Ukraine's Security Service Questions An Opposition Leader

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's Security Service questioned a leading member of the political opposition Wednesday in a widening corruption probe focused on allies of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Oleksandr Turchynov

The agency, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB, said it summoned Oleksandr Turchynov as a witness to the alleged abuse of state authority in a natural-gas-assets transfer when he was Ms. Tymoshenko's deputy prime minister.

Allies of Ms. Tymoshenko, who now leads the opposition, say the summons is the latest step in a campaign of political persecution under President Viktor Yanukovych, who defeated her in an election in February. "It pains me to see how the Security Service is being used as a political tool," Mr. Turchynov, a former head of the agency, said after the questioning.

Government officials say the probe is part of a promised crackdown on corruption. "The opposition is using the situation to attract society's attention and improve its rating," said Serhiy Lyovochkin, the president's chief of staff, on Wednesday. He said law-enforcement bodies were working professionally and independently from the administration.

Opposition and civil-society groups say Mr. Yanukovych is leading Ukraine down an authoritarian path. He called last month for constitutional changes to strengthen the presidency at Parliament's expense, saying he needs more power to manage the economy.

The questioning of Mr. Turchynov came a day after rival lawmakers punched each other in Parliament over the government's decision to increase household gas prices by 50% and delay the retirement age for women to 60 from 55.

During the raucous session, pro-government lawmakers blocked an opposition attempt to freeze the two measures, which were adopted to secure $15 billion in International Monetary Fund loans.

At least five of Ms. Tymoshenko's allies are under criminal investigation; all deny wrongdoing. Former Economy Minister Bohdan Danylyshyn vanished from public view after a warrant was issued last month for his arrest on corruption charges.

Four others who held senior positions in her government are in police custody pending investigations. They include the former head of the state customs service and the former deputy head of state-owned energy monopoly Naftogaz.

The biggest of several cases under investigation involves a politically tinged dispute between Naftogaz and Ros UkrEnergo, an energy company that in 2009 lost its role as an intermediary in the natural-gas trade between Russia and Ukraine.

Naftogaz then collected a debt from Ros UkrEnergo by appropriating 11 billion cubic meters of gas from the company. An international arbitration ruling, backed by a Ukrainian court, obliged Naftogaz to return the gas and pay a penalty.

Speaking to foreign diplomats Monday, Ms. Tymoshenko said officials in Mr. Yanukovych's government are tied to RosUkrEnergo and are supporting the company against the state in the dispute.

The government denies this. The company's co-owner, Dmytro Firtash, is widely believed to be a backer of the president.

Political analysts say the authorities are unlikely to go after Ms. Tymoshenko personally, given her combative style and fiery rhetorical skills, and instead are trying to weaken her by taking on her allies.

Ms. Tymoshenko was jailed briefly on corruption charges in 2001 but rebounded after her release, gaining prominence as an opposition leader.

Source: The Wall Street Journal