Ukraine’s newly appointed prosecutor general made it clear that he is a loyal ally of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukraine’s new prosecutor general, the most powerful law enforcer in the nation, has made his approach to the job crystal clear: He is a loyal ally of President Viktor Yanukovych and, as such, he is the last man in Ukraine who could be expected to investigate the Ukrainian leader on suspicion of wrongdoing or conduct any criminal probes not sanctioned by the administration.
So much for an independent law enforcement system.
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The Yanukovych and Pshonka families appear to be close from their Donetsk days and now occupy the highest positions of power in Ukraine’s political structure. Artem Pshonka (L) is a parliamentarian in the Verhovna Rada with the pro-presidential Party of Regions. His father, Viktor Pshonka (second from left) is the nation’s general prosecutor.
Viktor Yanukovych Jr. (first from left), son of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (right), is also a parliamentarian.
A 30-year veteran prosecutor, the 56-year old Viktor Pshonka has a reputation for doing what he is told, and getting it done.
During the past 15 years, many of the orders Pshonka has executed appear to have come from Yanukovych. He has climbed the ladder from the regional ranks to become Ukraine’s top prosecutor by closely sticking to Yanukovych all the way from Donetsk, where the president served as oblast governor in the 1990s – and on further to the national stage in Kyiv.
Less flamboyant than some predecessors, Pshonka immediately cast doubt on his impartiality only two days after his Nov. 4 rubber-stamp approval by parliament.
As prosecutor general, I am a member of the team tasked with carrying out all the decisions made by the president.”
- Viktor Pshonka, newly appointed prosecutor general.
In an interview aired on Nov. 6 by Ukraine’s pro-presidential Inter TV channel, Pshonka unapologetically admitted that he is the president’s man.
“As prosecutor general, I am a member of the team tasked with carrying out all the decisions made by the president,” Pshonka said.
The subservience contradicts the mandate of a general prosecutor to be impartial, besides muddling the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches envisioned by Ukraine’s constitution.
In a sign of how all levers of influence in the country have fallen into Yanukovych’s hands since he took over as president in February, it took less than an hour on Nov. 4 for parliament to approve his nomination to replace Oleksandr Medvedko as the nation’s 11th top prosecutor.
During his interview with Inter TV, Pshonka – in contradiction to his fealty to the president – insisted that the prosecutor’s office under his leadership will be squeaky clean.
“High moral standards, professionalism, the ability to take responsibility and carry out the tasks are the qualities we will promote among the 11,000 employees of the state prosecutor’s office,” Pshonka said.
The remarks are nonsense, according to Serhiy Taran, director of the Kyiv-based International Democracy Institute, who said Pshonka’s appointment and statements show Ukraine’s law enforcement system is again “incapable of impartiality.”
Employees of the prosecutor’s office, now headed by Pshonka, will do exactly what Yanukovych and his team tell them to do."
- Serhiy Taran, director of the Kyiv-based International Democracy Institute.
“Employees of the prosecutor’s office, now headed by Pshonka, will do exactly what Yanukovych and his team tell them to do, and that doesn’t include investigating alleged crimes involving the president and his allies in the Party of Regions,” Taran said.
“I can think of no crimes allegedly involving Yanukovych or his entourage that the prosecutor’s office will investigate objectively under Pshonka. That includes how Yanukovych acquired his [multi-million dollar] Mezhyhirya residence outside of Kyiv, the cover-up of the 2001 murder in Donetsk Oblast of television journalist Ihor Oleksandrov, conversations with former President Leonid Kuchma to rig the 1999 presidential elections, the 2004 rigged presidential election, let alone the rigged 2010 local elections.”
What to expect?
For one thing, Ukrainians can expect to see more investigations and criminal charges targeted against political opponents and critics of the administration.
This already may be happening, with the Nov. 5 announcement that ex-Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko faces criminal charges for an alleged financial crime involving a less than $5,000 overpayment to his driver.
Considering the magnitude of the unsolved murders and multi-billion financial crimes in Ukraine, the charges against Lutsenko are almost ludicrous. However, Lutsenko is a political enemy and an ally of Yanukovych’s bitter rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Expect so-called anti-corruption efforts that will exclusively target opposition political leaders and their friends, just like when Kuchma was in charge. We’ve gone back to the old way of doing things,” Taran added.
|Two Viktors, side-by-side
Like Viktor Yanukovych, Viktor Pshonka was born and raised in the Donbass, the rough coal-mining and steel mill region of eastern Ukraine.
After a stint in the army and study at the Kharkiv Institute of Law, he settled down in Kramatorsk, a heavy machine building center located 80 kilometers north of Donetsk, and worked for the prosecutor’s office.
In 1997, he relocated to Donetsk, the provincial capital, to serve as deputy chief prosecutor for the region.
Yanukovych was governor of Donetsk at the time.
When Yanukovych made the leap to Kyiv in 2003 by landing the prime minister’s job, Pshonka followed close behind.
He was bumped up to the position of deputy head of Ukraine’s General Prosecutor’s Office.
Pshonka resigned from this job in December 2004 in the heat of the democratic Orange Revolution, when a rigged presidential vote in favor of Yanukovych was overturned.
But he returned as deputy prosecutor general in 2006, when Yanukovych reclaimed the premiership.
What explains such loyalty?
In part, there are reportedly family-like relations.
Moreover, one of Pshonka’s sons, Artem, is a Party of Regions parliament deputy, just like Yanukovych’s son, Viktor Yanukovych Jr.
When entrusted by Yanukovych for a job, Pshonka has delivered.
Following his reinstatement as deputy prosecutor general in 2006, Pshonka provided oversight over the activities of the lucrative state railway system and provided prosecutorial oversight in several high-profile cases, including Kyiv’s Elita Center real estate fraud case and the allegedly illegal transfers of Russian natural gas to Ukraine.
He stepped in as acting prosecutor general when Oleksandr Medvedko, another Yanukovych ally, suffered a heart attack in April 2007. He was named first deputy prosecutor general in June.
The All–Ukrainian Conference of Prosecutors on Dec. 17, 2009, elected Pshonka as their member of the institution responsible for disciplining judges, the High Council of Justice, where he will remain an ex-officio member during his term as prosecutor general, a provision of the new court law criticized in October by the Venice Commission.
Now as prosecutor general, not only is Pshonka one of the closest people to Yanukovych again, he is also holds one of the most powerful jobs in the nation, deciding who is a criminal, who is not; who goes to prison, who remains free.
Pshonka ran the prosecutor’s office in Donetsk in 2001 when Yanukovych was the region’s governor, and when TV journalist Ihor Oleksandrov was clubbed to death. The hired hit occurred 10 months after the kidnapping and decapitation of another investigative journalist in Kyiv, Georgiy Gongadze.
Many believe Oleksandrov was killed because of his work documenting collusion between top Donetsk law enforcement officials, including Pshonka, his son Artem (today a parliament deputy in Yanukovych’s Regions Party) and organized criminal groups in Donetsk’s Kramatorsk and neighboring Slovyansk regions, where Oleksandrov worked.
The official murder investigation culminated in the arrest of Yuriy Veredyuk, a 44-year local vagrant. Pshonka at the time praised investigators for their high professionalism and quick work. Then-Donetsk governor Yanukovych was even quoted as telling Oleksandrov’s wife: “They killed your husband by mistake.”
But the story didn’t end there. Veredyuk, who suffered from tuberculosis, was released from pre-trial confinement in May 2002 after the Donetsk regional appeals court refused to convict him.
Our entire legal system has degenerated to the point where powerful officials can simply order delays at the cost of further destroying the nation’s remaining integrity.”
- Bohdan Ferents, former deputy prosecutor general.
He died two months later of poisoning. Veredyuk was eventually vindicated. In 2006, after mounting international and domestic pressure, the two local gangsters Oleksandrov exposed in his reporting were convicted of ordering his murder. They, along with three accomplices, were sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
Oleh Yeltsov, a veteran investigative reporter who reported on the Oleksandrov case, said: “It is inconceivable Pshonka didn’t know who ordered the murder.”
Former deputy prosecutor general Bohdan Ferents, who represented Oleksandrov’s wife and son in court during the early 2000s, said Pshonka and his superiors had “lacked the will” to bring the real killers of Oleksandrov to justice.
“Our entire legal system has degenerated to the point where powerful officials can simply order delays at the cost of further destroying the nation’s remaining integrity,” Ferents said.
Yuriy Boichenko, spokesman for the general prosecutor’s office, said on Nov. 5 that Pshonka has no time to talk with reporters about his role in the Oleksandrov case. “There are hundreds of prosecutors in line to see him. The prosecutor general is too busy to talk with journalists,” he said.
Oleksiy Hazubej, chief editor of the daily tabloid Blik, on Nov. 4 recalled an unsettling encounter with Pshonka in Kramatorsk in 1993.
“Our newspaper, Tekhnopolis, covered a reception in Kramatorsk for Josef Kobzon in 1993 or 1994. We wrote about the honored guests who attended the affair and the cars they arrived in, including Pshonka,” Hazubej wrote in his Kyiv Post blog on Nov. 4.
“The newspaper’s chief editor and owner were summoned days later to Pshonka’s office after the article was published. He explained matter-of-factly that he was the Kramatorsk chief prosecutor and, as a defender of citizens’ rights, he could not be seen to own such an expensive car. His assistant then entered the room and told us it would be possible to close down our newspaper legally. Pshonka just sat there. He didn’t seem very embarrassed. The newspaper’s chief editor and owner gave in immediately.”
Pshonka declared $88,000 in income last year, with $50,000 coming from his salary as deputy prosecutor.
Property declared by Pshonka includes seven- and three-acre land plots. He is also co-owner of an apartment measuring 126 square meters, and a plot of land with a garage and an unfinished house. Pshonka says he has Hr. 800,000 in bank savings and other deposits.
Viktor Yanukovych has instructed Pshonka to harass the opposition and destroy Batkivshchyna.”
- The oppositionist Batkivshchyna Party, statement.
The oppositionist Batkivshchyna Party led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko issued a statement on Nov. 10 saying that the new general prosecutor has been given the go-ahead to start a “political terror campaign” against critics.
“Viktor Yanukovych has instructed Pshonka to harass the opposition and destroy Batkivshchyna,” the press release says.
“According our information, Pshonka will speed up the activities of his office directed against opposition politicians.”
The statement said recent cases launched against former government employees when Tymoshenko was prime minister makes it obvious that the criminal acts prosecutors allege they committed are contrived and politically motivated.
Since Yanukovych took over as president, half a dozen of former officials who served in Tymoshenko’s government have been arrested. Some have been in jail for nearly a half year without due process. Others are wanted by authorities.
Pshonka has reportedly played a big role in the investigations, signing the arrest warrants for Anatoly Makarenko, former head of the State Customs Service, and Ihor Didenko, former first deputy head of state gas company Naftogaz Ukraine, among others.
They are being charged for approving a bilateral agreement between Tymoshenko and her then-Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which transferred billions of dollars of gas from Swiss-registered RosUkrEnergo to Ukraine’s state company. Tymoshenko has repeatedly challenged the transparency of RosUkrEnergo, which is jointly controlled by Russia’s Gazprom and businessmen close to Yanukovych’s inner circle.
Sticking to party line
Personally introduced in parliament by Yanukovych on Nov. 4, Pshonka breezed through confirmation hearings. Deputies belonging to the pro-presidential parliament majority gave speeches praising him, instead of asking questions. No one asked about Pshonka’s role in the Oleksandrov murder investigation, RosUkrEnergo or his failure of the years to solve any of the big crimes that continue to haunt Ukraine.
A positive spin was put on Pshonka’s past. Speaking at parliament’s podium, he told deputies that the level of crime in Ukraine has dropped over the past five years, as evidenced by a 36 percent drop in serious crimes over the period.
“It is necessary to adopt a new criminal procedural code to ensure the effective functioning of the law-enforcement system,” Pshonka said.
“This is not only Ukraine’s obligation to the European Union, but a requirement for the country’s law-enforcement system to function more effectively.”
He said rooting out corruption in the nation’s court system is a priority and praised the adoption of the new law on the judiciary, which he said would provide a mechanism to hold judges accountable for their unlawful decisions.
The law, adopted in July, has been criticized by legal experts at home and abroad for eroding judicial independence by giving the 20-member High Council of Justice too much authority to discipline judges.
The Venice Commission on Oct. 15 said the inclusion of the chief prosecutor as ex-officio member of the council raises particular concerns, as it may have a deterrence effect in judges and be perceived as a potential threat.
“The prosecutor general is a party to many cases which the judges have to decide, and his presence on a body concerned with the appointment, disciplining and removal of judges creates a risk that judges will not act impartially in such cases or that the prosecutor general will not act impartially towards judges whose decisions he disapproves of,” the council said.
Kyiv Post staff Peter Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.