Fallen heroes replaced by unlikely new ones in turbulent post-revolution Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews March 6, 2015

bne IntelliNews -


As post-Yanukovych Ukraine enters its second year, the impressive unity initially shown by its supporters is fragmenting amid a new sobriety, as former heroes fall and things stay the same. But unlikely new heroes are also emerging.

Serhiy Melnichuk, for example, Ukraine's celebrated commander of the Aidar battalion of volunteers, had a bad parliament day on March 3.

A national hero when leading his men against Russian-backed separatist fighters in Ukraine's eastern region of Luhansk, Melnichuk swept into parliament in October’s elections on a wave of patriotism. But as the video footage shows, he was assaulted by a crowd of former party colleagues live on TV. They can be seen hustling the uniformed 42-year-old officer out of the session chamber and manhandling him across the carpeted spaces of the parliament's elegant foyer, surrounded by a dense media scrum.

Melnichuk's fall came after he led a protest in January at the Ministry of Defence against the government’s decision to effectively disband his battalion, as Ukrainian forces professionalise. Scores of Melnichuk's men tried to storm the defence ministry in the heart of Kyiv, setting tires on fire at its gates, in actions reminiscent of the fierce anti-government protests of 2014 in which Melnichuk participated that forced out former president Viktor Yanukovych. The enraged volunteer fighters sprang the gates of the defence ministry before being turned back by armed soldiers.

Such fiery scenes at the defence ministry during wartime shocked the nation, and were a setback in Kyiv's attempts to be taken seriously internationally. As a result, Melnichuk was expelled from the Radical Party on whose ticket he ran, despite having been third on the party list in elections on October 25.

Completing his fall, on March 2 Melnichuk crossed the floor to join the People's Will parliamentary group – one of the successor parties to Yanukovych's now defunct Party of Regions – which is made up of the very people that the February 2014 revolution ejected from power, prompting the public censure from his former colleagues.

“Unlike some I don't believe in fighting and hysterics in a place of state importance,” Melnichuk told bne IntelliNews during the episode, strangely pliant for a field commander, and eyes flicking nervously from one camera to another.

Serhiy Melnichuk

Radical Lyashko

There may be more to Melnichuk's persecution than meets the eye – or the TV camera.

Melnichuk's chief accuser among his accosters is Oleh Lyashko, leader and founder of the Radical Party that brought Melnichuk into parliament. Lyashko was a political insider who reinvented himself in the first months of the separatist campaign in East Ukraine war as a frontline campaigner with the irregular volunteer battalions and self-styled scourge of the Russian-backed separatists. Lyashko thus moved from being a politically marginal figure who took an astonishing third place in the presidential elections last May with 8%, while his Radical Party came fourth in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

But Lyashko, like the target of his scorn Melnichuk, may also now have misjudged the mood and the times. With the country on the verge of military defeat and economic meltdown, Lyashko's populist antics, welcome in the revolution and its aftermath, are now a potential threat to the new embryonic state – and Melnichuk's fate may yet foreshadow Lyashko's own.

Lyashko disturbingly showered a bucket of fake dollars over the chief of the National Bank of Ukraine as she gave an emergency address to parliament on the collapse of the currency. And on March 3, Ihor Mosiichuk, Lyashko's right hand man, made a very public allegation on Facebook that President Petro Poroshenko had taken out a contract to have Lyashko killed. But the far-fetched allegation merely brought down more public opprobrium on Lyashko rather than creating headlines.

Media stunt

Political commentators now argue that Lyashko's attack on Melnichuk was a stunt with an ulterior motive, supplied by a secret political sponsor: to postpone a parliamentary vote slated for the same day on three judges accused of Yanukovych-era political persecution. Lyashko denies this is the case.

“Because of this disgraceful fistfight, three corrupt Pechersk [district] judges got a day's reprieve, and perhaps a day is all they need to crawl off to Rostov-on-Don [where ousted former president Viktor Yanukovych has stayed in Russia]. And of course, this is all no coincidence,” prominent political commentator Taras Berezovets said. Parliament finally ruled to lift the judges' legal immunity one day after Lyashko's stunt with Melnichuk, after rescheduling the vote.

Pechersk district court is Ukraine's most notorious, because its jurisdiction covers the government district in Kyiv, handing it political cases. It became synonymous with political persecutions during the Yanukovych era, most notably that of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in jail here in 2011.

Ukraine's judiciary, traditionally regarded as a cesspit of corruption, remains largely untouched by reform, activists complain, because of the thorny problem of judges' immunity from prosecution and the self-regulation of the judicial body.

Despite three of the most criticised judges now coming under scrutiny, things appeared unchanged in the Pechersk court house on March 2, with yet another defendant, Egor Bodrov, claiming from the dock that he is being prosecuted for political reasons.

Courting danger

Bodrov, the 35-year-old former deputy head of the Kyiv region's anti-organised crime department, is an unlikely hero, given widespread public suspicion of the police that prompted plans to disband the department. But Bodrov claims that he is being stitched up for doing his work well: parallel to the Euromaidan opposition protests in 2014, he investigated theft of lands from state organisations in the Kyiv region, which were potentially worth tens of millions of dollars due to their water-edge location in the countryside close to the capital.

Egor Bodrov appears in court

State prosecutors in 2014 then arrested him on charges of kidnapping one of his informants in the investigation, a Kyiv businessman. The businessman is also the key witness in the case, and Bodrov says his former informant was lent on to testify against him. Bodrov is facing up to 10 years in jail. In the tiny packed courtroom, the allegedly kidnapped man's driver avowed three times to the judge that no such kidnapping had ever taken place.

After release on bail in December, law officers arrested Bodrov outside the courthouse on the even graver charges of support for terrorism: based on a single email Ukraine's security service claims it can trace back to him, allegedly sent to an official in the self-proclaimed separatist territory of Donetsk People's Republic from an email account of which Bodrov says he has no knowledge.

The terrorism charges mean that Bodrov will remain behind bars for the duration of the court case – which in Ukraine can be a matter of some years. “Their intention is to break me, but I won't back down,” Bodrov told bne Intellinews from the cage of the defendant's dock.

According to Bodrov, the beneficiaries of the land embezzlement that he helped uncover were high-ranking officials in the Prosecutor General's Office itself. Bodrov's associates say he has ample documentation available, suggesting he was on to something.

Bodrov says the official who had benefited from the land theft was in the team of Vitaly Yarema, whom the newly-elected President Poroshenko then appointed prosecutor general in June 2014, with a mandate to pursue top-level corruption cases. Shortly after Yarema and his team moved to the top law enforcement office, Bodrov's legal problems started, he says.

Bodrov is not the only one to raise allegations about Yarema's associates. Details of enrichment incommensurable with their career paths among Yarema's team and their extensive real estate holdings, similar to those detailed by Bodrov, were quickly dug up by journalists to explain his lack of action in stamping out corruption.

In yet another illustration of how quickly former heroes are falling in post-Maidan Ukraine, Yarema resigned in early February, after public dissatisfaction reached crisis proportions.

New hero

While former heroes of the revolution are becoming liabilities for the new powers in Kyiv, unlikely new heroes are springing up within Ukraine's turbulent politics to replace them.

One such unlikely hero is Ukraine's new prosecutor general, 63-year-old Viktor Shokin, whose career started in Soviet times under Yury Andropov and who worked as deputy prosecutor in the repressive regime of former president Leonid Kuchma at the turn of the century.

It is precisely Schokin's old-school Soviet skills that make him so valuable now: he has a track record of securing convictions, and Poroshenko has tasked him with bringing cases to court against the ousted Yanukovych – something that his predecessor Yarema singularly failed to do.

Since taking on the top job on February 9, Schockin has moved swiftly to arrest three former Yanukovych officials, most recently on March 4 when Spanish police detained former finance minister Yury Kolobov at Ukraine’s request.

Schokin's aim is apparently to secure these men's testimony against Yanukovych himself. In an initial setback, the former deputy head of the Party of Regions parliamentary group, Mikhai Chechetov, who was arrested on February 20, threw himself out of his 17th floor apartment a week later, leaving behind a note saying he could no longer withstand the pressure.

One of the unexpected outcomes one year after the Maidan revolution is thus that a Soviet-era prosecutor is becoming a hero of the post-revolutionary camp – and even an internet meme. “To be a hero – this is both a great honour and very great responsibility,” Schockin wrote solemnly on Facebook on March 5.

An image of Viktor Schokin being shared on social media.

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