There is hardly another Central European state with such a long tradition of Ukrainian political emigration as the Czech Republic. It goes back to the interwar Czechoslovakia (1918–1939). At one point, it achieved fame for being a true democracy in the region. Apart from Ukrainians, the Czech Republic has granted asylum to tens of thousands of Russians and Belarusians who fled the Bolsheviks and to some Poles, Austrians, and Hungarians who were forced to leave their semi-dictatorial, authoritarian states. A separate chapter in this story is the support of the anti-Nazi political emigration from Germany, which set up one of the anti-Hitler centers in Prague in the 1930s.
After independent Ukraine was invaded by the Red Army and annexed to totalitarian Bolshevik-ruled Russia and later to the Soviet Union, Prague and the Czech Republic turned into a key destination points in Europe for Ukrainian emigrants. The Czech capital hosted the Ukrainian Free University until the end of the Second World War. (It later moved to Munich.) Thousands of students studied in the Ukrainian Agricultural Academy in Poděbrady or in the Ukrainian Pedagogical Institute in Prague. Transcarpathian Ukraine, which was part of Czechoslovakia between the wars, was the only democratically governed part of contemporary Ukraine, gaining full autonomy in 1938. At the time, many outstanding Ukrainian politicians, most notably Mykhailo Hrushevsky, were in Prague.
After 1990 nearly half a million Ukrainians came to this country. Counting the illegal migrants, they were the biggest national minority there. But it was and remains economic emigration. Most of these people do not intend to stay in the Czech Republic forever and after several months or years of work return with their hard-earned money to Ukraine. The Czech Republic has also become a favorite place for some members of the Ukrainian political and business elites, who bought villas in noted Czech spa resorts, particularly in Karlovy Vary. Leonid Kuchma, for one, is a frequent guest here.
Bohdan Danylyshyn, ex-minister in the former Yulia Tymoshenko government and now a Ukrainian political émigré, has joined the list of these Ukrainians. He spent quite a bit of time there in a pre-trial detention facility — three months since his detention on 18 October. All this while his case was being studied from the viewpoint of the Criminal Code and possible political repressions in Ukraine.
Soon after his detention, sensation-foretasting headlines in Czech newspapers, such as “Headhunters put Ukrainian ex-minister behind bars,” suggested that Ukrainian government and law enforcement agencies were biased. Commentators offered reserved evaluations in view of the strange circumstances in which detention was carried out in the Ukrainian embassy in Prague. He came there from Germany, where he allegedly was undergoing treatment, in order to meet with investigators. Thirty to forty years ago, he would have been sedated, thrown into a car trunk, and taken by KGB agents to Kyiv to appear in a show trial.
However, in our day he was “merely” transferred to the Czech police. “I was handed over to the Czech police despite an agreement that I would be able to return (to Germany) for treatment,” said Mr. Danylyshyn about the event at the embassy’s premises. The Czech police treated him in a courteous and decent manner but could do nothing else than put him in a pre-trial detention center, because the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office had issued an international arrest warrant against him.
Czech sources with knowledge of the situation say that the Danylyshyn case was suspicious to begin with: an allegedly unlawful tender to build a parking facility at Boryspil Airport was a minor thing against the background of the corruption schemes prevailing in Ukraine. His actions could allegedly resulted in 13.9 million hryvnias of damages to the state. “In Ukrainian realities, this is indeed a trifle, something that is almost ‘not worthy’ of a minister’s seat,” said a diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous and who at one time worked in Ukraine. The ex-minister, in his turn, flatly denied the charges. “All accusations were unjustified; I consider them to be politically motivated and invented.”
Despite these doubts, the Czech court and government studied his case in earnest, which was confirmed by a repeated refusal to release him from prison on bail. In this way, Prague wanted to avoid a possible scandal if he decided to disappear during the investigation.
Asylum thanks to Yanukovych
The doubts of the Czech judiciary regarding Mr. Danylyshyn’s guilt were reinforced by President Viktor Yanukovych’s government team. Consider the number of imprisoned top officials from the Tymoshenko government, including ex-Internal Affairs Minister Yurii Lutsenko and ex-Minister of the Environment Heorhii Filipchuk. Add to this the embezzlement charges brought against ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The result is more than a dozen criminal cases and the declared USD2.5 billion in damages (a Khodorkovsky-scale sum, according to diplomats). This selective approach aimed against the top officials of the previous government caused the Czechs to be cautious, even though the incorruptibility of both the current and former officials is an open question.
On his visit to Kyiv, Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy who is, incidentally, of Czech origin, officially warned the Ukrainian government against efforts to intimidate and victimize the opposition. “Democratic state power cannot exist without the independent judiciary,” he said straightforwardly. “I must again draw attention to the need of guaranteeing that criminal law will not be used for political purposes and that the foundations of an honest, fair and independent judicial system will be absolutely preserved,” he added. Answering a direct question whether “selective justice” is used in the cases opened against opposition politicians, Mr. Füle said unequivocally and in an un-Brussels-like fashion: “Yes, I share this opinion.”
The United States voiced a similar opinion shortly prior to his statement, and so the Danylyshyn case got moving. Two days later, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs granted political asylum to the Ukrainian ex-minister, and he was released after three-month detention. This decision was welcomed by Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg: “I completely respect the results of the asylum case. I voice my fears that in this specific case, the asylum seeker would not be given a fair consideration of his case in Ukraine and that persecution could be politically motivated.” He added, however, that he hoped this would not deteriorate Czech relations with Kyiv.
Czech media outlets have reported on the reaction of Ms. Tymoshennko who highly praised the Czech move and did not give much coverage to the protests of the Ukrainian government which claims it will continue to demand extradition.
Noteworthily, this decision and Mr. Schwarzenberg’s reaction did not lead to a single protest, even though the left-wing opposition constantly criticizes the government’s steps. In the discussion forum maintained by the Ukrainian Office of Radio Liberty, which is located in Prague, the local Ukrainian community is dominated by voices supporting “Czech democracy” and Prague’s ability to correctly read the situation in Ukraine.
In the times of Leonid Kuchma, several Ukrainians received political asylum. Listed below are the most conspicuous cases
On 20 January 2001, he left Ukraine for Great Britain where he was granted political asylum. Mr. Ivasiuk linked pressure on him to the Gongadze case: as a medical expert at the time, he disagreed with the published results of a Russian expertise of the Tarashcha corpse. The SBU said that in early January 2011 that Mr. Ivasiuk was invited to meet with investigators not as an expert in the case of the murdered journalist but as the director of a national anti-AIDS committee which he headed in 1994–1998. He was to offer explanations regarding assets worth over USD3 million. According to the Control and Audit Directorate of the Ukrainian Finance Ministry, the committee received this sum and never used it.
The co-author of Kuchmagate in April 2001 received political asylum in the USA. Under the Orange government, he returned to Ukraine.
The widow of Georgiy Gongadze and her two daughters were granted political asylum in the USA in May 2001. She is now working as a correspondent for Voice of America in Washington, D.C.
In the fall of 2002, the one-time MP received political asylum in the USA following an attempt on his life in Ukraine. He says that the physical attack took place after the commission he headed established that President Kuchma “had not been elected in a democratic way.” He further says that the attack was ordered by Mr. Kuchma himself and that Mr. Melnychenko’s recordings confirm it. He now lives in the USA.
Mr. Danylov, CEO of Taki Spravy, a Lithuanian privately owned enterprise, was granted political asylum in Lithuania on 13 May 2003. The case of the company he managed was mentioned in the U.S. Department of State annual report in 2002 as an example of violating democratic rights. During the parliamentary election campaign in 2002, his company printed a book about Ms. Tymoshenko, Nevykonane zamovlennia (Failed Order), which was intended to promote her as a politician. Several days after the printed copies were handed over to the client, the company faced problems with the tax police. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc accused the State Tax Administration (DPAU) of putting political pressure on the company. In response, the DPAU press service published an official statement that rejected this and claimed that this agency found that “a network of fictitious, money-laundering companies had spread all over Ukraine.” Mr. Danylov’s publishing and printing company is one of Ukraine’s biggest businesses in this sector. For a period of time it made donations to the People’s Movement of Ukraine and published materials promoting Ukraine’s independence.
Mr. Sholokh was the owner of Radio Continent (now closed) and received political asylum in the USA in the spring of 2004. Radio Continent was located in Kyiv and broadcast leading Western radio stations, such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Polskie Radio, VOA, and Radio Liberty. According to Mr. Sholokh, he received threats from people closely linked to the SDPU(o) party: “They told me it was curtains for me if I aired Radio Liberty broadcasts.” Earlier, he added, they suggested that he broadcast a version of the Gongadze murder that denied Mr. Kuchma’s involvement. Mr. Sholokh has returned to Ukraine.