12.04.2011 | Roman Olearchyk

New Criminal Investigation against Yulia Tymoshenko



On the eve of a visit to Kiev by Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, Ukrainian prosecutors on Monday launched a criminal case against ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accusing her of illegally brokering a natural gas supply contract with him in January 2009.

“A criminal case has been launched against” Ms Tymoshenko, now an opposition leader, “over abuse of power linked to the signing of gas contracts in 2009, ” said Renat Kuzmin, Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor-general.

The news fuelled speculation that Kiev could challenge the two-year-old agreement which brought sharply higher gas import prices while ending a bitter stand-off that cut off European supplies. But such plans could stoke negative tensions ahead of Mr Putin’s Tuesday visit, during which he is expected to meet Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president.

As the charges were announced, allies in parliament backing Mr Yanukovich called for the gas agreement to be cancelled. Inna Bogoslovska, chairman of a parliamentary investigative committee, argued that the Tymoshenko-Putin agreement was illegally approved by Ms Tymoshenko’s cabinet and led to above-market gas prices for Ukraine.

In Ukraine, the announcement that Yanukovich-loyal prosecutors had filed a third criminal case against his political rival since last autumn exacerbated concerns expressed in recent months by the US and European Union that his administration was persecuting political opponents. Ms Tymoshenko has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, claiming her opponent wants to ban her from taking part in future parliamentary elections.

But the broader focus could turn to Mr Putin’s reaction to the investigation and its implications for relations with Kiev, which has long sought to fend off hefty fuel price increases.

Since taking over as president in February 2010, Mr Yanukovich has repeatedly pledged to keep Kiev on a path towards EU integration while also reviving relations with Moscow that went sour under his predecessors.

In the first months of his presidency, Mr Yanukovich prolonged the Russian navy’s stay at Ukraine’s Sevastopol port in return for a 30 per cent discount on gas prices. But he has continued to call upon Moscow to further lower rising gas prices that are battering his nation’s ailing and fuel import-dependent economy.

Eager to keep Kiev within Moscow’s sphere of influence, Mr Putin is expected during his visit to step up pressure on Mr Yanukovich. He has long tried to drive a wedge into Kiev’s European integration plans, urging it to join Belarus and Kazakhstan instead in a Russia-led customs union.

Mr Yanukovich has resisted. But Russia has recently made an offer that some experts say is tempting.

Valery Golubev, deputy head of Russian gas giant Gazprom, tried to trump last week’s critical round of free trade negotiations between Brussels and Ukraine, offering the latter an $8bn annual discount on natural gas prices if it joined the customs union. The move would be incompatible with an EU free trade agreement.

So far, Ukrainian officials insist they would not drop free trade talks with Brussels but will continue urging Russia to lower gas prices and lift long-standing trade restrictions.

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