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11.02.2011 | Clifford Levy

NYT: Ukraine intensifies pressure on the opposition:

   

A year after taking office with a vow to pursue close ties to Russia, the Ukrainian president is overseeing a broad crackdown on the pro-Western opposition that mirrors the kind of pressure tactics used by his allies in the Kremlin.

Prosecutors appointed by the president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, are carrying out many investigations of opposition leaders, including the former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who was a hero of the Orange Revolution of 2004.

The United States and European Union, which had held up Ukraine as a post-Soviet model for relatively fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power between political parties, have expressed growing alarm over the Yanukovich government’s conduct.

Ms. Tymoshenko has been repeatedly interrogated by prosecutors who said they were examining official corruption during her tenure as prime minister. But so far they are focusing on an accusation that has not aroused much public outrage: they say she violated the law in 2009 by shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from environmental funds to pay pensions. (She is not accused of personally stealing any of the money.)

Ms. Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost the presidential election to Mr. Yanukovich in February 2010, has called the inquiries a political witch hunt. In recent weeks prosecutors have barred her from leaving Kiev, the capital, though she has not been arrested.

“Yanukovich thinks that if he puts me behind bars, he will be able to go into the next campaign without competition,” Ms. Tymoshenko said in an interview. “He will have the same situation that exists in other former Soviet countries where there is no opposition.”

She insisted that, if anything, the prosecution had galvanized her.

“If, after a year of investigating my activities, this is all they have found, it shows that not all politicians in Ukraine are corrupt,” she said. “The truth is that this criminal case has rehabilitated me.”

The clash between the politicians reflects Ukraine’s geographic divide. Mr. Yanukovich is from the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, which has long turned toward Moscow for support. Ms. Tymoshenko portrays herself as a champion of western Ukraine, where the Ukrainian language dominates and people want more bonds with Europe.

Many of Ms. Tymoshenko’s colleagues have also faced intense scrutiny.

In late December a squad of masked special services agents arrested her former interior minister, Yuriy V. Lutsenko, while he was walking his dog, and he has been jailed since.

Prosecutors accused him of, among other things, hiring an official driver whose age exceeded the limit under government rules. In a statement from a detention center Mr. Lutsenko labeled the charges bizarre and described himself as a political prisoner.

Another Tymoshenko associate, a former economic minister, Bohdan M. Danylyshyn, fled to the Czech Republic and was granted asylum there last month — an indication that the Czech authorities doubted that the case against him had merit.

The investigations into opposition figures seemed to grow in November after Mr. Yanukovich named a new prosecutor general, Viktor P. Pshonka. “Of course, I am a member of the president’s team,” Mr. Pshonka said at the time.

Mr. Yanukovich was the loser in the pro-Western Orange Revolution, which erupted when protesters declared that his victory in the 2004 presidential election was tainted by fraud. A new election was organized and Mr. Yanukovich was defeated after his rivals portrayed him as a Kremlin lackey who would govern as an old-style Soviet boss.

But he made a comeback in the 2010 presidential campaign, pledging that he was a changed man. He said that he would safeguard political and media freedoms and guarantee that Ukraine would have warm relations with both the West and neighboring Russia. The public, meanwhile, had become wary of political bickering among Ms. Tymoshenko and her Orange colleagues.

In recent remarks Mr. Yanukovich and his senior ministers have denied that the government was persecuting the opposition. They said that since assuming power they had undertaken an evenhanded review of the previous government’s policies and spending and were trying to ensure that corrupt officials were punished.

“When it comes to justice, the affiliation of this or that lawbreaker does not matter,” Mr. Yanukovich said last week during a trip to Poland. “The rule of law works in Ukraine.”

Government officials pointed out that they had commissioned an audit last year by two American law firms and the investigative firm of Kroll Inc. that had found evidence of six cases of financial malfeasance during Ms. Tymoshenko’s tenure.

“Especially in the last five years, there was this impression in society that people in government were essentially immune from prosecution,” the Ukrainian foreign minister, Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, said in an interview. “We need to send a serious signal to society that this behavior is unacceptable.”

But the United States and its European allies appear increasingly skeptical of the government’s motives. Western diplomats pointed out that when the Orange side was in charge in Kiev it could have easily gone after Mr. Yanukovich with the same prosecutorial fervor but instead left him alone.

They noted that the audit by the American firms looked only at Ms. Tymoshenko’s tenure, not at the years when Mr. Yanukovich was in the government before becoming president.

In late December, when it appeared that Ms. Tymoshenko might be arrested, the United States Embassy in Kiev took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement chastising the Ukrainian authorities.

“When, with few exceptions, the only senior officials being targeted are connected with the previous government, it gives the appearance of selective prosecution of political opponents,” the statement said.

The embassy seemed to be echoing language used by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in criticizing the treatment in Russia of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. Mr. Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man, has been in jail since 2003 after challenging the authority of Vladimir V. Putin, who was the president then and is now prime minister.

After a second trial Mr. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to another prison term in late December that is to keep him behind bars until 2017. Mrs. Clinton said the Khodorkovsky verdict “raises serious questions about selective prosecution — and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”

This month, after Ms. Tymoshenko was barred by prosecutors from traveling to Brussels to meet with the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, he also questioned the integrity of the investigations.

For its part, the Kremlin has declined to pass judgment.

“That is an internal matter for Ukraine,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said last year after the investigations began. “There is nothing more for me to say.”

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