Russian prosecutors said yesterday they have opened a new criminal case against opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian deputy prime minister, on bribery charges. Tymoshenko has denied the charges, which come as the opposition attempts to consolidate in advance of elections next year. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports.
Prague, 9 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian prosecutors have opened an inquiry into Yuliya Tymoshenko, the leader of Ukraine's center-right Fatherland Party and a Ukrainian deputy prime minister until her ouster earlier this year.
Prosecutors believe Tymoshenko is guilty of arranging bribe payments. She strenuously denies any wrongdoing.
The Russian case against her is the latest in a sequence of events that this year alone have brought her from high office to self-styled prisoner of conscience, after she was held in custody on charges of forgery and allegedly concealing millions of dollars in profits from Russian gas imports.
Russian interim military Prosecutor-General Yuri Yakovlev, making the announcement yesterday, said Tymoshenko is suspected of arranging to bribe unnamed Russian officials as part of a complicated scheme under which Ukraine used Russian money to pay back gas debts.
"In the actions of Yuliya Tymoshenko, there are signs of criminal activity under the Article 291 on bribes."
Yakovlev said the charges against Tymoshenko are part of a larger graft case involving a senior Russian Defense Ministry official suspected of questionable dealings with other Ukrainian officials.
He said his office has passed the evidence to the Prosecutor-General's Office in Ukraine as the two countries have an agreement not to extradite one another's nationals.
Tymoshenko was quick to deny the fresh charges.
"I don't feel I have violated any laws in Ukraine. I initiated a court case to clear my name and through the court, possibly through an international court, I will prove my innocence of these charges brought against me."
The Ukrainian website korrespondent.net reported her as saying it was all a part of a political conspiracy cooked up between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to "destroy" the opposition. Tymoshenko is a vocal critic of Kuchma and spearheaded a campaign earlier this year calling for his impeachment.
Many commentators in the Russian press agreed, saying they were in no doubt that Russia had gone after Tymoshenko at Kuchma's bidding -- a kind of birthday present for the Ukrainian president, who turned 63 today.
They also note the curious circumstance that prosecutors waited five years to launch their investigation into Tymoshenko.
Mikhail Pogrebinsky heads the Kyiv center for "Conflictology and Political Research."
"Why now? Because the circle of people who have an influence on government in Russia has been changing since President Putin came to power a year ago. Many people have lost influence, others have gained it. That's why the case is being brought up now."
He says the affair may end up helping, not harming, Tymoshenko.
"If this case that's opened in Russia leads to the quick resolution of the investigation and it comes to court, and let's say she ends up in custody again -- this would just add to her personal popularity and would make the election campaign for her party much easier."
Tymoshenko's party's ratings are just under the 4 percent threshold needed to get into parliament. Aside from Fatherland, Tymoshenko also heads a bloc of center-right parties which is seen as having a better chance in next year's parliamentary election. Pogrebinsky says the latest events are not likely to spell the end of her political career.
"It is more likely to help her [Fatherland Party] break that 4 percent barrier than get her out of politics."
Alexander Rar at the Society for International Affairs in Berlin says Tymoshenko can be seen as a victim in more ways than one, and that there are echoes of the way several influential tycoons or "oligarchs" have recently been pursued through legal channels.
"In the first place, Kuchma is dealing with his political opposition using 'other people's hands.' Just as Putin tried to deal with the Russian oligarchs [media magnate Vladimir] Gusinsky, [former Kremlin aide Pavel] Borodin, and [former Kremlin insider Boris] Berezovsky."
He also says the case is important because of Tymoshenko's former position as head of United Energy Systems of Ukraine, when the suspect payments were allegedly made.
He says Kuchma and Putin are keen to show the European Union that their gas industry is clean and crime-free.
(The Ukrainian Service's Marianna Dratch contributed to this report.)