Ukraine Probe Of Former PM Raises Concern In West

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko vowed not to flee her homeland Monday as she again appeared before prosecutors in part of a wide-ranging corruption probe that has already sent 10 of her senior aides to jail and banned her from leaving the capital.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Almost a year into his presidency, President Viktor Yanukovych maintains he is fighting corruption as he investigates his political opponents for alleged financial misdeeds.

But the West is increasingly speaking up about opposition complaints that he is merely persecuting his foes, raising questions about the Russia-friendly leader's democracy record as he maintains he wants closer ties with the European Union.

The Czech Republic last week decided to grant political asylum to Tymoshenko's former economy minister. As she emerged from the Prosecutor General's office Monday afternoon, Tymoshenko said the asylum case demonstrated the political oppression in Ukraine, but promised she herself would not go.

"Yanukovych is not going to succeed in making me flee somewhere from my own country," she said. "Time will come and it is they who will flee from their own country because today they are committing real crimes against the country and their people."

Tymoshenko's visit to be questioned or study evidence in her is case is her 13th since December. She says the summons are meant to pressure her and physically keep her from engaging in opposition work.

The United States issued a stern warning to Kiev in late December, saying the investigation of Tymoshenko, the country's most vocal opposition figure, and her allies "gives the appearance of selective prosecution of political opponents."

The European Union raised similar concerns. The Czech asylum offer is itself a strong condemnation of the government, an analyst said Monday.

"When political asylum is given to a person it means that he could suffer for his political beliefs — and this should not be happening in a democratic country," said Yuri Yakimenko, a political analyst with the Razumkov Center, a Kiev-based think tank. "It means there are problems with democracy."

The opposition and some experts say Yanukovych is seeking to discredit Tymoshenko, whom he narrowly defeated in last year's presidential race, ahead of 2012 parliamentary elections and trying to pin blame on her for economic problems he cannot fix.

Tymoshenko stands accused of using some $280 million (euro200 million) that her government received for the sale of carbon credits as part of the Kyoto protocol to pay pensions during a severe recession.

Tymoshenko admits to having used the environmental funds on pensions — and takes pride in her actions, saying it was her job as a prime minister to care for destitute retirees. She says she later rechanneled the sum on environmental projects in line with the Kyoto agreement and calls the case against her a "witch hunt of the opposition."

Tymoshenko's top ally, Former Interior Ministry Yuri Lutsenko was detained in late December as he was walking his dog outside his home on charges of abuse of office and misspending up to $30,000.

Lutsenko says his alleged crime is hiring a driver two years older than allowed by Ministry regulations which caused the state 40,000 hryvna ($5,000) in damages. He dismisses the charges as political repression.

Bohdan Danylyshyn, Tymoshenko's Economy Minister was detained in Prague in October on an international arrest warrant issued by Ukraine on charges that he caused the government $1.78 million (euro1.3 million) in damage for failing to hire a cheaper contractor for Kiev's international airport — charges he denies.

He was freed from detention after the Czech Interior Ministry granted him asylum last week. The Ministry did not comment on its decision.

Tymoshenko's top foreign policy aide Hrihoriy Nemyria said Danylyshyn's asylum was a sign of growing Western discontent with Yanukovych's undemocratic policies.

"The signal is very powerful," Nemyria told The Associated Press. "Stop politically motivated attacks on the opposition, restore an equal playing field, don't kill political pluralism, don't attack freedom of association and don't undermine freedom of the press."

Since Yanukovych came to power nearly a year ago, the democratic achievements of the 2004 Orange Revolution have taken a beating. The influential weekly Korrespondent named Yanukovych person of the year 2010 "for a resolve in the sphere of consolidating power and curtailing civic liberties."

The stern 60-year-old leader has tinkered with the Constitution to weaken parliament and boost his powers, has curbed anti-government protests, sent security forces to investigate civil society groups and sought to limit press freedoms. Yanukovych also oversaw a regional election criticized by Washington and Brussels as not fair or open.

Over the past year, Ukraine fell an alarming 42 points on the press freedom list compiled by the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders, ending up on par with countries like Iraq. The democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from free to partially free in a report last week.

Yanukovych's office declined to comment on Danylyshyn's asylum status. The Foreign Ministry said the decision made no sense since Danylyshyn had never been engaged in politics and thus cannot be called a political refugee.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions said in a statement it will continue to fight corruption despite what it called the opposition's attempts to thwart that fight.

Source: AP