They came to get him on Sunday, 26 December 2010, and used the procedure which involves the Alpha special unit of the SBU and is normally reserved for a dangerous armed criminals. The next day the court issued an arrest warrant. The reason cited was that he was taking too much time to read the materials of the criminal case opened against him and had been giving interviews. Mr. Lutsenko is Ukraine’s first ever minister of internal affairs, albeit a former one, to find himself behind bars. He could have been preceded by Yurii Kravchenko, who is still suspected of having ordered the killing of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, but the general committed suicide. Mr. Lutsenko has been charged with abuse of power and office and illegal appropriation of public funds. Top government officials deny that there are the political motives behind this case, but it comes through more than obviously.
He read too slowly
Mr. Lutsenko has been accused of abuse of office and appropriating public funds (over 238,000 hryvnias) while acting in concert with his driver Leonid Prystupliuk. The duo allegedly caused material damage to the state to the tune of more than 130,000 hryvnias. The court decision warranting Mr. Lutsenko’s arrest says that he was “accused of violating Article 135 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine. He has evaded acquaintance with the materials of the case at the time appointed by the investigator of which he gave a written confirmation. On 14, 16, 17 and 20 December 2010, he failed to appear [in the investigator’s office] citing his attorney’s involvement in a different criminal case. While acquainting himself with the materials of the case, he has purposefully drawn out this process. […] He has disclosed via the mass media information gathered by pre-trial investigation in a criminal case.”
Despite the seeming absurdity of such accusations, from a legal viewpoint they constitute sufficient grounds to keep the person under investigation in custody. The secrecy of investigation is protected by law, and evasion of investigation is a crime. The question is whether Mr. Lutsenko indeed obstructed justice. It is not clear which secret it was that the ex-minister of internal affairs divulged as he made comments in interviews to the press. It is unlikely that the publication of the charge brought against him or his personal opinion about the case and the human qualities of the investigator could have impeded justice. It is also unclear whether Mr. Lutsenko indeed had the opportunity to read the materials of the case with the speed desired by the Prosecutor General’s Office.
This way or another, it is highly unlikely that by putting the ex-minister in the infamous Lukianivske Pre-Trial Detention Center the Prosecutor General’s Office will eliminate the alleged obstacles imputed to the accused. While behind bars, Mr. Lutsenko can continue to read the volumes of his case one page a day (unless the investigator reads them out loud to him), while the secrets of the investigation contained therein can be tipped to the media with reference to anonymous sources. The only rational reason why Mr. Lutsenko had to be placed in custody was his possible exit from the country. However, the court does not say a word about this in its decision.
The colleagues of the ex-minister say that he had opportunities to flee abroad. MP Hennadii Moskal, former subordinate of Mr. Lutsenko, said that one European country was prepared to offer him political asylum. Mr. Lutsenko refused. Was he thinking that the government would not throw him behind bars, or was he morally prepared for the role of an inmate?
Mr. Lutsenko is the seventh member of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Cabinet of Ministers who was put behind bars.
Ostentatious arrests of high-ranking representatives that worked only in the previous government coupled with charges brought against ex-Prime Minister Tymoshenko (see The Ukrainian Week, Is. 52, 2010) suggest a premeditated campaign to eliminate the opposition in its current form. “It seems to me that this blow (criminal cases against Ms. Tymoshenko and her colleagues. — Ed.) is targeting not so much Ms. Tymoshenko herself — she is used to things like that — as her environment,” says political scientist Kost Bondarenko. “This attack is aimed at further dispersing the BYuT ranks. They have nothing close to the unity they had a year ago. Even on an everyday level, there is revisionist talk with increasing discontent with the one-leader principle prevalent in the party.”
While Mr. Lutsenko held the office of the Minister of Internal Affairs, he was directly involved in what the current top officials called “Orange repressions.” In the framework of a case of extortion opened by the police in 2005 and never completed, Borys Kolesnikov, who is now a vice prime minister, spent several months in a pre-trial detention center. Yevhen Kushnariov, late ex-governor of Kharkiv oblast, found himself behind bars. A special police task unit stormed billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s residence in Donetsk using an armored personnel carrier.
“I am sure that the main reason for this arrest is revenge,” says political expert Volodymyr Fesenko. “Subjective factors, such as personal conflicts, now play the same (or even a bigger) role in the steps taken by the government as some kind of careful calculation. Considering Mr. Lutsenko’s proclivity for caustic comments, there are quite a few people who now wield power and who would want to pay him back in full. Moreover, Mr. Lutsenko is an example to be shown to others. Even the style of his arrest and the arrest of, say, (ex-Minister of Justice) Korniichuk is tellingly humiliating — he was detained right before the New Year’s Eve. Add to this the fact that the criminal case against Mr. Lutsenko was opened a day before his birthday.”
In contrast, Viktor Nebozhenko, director of the Ukrainian Barometer sociological service, does not perceive revenge as the key factor in Mr. Lutsenko’s arrest. “The Party of Regions is now intent on tearing apart the entire Orange political elite that rose to power in 2004,” he says. “Those who will put up stubborn resistance will be thrown behind bars, while others will be forced to abandon the ideals of the Maidan and will be turned into traitors. This is very important to them. Now everyone is waiting for Viktor Yushchenko’s reaction to the arrests of the Maidan’s ‘field commanders’: Will he go on a vacation to Courchevel or voice a protest? The Party of Regions is interested in showing that Mr. Yushchenko is with them, thereby making him even more impotent.”
The experts who have talked to The Ukrainian Week doubt that Mr. Lutsenko’s arrest is an attempt to eliminate him as a dangerous political opponent. “The popularity of this politician is in the past,” says Mr. Fesenko. “His oratory skills have nothing to do with it, because in order to rally a crowd, you have to have its trust. His organizational skills are largely mythical, because after he parted ways with David Zhvania, his People’s Self-Defense totally collapsed as a political structure and parliamentary faction.”
At the same time, some experts point out that the reprisals against Mr. Lutsenko are, cynical as it may seem, advantageous to the opposition. Political scientist Valerii Zaitsev says that the politician’s colleagues have purposefully set him up and “literally set the authorities on him.” “Some decided, perhaps justly so, that Mr. Lutsenko’s energetic activity hasn’t produced any tangible results for quite a while now, while his bright image of a martyr suffering in prison is a more ‘usable’ object to be employed in electioneering for the purposes of manipulating people’s political preferences,” says Mr. Zaitsev. “This is not to mention that an ‘image’, unlike a real politician, tends to get in the way of others much less frequently and does not claim its own share of influence and funds.”
Mr. Fesenko adds that despite the still fairly strong support the government and the Party of Regions enjoy, the government is “afraid of both Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Lutsenko on the subconscious, irrational level, even despite their plummeting popularity, just like it is afraid of a new Maidan.”
Mr. Nebozhenko concludes: “The main goal of the Party of Regions is to build an effective repressive machine. At the moment, the blows are being delivered in a chaotic fashion. [The government] needs its own Vyshynskys, Berias and Yezhovs, but they are out not there yet. Not everyone will agree to this kind of role even in contemporary Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian Week talks with one-time speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, acting president, and secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, about shifts in the nature of the war and informational security, and the rise of conservative trends in modern politics