Ukraine jails another opposition leader

By bne IntelliNews February 28, 2012

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

On February 28 a Ukrainian court sentenced former interior minister Yury Lutsenko to four years in jail on charges of abuse of office, suggesting Kyiv is burning its bridges to the West.

In a country where losses to corruption each year total billions of dollars, the corruption charges for which reformist former interior minister Yury Lutsenko received a four year jail sentence seem almost quaint. Lutsenko, who has been held in custody since December 2010, was found guilty February 28 of illegally employing and giving an apartment and pension to his former driver, as well as of overspending government funds during Police Day celebrations in 2008 and 2009, when he was Ukraine's interior minister. Total sum of damages to the Ukrainian state: $125,000.

However, the sentence is clearly no laughing matter. Following the jailing of Lutsenko's former boss Yulia Tymoshenko in October, the stiff sentence handed out to a second reformist figure from the Orange camp will leave little doubt in most eyes that Ukraine has lost its democratic credentials.

Lutsenko was a charismatic if erratic figure as home minister. As Ukraine's first ever civilian in charge of the interior minister, he tried to break Soviet law-enforcement traditions and make the police more accountable to civil society. Now he appears to have fallen victim to the machine he tried to change.

Lutsenko, who is head of the People's Self Defense Party and Tymoshenko, founder of the Batkyvshina party, are the two most potent opposition leaders in Ukraine. With the country going into parliamentary elections in October, and the ratings of the ruling Party of Regions plummeting, the two together might have been able to disrupt the current domination of parliament by the pro-presidential Party of Regions. Lutsenko will now be prohibited from holding public office for three years and have his private property confiscated.

The US and Europe criticized the verdict within hours of its announcement. "The politically-motivated prosecution of opposition leaders, including Mr. Lutsenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, raises serious concerns about the government of Ukraine's commitment to democracy and rule of law," Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State, told reporters, according to AFP.

Yesterday's verdict points to Ukraine's burning its bridges to the West. On the other hand, the same day announcement that Ukrainian security services had foiled an assassination plot against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin points to a desperate attempt to make it up to the Russians. But there is little sign that Russia is ready to play Mr Nice Guy, while Ukraine has no where else to turn, as it struggles under the weight of Russian gas prices and a deteriorating fiscal position.

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