The Danish government is granting political asylum to former Defence Minister Valeriy Ivashchenko. In an exclusive interview for The Ukrainian Week, Mr. Ivashchenko talks about renewed pressure from Ukrainian prosecution and fear for his family as his motivation for leaving Ukraine
Valeriy Ivashchenko’s asylum status follows the UNHCR Refugee Convention. The Danish Foreign Ministry has restricted its comments in the case to a laconic confirmation. Denmark however is notorious for long waiting times for asylum seekers sometimes putting their lives on hold for years. The speed of which Ivashchenko’s application was processed therefore suggest that it was a clear cut case for the Immigration Authority in Denmark. Thus the decision cannot but be perceived as a clear sign of mistrust of the official Ukrainian line that there is no politics in the trials against officials from the former Tymoshenko Cabinet. Asylum for Ivashchenko is yet another blow for Ukraine’s reputation and comes at a time when EU leaders have issued a string of statements that Ukraine needs to end its arbitrary and selective misuse of the justice system and other state institutions.
The EU links the progress on the FTA and Association Agreements with Ukraine to the latter’s progress in implementing the reforms to which it has committed – and that progress is barely visible. Many in Ukraine see this as too little, too late. This view, however, does not take into account the fact that the EU’s tactics represent an unprecedented interconnection of criteria and sanctions, essentially sending the following message to Ukrainian decision-makers and industrialists: “Forget about selling more of your steel pipes to us unless you stop ruling the law and accept the rule of law instead.” This asymmetric response shows crystal clear that the EU is well aware that the trials against former officials are merely the tip of the iceberg, and Western investors might also suffer from the jungle law environment in Ukraine.
In his interview with The Ukrainian Week Ivashchenko suggests that statements by Western and EU leaders and members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) resolutions have carried weight in granting him asylum. In particular, PACE Resolution 1862 adopted in early 2012 points out that the conduct of his particular trial was unfair but also labels “unacceptable” its very foundation, namely the parts of the Criminal Code of Ukraine used against Ivashchenko, Tymoshenko and others for being broad enough to allow for the post factum criminalization of what is considered normal decision-making by state officials.
Born in Zaporizhia, Valeriy Ivashchenko had a military career testing Soviet ICBMs. He was an officer in the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union and later in independent Ukraine. In contrast to Tymoshenko or Lutsenko, Ivashchenko was never a politician. Even working as a Cabinet Minister he was mostly preoccupied with managing the Ukrainian military: developing weaponry and military technology, reforming the command structure, fighting corruption and developing international cooperation.
But two years of a show trial has turned Ivashchenko strikingly political: “I love, respect and value my Fatherland and my fellow countrymen. But I hate the scoundrels who run the state now. They are hostile to Ukraine and view people as slaves, as servants who ought to fear them. It is a mafia state.”
Ivashchenko calls upon people in Ukraine to “help each other to stand up! Fight back against bandit behaviour of the authorities together”. He paraphrases a famous quote from the German anti-Nazist Martin Niemöller: “When they came for the Jews, I didn’t react because I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for the Communists I also thought, well – they are not coming after me. When they came for the Social Democrats I again thought it none of my business. But when they came and took me, there was nobody left to defend me! This is what Ukrainians need to understand!”
Ivashchenko not only calls on Ukrainians to unite, but refutes the argument of Ukraine’s situation as an excuse of the last resort: “The world has seen this kind of problem before – in different forms. The almost unrestrained power of the prosecutors and SBU (Special Services of Ukraine – Ed.) in Ukraine increasingly recalls the modus operation of Securitate in Romania under Ceausescu. Unfortunately Ukrainians are less politically active than Romanians,” Ivashchenko says slamming the shortsightedness, widespread atomization, the Ukrainians' avoidance of political involvement, and the “my house is far away” type of thinking: “I have learned the hard way that if you don’t deal with politics, then politics will ultimately “deal” with you! There is no hiding. The problem is that civil society is underdeveloped in Ukraine. We have numerous civic organizations; each might be important in their own field – but they hardly influence society. We need big and broad public movements! Individually, one by one, you are easy meat, they will break you,” Ivashchenko says, “We need to learn from developed countries; every single citizen has to feel that he can influence the life of his country, influence political decision making. That is what European values mean to me.”
Should Europe do more to help Ukraine? “You can only help somebody who is actually trying to achieve something. How can you help a person lying on a sofa? You can only lie next to him, to make him feel better about his own lying there!” he replies.
Despite not being a public figure, Ivashchenko was one of the first former officials to be detained in a wave of arrests after Yanukovych became president in 2010.
“First the prosecutors asked me for compromising testimony against Tymoshenko and Turchynov. I was to state that they had given me illegal orders. But they didn’t, so I couldn’t. I am a man of honour.”
The prosecutors were not happy that Ivashchenko refused to help them nail his former bosses. And so they went after him, apparently helped along by a revenge-driven former deputy minister of defence, Ihor Montrezor, whom Ivashchenko kicked out of the Defence Ministry for being “a person fixing dirty corrupt deals in the upper echelons of power.” Montrezor showed his “gratitude” by making accusations of corruption against Ivashchenko to the new president Yanukovych and his timing proved spot on.
Ivashchenko was taken into custody in August 2010 and eventually spent almost two years of his five-year sentence in jail, convicted of alleged wrongdoing by giving the formal go ahead for restructuring a Defence Ministry-owned ship repair plant in Crimea. In August 2012, the Court of Appeal softened the sentence to suspended, and he was released.
Ivashchenko makes a humble but dignified impression even in his temporary home in a refugee centre on the outskirts of Copenhagen: “Throughout my career I stood out and was considered a black sheep, because I never took bribes. There were only a few of us like that at the top of the Ukrainian military. I was offered money several times, but I told those people to forget about it and to get lost.”
Sick and tired after two years of imprisonment, a show trial and serious illnesses including spinal problems that went untreated during jail time and are still unhealed, Ivashchenko is in no mood to discuss the core of the accusations against him: “That factory was really a minor issue. However, if you read the documents of the trial, one gets the impression that that was all I did — conspire to sell off that factory. On the contrary, in 2009 I had a full-scale military to run!”
To confirm this, Ivashchenko shows pictures on a small laptop computer: “Look, this is our military cargo aircraft landing at the Danish Station Nord.” Ivashchenko is seemingly proud of his deeds for his country and – talking to a Dane – proud of his role in Ukrainian assistance to the Danish Air Force, providing airlift capacity to a remote base in North Eastern Greenland. The operation began in 2009 and the contrast from bright, sunny, snowy Greenland to Kyiv’s dirty and dark detention centre just a year later could have cracked any man.
Ivashchenko, however, is not a broken man: “My military training helped me survive the horrors of Ukrainian prisons.” After his release he even managed to restore his health almost too full strength and throw aside the cane he needed during his time in jail.
Ivashchenko claims that he went after several corrupt high ranking officials as minister. Maybe this was why he had to serve two years in jail and flee his country? But shouldn’t he had stayed and fought back? “I had to consider the safety and well being of my family,” he explains. Ivashchenko did have one option left – to play ball with the prosecutors: “After my release they offered me a deal – drop the cassation to the Supreme Court and we won’t touch you. I rejected that.” Accepting the deal meant consenting to the verdict. Even so, the prosecutors could have held the sword of Damocles of releasing the full sentence in jail over him, if Ivashchenko did not behave as they wished – making accusations for political ends.
Ivashchenko’s rejecting the game meant that he was out of options. “They went after me again, wanting to put me again bars; the case is due in March. Now I can talk freely and as such I am more useful to my country. I'd like to return to Ukraine, but for the moment I can’t. It is ruled by a few who act as if they had inherited rights to the country and its wealth.”
After his encounter with the prosecutor-dominated justice in Ukraine, Ivashchenko says is it rather naive to think that the General Prosecutor’s Office can be reformed. The GPO is a state within the state crudely misusing its extensive authorities to watch the operation of other government bodies and even private contracts. “I am not saying it was any good as a Soviet institution. But now the GPO is even freed of Soviet Party control, the checks and balances exercised at that time. Prosecutors in Ukraine are even proud that they have managed to keep their institution intact since the Soviet Union!” Ivashchenko shakes his head in utter disbelieve, bitterly stressing that, even in its Soviet design, this key institution was not meant to operate without any outside oversight.
About the author: Based in Kyiv, the Danish National Johannes Wamberg Andersen has been an observer of politics and state building in Ukraine since the days of Leonid Kuchma
ESCAPING THE REGIME
Despite official rejection of political persecution, Ukrainian opposition politicians, activists and business owners are fleeing abroad to escape persecution at the hands of government.
Viktor Romaniuk A United Opposition’s candidate in the parliamentary election, Viktor Romaniuk is the main rival of the pro-government Tetiana Zasukha in district No94 where re-election is supposed to take place. He was forced to leave Ukraine under pressure.
Arkadia Kornatsky Batkivshchyna’s candidate in first-past-the-post district No132 in Mykolayiv Oblast — one of the re-elction districts — left Ukraine on October 1 until the election campaign ends. Kornatsky’s lawyers learned about his scheduled arrest after he had received two interrogation notifications from the Kyiv Oblast Prosecutor and Pervomaisk County Unit of the Interior Ministry in Mykolayiv Oblast.
Andriy Shkil did not get into the parliament under the Batkivshchyna party list and lost his MP immunity. In December 2012, he said he was in the Czech Republic and would probably ask for political asylum there. Shkil said political persecution against him never stopped, and the case for the Ukraine Without Kuchma campaign of March 9, 2001, was still open. Also, Shkil confirmed that some of his property in Kyiv was seized.
Bohdan Danylyshyn The ex-minister of economy was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in January 2011. The charges against him were based on a crime qualified as “abuse of power or office” in the Criminal Code linked to public procurements. The Prague court deemed Ukrainian justice politically motivated, meaning Czech officials believe he cannot expect fair trial in his country. Danylyshyn currently lives in Prague and is involved in lecturing, academic work and civil activities.
Oleksandr Tymoshenko is the husband of ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko who was sentenced to seven years in jail. He applied for and was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in January 2012. According to Batkivshchyna, this comes from pressure exerted on Yulia Tymoshenko's family members.
Mykhailo Pozhyvanov The former a deputy minister of economy was put on a wanted list by the Prosecutor General on January 31, 2011; he was accused of stealing nearly UAH 35bn from the budget. He left Ukraine for Austria where he currently lives and works.
Denys Oleynikov After persecution for making T-shirts with the anti-president “Thank you, people of Donbas…” slogan and accusations of using the Euro 2012 logo unlawfully, the owner of the ProstoPrint company that made the T-shirts, Denys Oleynikov, and his family were granted political asylum in Croatia in early December 2012.