Ukraine’s former prime minister and current opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has been accused by the government of embezzling state funds and ordered not to leave the country while the investigation continues.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office announced on December 15 that it is investigating Tymoshenko for misspending funds received by the government for the sale of carbon credits. The government earned some $425 million from the sale.
The credits were purchased by businesses in exchange for the right to emit carbon dioxide, and are part of the international emissions trading mechanism implemented by the Kyoto Protocol, an accord targeting global warming. The money earned by countries when they sell the credit is meant to be used toward further combating emissions.
The accord entered into force in Ukraine in 2005, when Tymoshenko was prime minister.
Specifically, she has been accused of using the funds to pay pensions amid a severe recession in 2009, when the country struggled under a budget gap of $221 million.
Use of the money to cover the budget deficit would violate a law prohibiting the redirection of such funds without parliament's approval.
'A Grave Crime'
Speaking to reporters after meeting with prosecutors on December 15, Tymoshenko denied that any money had been used wrongfully.
"A criminal case has been opened against me personally because seemingly environmental [program] monies were used to pay pensions during the crisis," she said.
"The pensions were paid but not with funds that were designated for environmental purposes. The pensions were paid from the State Treasury account. That is, from the budget," Tymoshenko added.
The former prime minister said the probe had been opened "because I committed a grave crime -- because I paid people pensions when the country was truly in crisis."
Tymoshenko called the investigation "terror against the opposition" by President Viktor Yanukovych's government. In a statement on her website, she said that the "political witch-hunt against members of the opposition continues."
Hryhoriy Nemyria, the deputy head of Tymoshenko's opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, said in a statement that Tymoshenko had planned to go to Brussels to meet European leaders but Yanukovych was "afraid to let Yulia Tymoshenko go abroad."
Tymoshneko said formal charges had not yet been brought against her because her lawyer wasn't present when she was questioned. She is expected to appear before prosecutors for another round of questioning on December 20 with her lawyer.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in Kyiv, political analyst Yuriy Yakymenko of the Razumkov Center think tank linked the probe to public discontent over government-proposed economic austerity measures.
“The government currently has to make an unpopular decision regarding pension reform, housing, and labor codes. And the government has no popular support for this," he said. "On the contrary, public discontent is rising. As a result, there are efforts to divert attention to the previous political leadership as the main culprits for the current situation and [all the problems] that we have today."
Mass protests erupted in Kyiv and other cities last month as thousands of business owners rallied against a bill that would raise taxes on smaller companies. The cash-strapped government had said it had proposed the tax bill in part to fund pensions.
An amended version of the bill was signed into law on December 3.
In February, then-Prime Minister Tymoshenko narrowly lost a bitter presidential election battle against her pro-Moscow rival, Yanukovych. Her supporters said the vote was marred by widespread fraud.
The accusations against her are the latest in a number of cases the current government has recently brought against officials from the previous administration.
The same day it announced the Tymoshenko investigation, the Prosecutor-General’s Office announced it had detained former Environment Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk on allegations of abuse of office, apparently also in connection with the use of funds from carbon credits.
Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko was charged on December 13 with the same crime, a move he said was politically motivated. In October, Tymoshenko's economy minister, Bohdan Danylyshyn, was arrested in the Czech Republic, accused of squandering nearly $2 million of public funds.
Tymoshenko allies denied those charges as well, saying Danylyshyn's arrest was part of a political vendetta against them by a government that's reversing the Orange Revolution's democratic gains.
Yanukovych has said his government is dedicated to eradicating corruption and that any official, past or present, found to have abused his position will be prosecuted.
by Richard Solash, with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and agency reports