Unbelievable as it may seem, the Obama administration may be precipitating yet another foreign policy debacle with the Ukraine. Ukrainian Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin is pursuing a possible murder indictment against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for her alleged involvement as an accessory in the 1996 killing of lawmaker Yevgeny Scherban, his wife, and an airport employee, all of whom were shot dead at Donetsk Airport in November 1996. Kuzmin further claims that the murder was ordered to be carried out by Tymoshenko’s former ally and ex-prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, whose nine-year U.S. prison term for extortion and money laundering ended in November. Yet because Tymoshenko has long been admired in Western circles, counting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton among her most ardent fans, Kuzmin’s investigation is apparently being stonewalled by the Obama administration.
Tymoshenko was propelled onto the world stage as part of the Orange Revolution that freed her country from the USSR. Partnered with Viktor Yushchenko, she emerged as a hero for hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries who massed in Kiev to protest against the fraudulent presidential election intially “won” by Viktor Yanukovich. When the Supreme Court ordered a do-over, Yushchenko was elected to the presidency and Tymoshenko became Prime Minister.
The relationship lasted eight months, after which Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko, citing corruption as the reason. He continued to criticize her after she left office. She returned the favor, accusing the Yushchenko administration of corruption. The relationship became so toxic that Tymoshenko attempted to forge a coalition with Mr. Yanukovich. That effort also ended in failure in 2009. Undaunted, Tymoshenko announced she would run for the presidency. In a close election in 2010, she lost to Viktor Yanukovich.
In August 2011, Tymoshenko was arrested in court on contempt charge, after she openly mocked the current prime minister, Mykola Azarov, for speaking in Russian, rather than Ukrainian. Azarov was a witness in Tymoshenko’s trial for “abuse of power.” In 2009, she allegedly forced the state company Naftogaz to buy from natural gas from Russia at what the government claimed were inflated prices.
The charges were condemned by her supporters and Western politicians who contended her trial was politically motivated. But her former Orange Revolution partner, Viktor Yushchenko, testified against her, claiming she wanted to be seen as a “savior” who ended a bitter pricing dispute with Moscow, as part of her presidential election campaign. Tymoshenko was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison, enraging her followers and Western elitists convinced she was a victim of political machinations. Those convictions were exacerbated by additional charges brought against her in November 2011, for tax evasion and embezzlement, in a reopened case dating back more than 15 years. Yet in December, appeals court in Kiev upheld the ruling for the gas deal conviction. Last April, she declared a hunger strike after she claimed she was beaten by guards.
Her lawyers insist the murder charges are nothing more than a desperate attempt by the authorities to pin additional charges on Tymoshenko, amid growing international unease over her case. “They have started inventing all sorts of rubbish to try to show the West that she is a criminal,” her lawyer said last June. “They have a savage desire to keep Yulia Tymoshenko in prison, no matter what the pretext.”
Enter the Obama administration. In a report commissioned by the Ukrainian government, a team of American lawyers, led by former White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, concluded that Ms. Tymoshenko was denied legal counsel at “critical stages” of her trial, and that at other times her lawyers were incorrectly prevented from calling relevant witnesses. Yet Craig also claimed his team was unable to determine whether the trial was politically motivated. New York-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom–also commissioned by the Ukrainian Justice Ministry–reached a similar conclusion in a report released last week. While they also cited problems with her trial, the report was conclusive regarding politics. “Based on our review of the record, we do not believe that Tymoshenko has provided specific evidence of political motivation that would be sufficient to overturn her conviction under American standards,” it read.
A New York Times article on the problems at the trial brought up a eye-brow-raising point. Craig “acknowledged that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among many Western leaders who have criticized the prosecution as crass political reprisal,” it stated. In October, Clinton sent a letter to Tymoshenko that seemingly spoke for the Obama administration. “Our position remains unchanged: you should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as other former members of your government. It’s a shame that politically motivated prosecutions undermine the progress of democracy that Ukrainians aspire and relations with the United States,” it said. On December 7, Clinton characterized the Ukraine as “one of our biggest disappointments.”
Clinton’s unwavering support is somewhat curious. A coalition agreement between Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party and the anti-Semitic Svoboda party has so concerned Jewish leaders that they are calling on Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to pressure Clinton to withdraw her support for the former Prime Minister. The State Department has responded with silence.
Such silence is not limited to the State Department, and the story itself even becomes more curious with the revelation that murder investigator Renat Kuzmin’s 5-year US visa has been cancelled by the US embassy, absent any official reason for doing so. In a bombshell letter addressed to President Obama, Kuzmin claims there is “an elaborated plan by the U.S. Department of Justice, initiated by some American and Ukrainian politicians, to counteract and eliminate the case of Eugene Scherban’s murder,” and that the “[I]nitiators of the plan presumed to provoke my arrest in the territory of the USA, based upon specially fabricated indictments.” Kuzmin further insisted that “I was to be incriminated by alleging that I coerced a witness, Nikolai Melnichenko, in a murder case to give evidence to Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office investigators. Thus, the initiators of the plan intended to force termination not only of this murder investigation by Ukrainian authorities, but also other crimes, of which Mrs. Tymoshenko is accused.”
Melnichenko, a former State Guard service employee, was having none of it. According to Russian news agency Itar-Tass, Melnichenko “told a news conference in Washington…that he had information about the involvement of Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko” regarding the murders, and that Tymoshenko’s family had tried to get him to testify that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich had ordered Scherban’s elimination.
As noted above, Lazarenko has served his sentence for extortion and money laundering. Yet he remains behind bars until his immigration status is settled, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The U.S. has also rejected repeated extradition requests from Ukraine, citing the lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries.
The effort to keep Lazarenko in the United States, and, at the same time, force Renat Kuzmin out of the country, suggests someone has a vested interest in keeping the two men apart for as long as possible. According to Renat Kuzmin, the Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office has asked the U.S. to provide information about the possible involvement of Lazarenko and Tymoshenko in the murders. There are those who believe the effort to stonewall those requests, along with the coordinated effort to maintain a sympathetic media profile of Yulia Tymoshenko, is being orchestrated by Tymoshenko herself.
Kuzmin illuminates as much in the aforementioned letter, noting that “[D]uring the interrogation process in Ukraine, Nikolai Melnichenko named all of the Ukrainian and American citizens involved in this unlawful plan….representatives of lobbying firm Wiley Rein, LLP, Joe Williamson and Ralph Caccia…were hired by Tymoshenko’s husband, Alexander, for creating her positive image in the USA and to discredit Ukrainian investigators,” he writes. “Also among those mentioned was former U.S. Congressman Jim Slattery, who lobbied Tymoshenko’s interests in the U.S. Congress and before the State Department, using personal relationships with the head of the U.S. State Department, Mrs. Hillary Clinton. There was also the lawyer Steve Bunnell, who assisted present Assistant Attorney General of the USA,” adds Kuzmin.
Tymoshenko certainly has resources. Along with her husband Alexander, she amassed a huge fortune with their now-defunct corporation, the United Energy Systems Ukraine (UESU), a gas-trading entity that included venture capital firms, and two banks. As a result, there was a point in time when the Tymoshenkos controlled 25 percent of the Ukrainian economy. Her daughter Eugenia has also made a great effort to keep her mother’s “plight” front and center in the media.
Yet Kuzmin remains undaunted. He claims there is reason to believe that the murder of Scherban, as well as that of Donetsk businessman Alexander Momo, were part of a plan to eliminate potential competitors to UESU. Kuzmin also maintains that former Ukrainian Attorney General Svyatoslav Piskun may be held accountable for illegally closing a criminal case against UESU.
Officials in the Obama administration have made no secret of their intentions to frame Tymoshenko’s ordeal in terms of a Ukrainian power struggle between those who wish to align themselves with their former Soviet allies, and those who wish to move towards the West. Furthermore, both the European Union and the United States are considering sanctions against the the Yanukovich administration, due to what they perceive as “growing authoritarianism” exercised by his government.
Yet whether such sanctions are justified or not is irrelevant. Renat Kuzmin claims he has “enough grounds to bring charges.” Yet despite requests to get documentary evidence from the DOJ, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office “received no response to these requests for copies of this documentation” to date. Near the end of his letter to president Obama, Kuzmin makes the simplest request of all. “Dear Mr. President, I ask for your assistance in establishing the truth,” he writes. Such assistance ought to be forthcoming–unless there is something else an administration mired in scandals wishes to keep from public view.
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