On April 6 the Ukrainian police, for the first time since the Orange Revolution, detained a top representative of the old Kuchma regime. Donetsk Region Council Chairman Borys Kolesnykov, suspected of extortion, will spend at least two months behind bars, according to a court verdict. Being the top official of Ukraine’s richest and most densely populated region and the right hand of Ukraine’s richest tycoon, Renat Akhmetov, Kolesnykov has been the most influential representative of the former ruling elite among the small group of Kuchma holdovers that President Viktor Yushchenko has not yet fired.
In February Yushchenko replaced Donetsk Governor Anatoly Blyznyuk, an ally of Akhmetov and of presidential election loser Viktor Yanukovych, with the more or less independent Vadym Chuprun, a former ambassador to Turkmenistan. But Kolesnykov has been beyond Yushchenko’s reach, as regional council heads are elected and dismissed locally. They have fewer powers than governors, who represent the president, but independence from the capital make the regional council head a very attractive post. Along with chairing the council, Kolesnykov heads the Donetsk branch of Yanukovych’s Regions of Ukraine, which is potentially the strongest opposition to Yushchenko in next year’s parliamentary elections. This fact makes the accusation made by Yushchenko’s opponents — that Kolesnykov is a victim of political persecution — seem credible for those Ukrainians, especially in the east and south, who do not trust Yushchenko. Aware of this threat, Yushchenko, wrapping up his visit to the United States on April 6, pledged that his government would not engage in political persecution and promised to discuss Kolesnykov’s arrest with Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun.
Kolesnykov was detained on suspicion of having extorted shares of Donetsk’s largest shopping mall from one of its main shareholders, according to the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office. But this was not made clear to the press immediately, and the first media reports said Kolesnykov was detained in relation to the “separatism case” — the infamous gathering of Yanukovych supporters in eastern and southern Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, at which calls for secession from Ukraine were made. Kolesnykov had indeed been summoned to the Prosecutor-General’s Office for questioning on the “separatism case,” but this was only a pretext, as Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko later revealed. After questioning, the police anti-organized crime directorate detained Kolesnykov on extortion charges. On April 8 the Pechersk district court in Kyiv ordered Kolesnykov to remain in custody for up to two months until official charges are brought.
At the request of Regions of Ukraine and the Social Democrats, Lutsenko, Piskun, and parliamentary human rights commissioner Nina Karpachova reported to parliament on April 7 about Kolesnykov’s detention. The deputies were told that Kolesnykov’s was an ordinary extortion case, with no politics behind it. But Lutsenko and Karpachova committed a strategic blunder by exposing witnesses. They revealed details, saying that Kolesnykov is suspected of shaking down the major shareholder in the Donetsk Bily Lebid (Ukrainian for “white swan”) shopping mall in 2002; notably, that shareholder had survived three assassination attempts. The individual in question could be easily figured out, and the Interior Ministry had to urgently send an aircraft to Donetsk to evacuate his family. Most of Bily Lebid’s current shareholders fled Ukraine.
Kolesnykov’s arrest has been a serious blow to the “Donetsk clan” and Regions of Ukraine. If prosecutors prove that a top figure in the party is a gangster, the parliamentary election campaign may be lost for the Donetsk group long before it has started. Moreover, Lutsenko, addressing parliament on April 7, promised that more well-known people would be soon arrested in the case.
With so much at stake, Kolesnykov’s allies have launched a large-scale counteroffensive. On April 7 the Donetsk regional council appealed to Yushchenko, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and the heads of the law-enforcement agencies, demanding Kolesnykov’s immediate release. “This [arrest] is to settle scores with those politicians who fell out with the authorities by backing Viktor Yanukovych in the elections,” the council said. Regions of Ukraine organized protesters’ tent camps in Donetsk and near parliament in Kyiv. The population of the camp in Kyiv did not exceed 50 as of April 10, but Regions of Ukraine promised to mobilize more people from Donetsk region and threatened to start blocking roads. Yanukovych claimed that on April 1 Yushchenko’s secretariat had threatened Kolesnykov with persecution for refusing to include certain people on Regions of Ukraine’s lists for the elections — a charge that the secretariat has vehemently denied.
Meanwhile, Lutsenko has complained of threats. “One Donetsk MP approached me yesterday and said, here is a message to you — you know from whom — don’t cross the line,” Lutsenko told a press conference in Donetsk on April 8.
(UNIAN, April 6, 7; Channel 5, April 6-10; Ukraina TV, April 7, 8; Ostro.org, 1+1 TV, April 8; Ukrayinska pravda, April 8, 9)