuchma.
The mass media have for weeks been abuzz with a rumor saying that Tymoshenko was crusading against Pinchuk on behalf of the Privat group, which is the NFZ’s minority shareholder. According to the rumor, Tymoshenko would use Privat to get some control over 1+1, a popular television channel, with an eye to next year’s parliamentary election, in exchange for full control of NFZ. Tymoshenko has repeatedly denied this (see EDM, July 7). Zerkalo nedeli, in its latest issue, ran an unsigned article saying that Yushchenko’s team, wary of Tymoshenko’s growing popularity, would like to take over Pinchuk’s TV channels (ICTV, STB, Novy) in exchange for letting him retain NZF, in order to use them as tools in the election campaign. Simultaneously, the newspaper said, a certain member of Yushchenko’s team met 1+1’s majority holder, Ronald Lauder, in order to persuade him to prevent the purchase of a stake in 1+1 by Privat.
(Channel 5, July 25; ICTV, UNIAN, NTN TV, Glavred.info, Ukrayinski novyny, July 28; Zerkalo nedeli, UNIAN, July 30)