Andriy Portnov. Photo: liga.net
After President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in disgrace, many of his cronies did the same. Those who stayed took to the shadows. However, years have passed since Maidan, and some of the old guard started peeking out from the dark corners and began cooperating with those now in power.
More connections to the pre-Maidan government had started to surface after the 2019 elections, even more of Yanukovych’s old allies started to reappear, and with renewed confidence. Their influence is gradually seeping into the power holds of the new government.
A central figure of the old guard is Andriy Portnov, ex-deputy head of the Yanukovych Presidential Administration.
Many blame ex-President Petro Poroshenko for the ascension of these old Yanukovych allies, since he failed to fully reform Ukraine’s judicial institutions. Had he, these detractors of democracy would never be able to return freely.
Others blame new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for an apparent open-door policy. The Euromaidan opponents — including Portnov — started to filter back into the country immediately following Zelenskyy’s big election win. Either way, the implication is clear – they are not cowed by a limp judiciary and certainly not threatened by the new president.
Society’s concerns with Portnov’s return have grounds, but legally there is no proof of his wrongdoings so far.
Portnov after Euromaidan
Before Euromaidan, Portnov used to work in the Yanukovych government. He was deputy head of Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, a member of the Council of the National Bank of Ukraine and, in earlier years, the main lawyer in Yuliya Tymoshenko’s team, and used to be elected to the Parliament within her party twice.
In 2011, he made a pretense of heading the development of the new Criminal Code of Ukraine. Compared to the Soviet version, this was a step forward. However, it created new problems which, in the end, obstructed progress in reforming legislation.
After Euromaidan, Portnov was wanted by the Prosecutor General’s Office for his suspected involvement in the mass killings of Maidan activists in 2014. However, he managed to wiggle out of his charges, when he later won proceedings against the Prosecutor General Office. The Kyiv Pecherskyi District Court partially upheld Portnov’s claim for the protection of his honor, dignity, and business reputation. The court ruled that the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office were illegal and that the charges regarding Portnov’s involvement in the Maidan crimes had no real basis.
In 2014, Portnov was added to the EU sanction list, but in 2015, the EU court in Luxembourg lifted the sanctions. The Pechersk District Court of Kyiv had to halt his investigation.
In 2018, the information appeared that the Main Crimean Directorate of Ukraine’s Security Service started investigating the case against Portnov on the charge of high treason. Portnov proclaimed he would sue the Security Service for their accusations. Last March, the court found the information false.
Civil society accused Portnov of being the initiator of the development of Yanukovych’s “dictatorship laws” adopted by Ukraine’s Parliament during the Revolution of Dignity. The laws significantly restricted Ukrainians’ constitutional rights and violated parliamentary procedure. Although Portnov denies the assertions.
After the return
Portnov returned to Ukraine the day before Zelenskyy’s inauguration.
“Friends, I haven’t been to my country for more than five years. I want to give a confident signal to thousands of people who left Ukraine – it is time to come back, to build, and to restore,” he wrote in his Telegram channel.
Immediately upon returning, Portnov applied to the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR) – the newly-created institution dedicated to investigating crimes committed by top officials, law enforcers, military officers, and judges to investigate a number of allegations against former President Poroshenko. Poroshenko’s inner circle called it Portnov’s personal revenge.
“The fact that Portnov’s threats are not just empty phrases is proved by his high professionalism, unconditionally recognized by friends and enemies, and the rare systematic nature that his enemies don’t have,” Leonid Shvets, journalist, wrote.
Shvets goes on to say that then-President Poroshenko, to some degree, continued to take part in Portnov’s system, even when Portnov was abroad.
“The system fell into the hands of the legislators themselves, shirking process. It was so convenient that for the first five years in Poroshenko’s majority government, still real at that time, no one bothered to abandon it. Then, an independent authoritative court, together with a qualified prosecutor’s office – free of corruption – would have come in handy. Also, the famous Portnov’s Criminal Code could have been amended 100 times, but at that time no one needed it.”
Soon after the return, Portnov started to become more public. On 19 June, society learned that the director of the National Taras Shevchenko University – one of the most prestigious universities in Ukraine – had reappointed Portnov as a professor at the Department of Constitutional Law, within the Faculty of Law. His appointment was to be effective on 1 September. However, a day after the news of his appointment, hundreds of students took part in a protest at the university, demanding cancelation of his reinstatement. They carried posters, reading “Portnov, it’s time [to move] to Rostov [Rostov-on-Don],” “Today Portnov, tomorrow Yanukovych,” and others. The university president soon appeared before the protesters, and apologizing for the reappointment, promised to dismiss Portnov.
Another cause for concern occurred a few months after Portnov’s return when he became embroiled in a media scandal. He had released the personal information of the driver of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty program Schemy. The program had investigated Portnov’s activities. Finding out about it, he had leaked the employee’s passport, home address, and automobile license.
Lawyers stated that releasing the information violates a number of articles in the Criminal Code that are intended to ensure the protection of personal data. Answering this, Portnov was saying that he was going to release Schemy journalists’ private information, allowing access to their private life and the possibility of crime against them.
The influence on the State Bureau of Investigations
Notwithstanding all of the above, the greatest concern arising from Portnov’s return is his potential influence on the DBR – there have been several signs.
In early September, ex-MP Tetyana Chornovol revealed that the head of the DBR Roman Truba had refused to submit her application to the Unified Register of Pre-Trial Investigation, regarding Portnov’s crimes. She pointed out that according to the Criminal Code, a refusal to accept and register an application or report of a criminal offense is not allowed. Meanwhile, when Portnov had applied with a similar application, on an earlier occasion, Truba did not reject his submission.
“For the DBR, Portnov is an applicant who applied with the corresponding applications and after doing so, he gained the status of a witness. For us, for me, as for the head of a law enforcement institution, all participants are equal. Anyone who has a desire can apply for that or any other violations. Correspondingly, the DBR as a law enforcement body will react to the violations,” Truba stated.
On 25 October, Chornovol revealed that the DBR had indeed launched a pre-trial investigation against Portnov, as well as against the head of President’s Zelenskyy’s office, Andriy Bohdan, as per her request. The inquiry is related to an attempt to embezzle more than UAH 3 bn ($125,034) of the state budget. The DBR refused, however, to accept any corollary information.
A few days later, Chornovol revealed that the DBR initiated two more investigations against Portnov. She had received letters of confirmation. One of the investigations was related to the creation of the criminal organization on usurping power,
“It is regarding financing and other services (in particular, the “loyalty” of judges) provided by Portnov to Zelenskyy during the election campaign, in order to appoint his people to key government positions, in particular – the appointment of Andriy Bohdan to the Presidential Office.”
The second investigation was related to the abuse of power during the Yanukovych regime, including pressure exerted on the courts. Chornovol, again, wondered whether the SBI would deny opening a case against Portnov. On 11 November, she was able to confirm that the DBR was initiating another pre-trial investigation of Portnov.
Despite the above, no less than 13 criminal proceedings – not yet resolved – allege involvement by Poroshenko. Not surprisingly, the majority of them have been filed at Portnov’s request.
Apart from starting proceedings against the previous president, Portnov also has his fingers in the trials against protesters who participated in the Revolution of Dignity. He has applied to Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka to investigate protestors for allegedly organizing the killings of law enforcers.
“Until now in the Prosecutor’s Office, there is a criminal organization working which had an aim to rehabilitate the persons involved in the execution of the police employees and provocations of the killings of the Maidan participants, stealing of weapons, seizures of military units and government agencies,” Portnov wrote.
He also questioned the need for court hearings to take place at all against Berkut officers – a special unit of the police that had inflicted extreme and unnecessary force in disbanding Euromaidan protesters.
More concerns were raised about Portnov’s involvement when cases about the killing of protesters at Maidan should have been transferred to the DBR from the Prosecutor General’s Office.
All probes into the crimes committed during the Revolution of Dignity were consolidated into one single case of Maidan. There are 89 criminal proceedings and they include the murders of 91 people – 78 protesters and 13 law enforcers.
As a result of the Prosecutor General’s Office losing the investigative function, the investigations into the Maidan killings have de facto been stopped. The situation could have been remedied had Parliament voted for an amendment allowing prosecutors to start working within the new department of DBR on the Maidan cases and renew the investigation. Despite public pressure, Parliament did not make time to vote for the amendment as of now.
Euheniya Zakrevska, lawyer for the families of the Heavenly Hundred, has since announced a hunger strike. She has vowed to maintain the strike until Parliament votes on the necessary amendments that would allow investigators from the Prosecutor’s General Office to continue working with the DBR. Zakrevska started her protest on 21 November. She has spoken publicly about Portnov’s suspected influence on the Maidan cases,
“Portnov openly states that he considers the events of the Revolution of Dignity as a state cope. He says that all the Maidan protesters should be brought to justice and Berkut officers should be released.”
She has raised the alarm on other threats Portnov may be holding over the DBR that could add to his influence over them.
“Portnov commented a lot on the case of the [Ukrainian] sailors captured in the Kerch Strait. We already have the cases in which the sailors are considered as victims and in which the evidence of the Russian aggression is being collected. However, the DBR opened its own case where everything is upside down. In the case of the DBR, the position of the investigation closely echoes the position of the Russian Federal Security Service [FSB]. With it, very important information related to state security is collected within the case. Nevertheless, it becomes disclosed anyway. And to Portnov as well.”
Zakrevska also noted that Portnov receives the information on the cases he is interested in earlier than the official statements of the DBR actually appear.
Edited by Vidan Clube
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