Petro Poroshenko presents paintings from his collection that he purchased abroad and brought to Ukraine. A raid of law enforcers on the exhibition was the latest incident of political repressions against Ukraine's former president. Photo: Kp.Ua
President Zelenskyy’s statement ”Different adventures and verdicts are coming for [former President] Poroshenko” at his press conference turned out to be prophetic. One week later, Ukrainian law enforcement broke into a Kyiv museum where Petro Poroshenko exhibited a private collection of paintings. The State Bureau of Investigations (DBR, Derzhavne Buro Rozsliduvan) explained that they are checking if Poroshenko paid customs when importing the paintings into Ukraine. This is the 16th criminal case launched against Petro Poroshenko in the year after his presidential term ended, which Ukrainian and international critics denounce as political persecution. Will Zelenskyy be able to “lock him up”? Here is what to expect.
A scandalous exhibition
On 26 May, the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR, Derzhavne Buro Rozsliduvan) accused former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko of illegally smuggling a collection of 43 paintings and not paying customs and called him in for interrogation. Poroshenko failed to show up, citing a lack of proper notification. Instead, he opened a public exhibition of his private collection of allegedly smuggled paintings, providing an original customs declaration for each painting in an attempt to demonstrate the absurdity of the DBR claims. The collection is worth $4.5 million and includes paintings by Russian, Ukrainian, and Ukraine-related painters such as Ilya Glazunov, Ilya Repin, Kazymyr Malevich, Ivan Aivazovsky and others.
The DBR came to the exhibition as well: they broke into the museum, expropriated all of the customs declarations, and blocked entry to the museum, including for the museum’s director, over several hours.
The law enforcers also claimed that the paintings were purchased for UAH 180 million ($6 million) by Poroshenko from a related offshore company Vernon Holding Ltd. Poroshenko allegedly wanted to withdraw capital abroad. There is no data regarding Poroshenko’s innocence or guilt in this case. He said he wanted to save these paintings for Ukraine and now is happy to present them to the public. But what is certainly clear is that the actions of the DBR in the museum on 26 May are an abuse of power and conducted without a search warrant in violation of procedures.
In a statement, the DBR defended itself: “The museum administration and other persons obstructed the investigation,” says the DBR statement. “A special unit was involved. No physical measures were taken during the performance of the special unit’s duties.”
The Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council of Museums released a statement condemning the actions of the DBR, emphasizing that the last time law enforcers forcefully entered a museum was in 2014 during Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidency:
The State Bureau of Investigation used force to break into the museum’s exhibition space – broke down the door, pushed out the director, Petro Honchar, and blocked the entrance… Police limited themselves to monitoring and accepting statements from the museum’s director and others. ICOM Ukraine does not consider it possible to assess the content of criminal proceedings and the actions of its participants, this is the competence of law enforcement agencies. At the same time, such actions by DBR staff undermine the rule of law and undermine public confidence.
“Lock them up” as a political ideology
Zelenskyy commented on the cases during his last press conference on May 20:
“As for Mr. Poroshenko’s sentence, I am sure that all this is still ahead… I think they ruled the country in a manner that a lot of different adventures and verdicts are coming for them. I don’t want to talk about it, because it’s not my authority, and the verdicts are [the responsibility of] the court.”
Now, why was this slogan so popular? Poroshenko’s negative image was created with the heavy participation of Russian or pro-Russian media, mostly by exaggeration of small events, or making Poroshenko the scapegoat for all things gone wrong, even those outside his responsibilities. Although some accusations may be reasonable, the main one — “a thief profiting from war” is groundless. The overall impression was exacerbated by the general post-Soviet perception of wealthy people as thieves.
- Read also: Why Poroshenko lost
A character from the Ancien régime at work
Most of the cases were lodged by the former deputy head of Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, Andriy Portnov. Portnov fled Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, together with Yanukovych. In 2019, Portnov returned to Ukraine the day before Zelenskyy’s inauguration. There was only one criminal case against Portnov; it was closed in 2016 and enabled him to come back as a free man. Immediately upon returning, Portnov lodged an action with the DBR to open a number of criminal cases against Poroshenko. Poroshenko’s inner circle called this Portnov’s personal revenge.
Ilya Novikov, who had previously defended Ukrainian political prisoners imprisoned in Russia, told about the DBR’s unusual special treatment of these cases and informal collaboration with Portnov. For example, Portnov knows all the dates of Poroshenko’s planned interrogations before Poroshenko himself, and before this information is published. Also, DBR is working on the 13 cases lodged by Portnov unusually rapidly, while other applicants with only one application may sometimes wait months before the investigation begins due to a lack of institutional capacity.
As well, the DBR Head Roman Truba has openly called these legal proceedings “cases against Poroshenko.” Novikov says that this “gives away how [Truba] and his colleagues perceive these proceedings,” despite no legal basis to give them such a title – Poroshenko does not figure in them as a suspect, only as a witness.
16 cases against Poroshenko: from tax evasion to seizure of power
It would be too long to explain each of the 16 cases. Here are just a few examples of the most resonant ones:
- In November 2018, three Ukrainian warships attempted to pass from Odesa to Mariupol. Within the Kerch Strait, the ships were seized by Russian border guards, who accused the Ukrainians of trying to cross “the state border” of the illegally annexed Crimea Peninsula. 24 members of the ship’s crew were detained by Russian border guards and released only a year later during the prisoner exchange agreed between Russia and Ukraine. However, Poroshenko is accused of intentionally sending ships there to provoke Russian aggression in order to impose martial law and attain more power. Poroshenko claimed that the ships were operating in a routine and ordinary operation.
- Once Zelenskyy’s team transitioned into the presidential office in 2019, they found that some computers were missing.The claim was that Poroshenko had stolen them along with valuable secret information. Poroshenko claims he had been renting these computers from the beginning of his presidency and just returned them to the owner.
- In November 2016, former Georgian president Michael Saakashvili, who worked as governor of Odesa region, was fired by Poroshenko. Saakashvili founded his own New Forces Movement party and organized several “marches for the impeachment” of Poroshenko. In July 2017, Petro Poroshenko deprived Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship while he was abroad to prevent Saakashvili from returning. The DBR was investigating the “Illegal detention of Saakashvili and his illegal deportation outside Ukraine.” However, the Supreme Court of Ukraine has already ruled in favor of Poroshenko, claiming the decision was legal.
- Shortly after losing the presidential election, in one of his final acts before Volodymyr Zelensky took office, Petro Poroshenko appointed two members to the High Council of Justice – the body that observes and appoints judges in Ukraine. In order to make these appointments before leaving the presidency, Poroshenko issued a decree changing the appointment procedure for these positions. Andriy Portnov claims that it was an abuse of power.
- On 19 May 2020, Ukrainian MP Andriy Derkach released audio recordings of a conversation between former President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, Joe Biden, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016. Among other topics, they discuss the resignation of Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin (2015-2016). At the time, his office was investigating Burisma’s activities in Ukraine, where Biden’s son Hunter Biden worked. The current Prosecutor General’s Office has launched a pre-trial investigation into possible interference in the work of former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Both Joe Biden and Petro Poroshenko claim the recordings are “completely edited.”
- The DBR is also currently investigating possible tax evasion during the purchase and sale of TV Channel Priamyi. The channel was purchased by MP Volodymyr Makeienko. The investigation claims Makeienko couldn’t have enough money to conduct this purchase and connects Petro Poroshenko with this channel. Both the management of the TV channel and Poroshenko himself deny this.
- In January 2018, Poroshenko flew to the Maldives with his family for a vacation. While this seems to be Poroshenko’s only vacation during his presidency, it provoked heated discussions in Ukrainian society on whether it’s permissible for the president of a country at war to take such an expensive vacation, even having enough money, and whether it’s OK to go in secret. DBR claims Poroshenko crossed the state border using forged documents to conceal his vacation from the public.
Zelenskyy’s “confession of political motives” for Poroshenko’s ongoing persecution
Most of the cases don’t have any prospects, says Poroshenko’s lawyer. Former Prosecutor General (2019-2020) Ruslan Riaboshapka concurred, saying they were both severely unprofessional and ungrounded, containing no evidence to support the crimes in which the fifth president was suspected.
He remarked, however, that the cases about purported economic crimes may have “better prospects,” if supported by “serious convincing evidence.”
Riaboshapka was dismissed from office on 5 March. The move came as a surprise, given that this Prosecutor General was viewed as loyal to Zelenskyy, who had earlier referred to Riaboshapka as “100% my man” in a telephone conversation with US President Trump.
But on voting day in the Ukrainian parliament, Riaboshapka was suddenly seen as ineffective, despite being in office only for half a year. Opponents claimed that Riaboshapka was dismissed for political reasons. Specifically, that he refused to authorize a notice of suspicion against former president Poroshenko, which speakers of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party who initiated the dismissal vote called “the last straw,” and failed to produce the quick and entertaining jailings of officials promised by Zelenskyy in his election campaign. (But Iryna Vendiktova, who was appointed instead of Riaboshapka, promptly authorized five more cases against Poroshenko).
Writing in Ukrayinska Pravda, he said:
“Indeed, some wanted to do away with political opponents quickly to satisfy the wishes of the electorate. Of course, this would boost ratings for a while. However, it is obvious that such statements are a confession of political motives for the persecution of Petro Poroshenko.
As Prosecutor General, I could not take responsibility for such decisions based on political motives rather than the law.”
The cases against Poroshenko have met international criticism as well. The Ukrainian diaspora has appealed to Zelenskyy to stop political persecution of Poroshenko and other members of the opposition. Former US ambassadors to Ukraine have also hinted that the incident with Biden for which Poroshenko is being prosecuted is politically motivated. Concerns about the criminal cases against Poroshenko have also been expressed by European Council President Donald Tusk and European Parliament member Petras Austrevicius.
And while public support for Zelenskyy is steadily falling, the support for Poroshenko’s party has already risen from 8% to 15% over the last year. In Kyiv and Lviv, two of Ukraine’s five largest cities, Poroshenko already has more supporters than Zelenskyy. Yet, without Poroshenko, the opposition is likely to disintegrate or become demoralized.
Do the cases have a chance?
Unnerved by the endless interrogations, Poroshenko believes that the cases against him are the authorities’ way to distract their voter base from their failures, calling upon Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “not become Yanukovych.”
Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s fugitive president that took off to Russia amid the Euromaidan Revolution, infamously imprisoned his political opponent Yuliya Tymoshenko in 2011. However, what sets them apart is that Yanukovych didn’t promise to jail anyone during his electoral campaign, while “lock them up” was the rallying call of Zelenskyy’s campaign.
This fact explains why the cases against Poroshenko will likely keep coming: many of Zelenskyy’s voters indeed wanted not reforms and change but to imprison “the thief profiting from war,” a widespread Russian propaganda meme that explained that the war in Donbas was dragging on not because of Russian aggression but because this somehow presented a business opportunity for then-President Poroshenko.
In a way, Zelenskyy is a hostage of his own electoral campaign rhetoric. He would have short-term popularity gains from Poroshenko’s arrest, coming out as a simple guy who establishes justice. And if he doesn’t arrest Poroshenko, for his voters, this would mean that either Poroshenko is innocent and Zelenskyy lied in his electoral campaign, or that Poroshenko is guilty but Zelenskyy is too weak to jail him.
Additionally, arresting the leader of the opposition is likely to demoralize said opposition.
If it happens, Poroshenko’s imprisonment will be the first case of the jailing of a billionaire and oligarch in Ukrainian history. That Poroshenko seems to play according to the rules at least in the last years and gives ⅓ of his profit for charity does not influence the ordinary voter who watches popular TV channels owned by opposing oligarchic forces.
Poroshenko’s imprisonment is also what Russia wants. Russian propaganda would celebrate, since it has been describing Poroshenko as a member of the “junta” that came to power after Maidan and started the war, neglecting all facts that it was Russia which seized Crimea and Donbas.
The other side of the coin is that Poroshenko is mainly supported by the active and pro-Ukrainian part of Ukrainian society that is ready to resist and has already conducted many rallies. Thus, Poroshenko’s imprisonment may provoke mass demonstrations and lead to dangerous chaos. As well, it would deal a blow to Zelenskyy’s international reputation.
The poor legal preparation of the cases Riaboshapka talked about is already evident, as some of them have been closed due to want of a crime. In one case, Poroshenko got back at Portnov. The case concerned the Panama Papers, a trove of documents that purportedly revealed Poroshenko’s possible tax evasion. Portnov lodged a case in Panama, which Panama’s Prosecutor’s Office eventually closed for want of a crime and instead opened a case against Portnov, recognizing Poroshenko as a victim. Yet other cases are still pending.
How long will the “Lock him up” saga continue? Our guess is as good as anybody’s: for as long as Zelenskyy will need a figure to distract his voters from more pressing issues. Until then, one may expect that the balancing act – and ensuing circus-like scenes like in the Honchar museum – will continue.
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