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Ukraine: Former Prime Minister Implicates President In Corruption

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko is awaiting trial in the United States on embezzlement charges, and he has already accused President Leonid Kuchma of corruption. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 6 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Pavlo Lazarenko made dramatic headlines even during his short tenure as Ukrainian prime minister between May 1996 and July 1997.

There was a mysterious attempt to blow him up in his car and then, a little later, a Ukrainian member of parliament, reputedly a business rival, was shot dead.

Lazarenko enjoyed very friendly relations with President Leonid Kuchma until he displayed a desire to run for the nation's top job himself in the 1999 elections. Allegations then began to surface in the Ukrainian media, over which Kuchma has a very strong hold, that Lazarenko had stolen huge sums of public money.

Then, in late 1998, the Swiss arrested Lazarenko on money-laundering charges after he entered their country using a Panamanian passport. He was allowed to leave for Ukraine on bail. There, Kuchma's administration heaped more corruption allegations on Lazarenko and encouraged parliament to lift his immunity from prosecution.

In February 1999, Lazarenko, now officially a presidential candidate, fled to the United States, where he demanded political asylum. Instead, he was arrested. The former prime minister was charged with transferring more than $100 million (eds: 114 million), defrauded from the Ukrainian state, to U.S. banks. He is currently awaiting trial in prison in San Francisco.

Through his lawyer, Lazarenko has said that Kuchma knew about and took a cut of all Lazarenko's monetary transactions.

Meanwhile, last month, Lazarenko was convicted in absentia (without being present) by a Swiss court on money-laundering charges. Swiss investigators estimated that he was involved in looting $880 million from Ukraine.

Now Kuchma wants the United States to transfer Lazarenko to Ukraine to face trial on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of the business rival. Kuchma said Ukraine is ready to sign any agreement to facilitate the extradition. The two countries currently have no extradition treaty.

But the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, says he does not believe extradition is a possibility, because Ukraine does not fulfill the judicial fairness and humane imprisonment criteria that the United States demands.

"We informed Ukraine in the spring of this year, either in April or early May, that the United States government, at this point, was not prepared to negotiate an extradition treaty," he says.

Mary Mycio is a U.S. lawyer and journalist based in Ukraine. She explains why the Lazarenko case is so important.

"This is the first time that a former highly placed Ukrainian official, or for that matter any official from the former Soviet Union, that their actions, or alleged actions are being investigated by an independent judiciary system," she says.

Like many observers of the Ukrainian political scene, Mycio believes that Kuchma wants Lazarenko back in Ukraine to prevent possible revelations about the president's own alleged corruption.

Even if Lazarenko does say something damaging to Kuchma, the president could still keep the allegations out of the Ukrainian press. During his election campaign, Kuchma demonstrated the tight grip he can exert on the Ukrainian media. International election monitors criticized him for manipulating the state-owned media and intimidating most of the others into falling into line.

Mycio said that when Lazarenko was first charged with money laundering in America, the story got a great deal of coverage in Ukrainian media. But now, she says, that has changed.

"After Lazarenko's attorneys started making allegations about highly placed Ukrainian officials being involved in his alleged misdeeds, including the president, then I would say that on television it receives very rare mention, while in the newspapers it does get coverage --but not to the extent that there was before these allegations were publicized," Mycio says.

But she says that although Kuchma has shown he can muzzle the television stations, the most important source of news for most Ukrainians, he will not be able to censor alternative news sources. Internet news sites, for example, are growing in number and importance in Ukraine.

Mycio believes that the Lazarenko case may be settled by plea-bargaining (admission to some or lesser charges), without going to trial.

But if there is a trial, she says, courtroom revelations implicating Kuchma in corruption could also embarrass the United States, Ukraine's staunchest Western political and economic supporter. That could make future cooperation with a Kuchma administration difficult.

But Mycio says the effect of the trial on Kuchma's own position is difficult to gauge: it could usher in some democratization by weakening his authoritarian powers but it might also tempt him to defend himself by curbing more freedoms, starting with the press.

(Marianna Dratch of the Ukrainian service contributed to this report.)