Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy
Senior Research Analyst
On 14 October President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko fired Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun, citing his constitutional right to do so, but providing no reason for the dismissal. While most in Ukraine will not be sorry to see the beleaguered Prosecutor-General go, the timing of the dismissal creates new questions for Yushchenko and new concerns for those interested in ensuring that corruption is rooted out in the country. The subsequent closure of an investigation against Yushchenko's close friend and aid Petro Poroshenko adds to the questions.
Piskun’s office clearly did not fulfill the goals set for it by the Orange Revolution. The mastermind of the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze remains at large, even though, in March, Piskun furtively suggested, “This person is known.” (1) At the same time, the Prosecutor-General’s office announced that three of the four individuals who carried out the murder had confessed and were in custody, but the investigation disturbingly has been hidden from view.
It was Gongadze’s death that sparked the first mass protests against the regime of former President Leonid Kuchma in 2001, and it was this case that President Viktor Yushchenko has promised repeatedly to solve. It was, he said, “a matter of honor.” (2) Further, he underscored, “The main task now is to get to the most important thing: who organized and ordered the murder.” (3) Nevertheless, despite a parliamentary investigation that named several high-ranking Ukrainian officials, including President Kuchma, as ordering the murder, and despite taped conversations of Kuchma that allegedly captured those orders, no progress has been made on bringing those who arranged the murder to justice.
Piskun, who served under the Kuchma administration, also had little success in pursuing the organizers of electoral fraud during the 2004 election. In June, Deputy Prosecutor Viktor Shokin confirmed that his office had instituted “778 criminal cases relating to violations of electoral legislation during the 2004 presidential election.” Of these, he said, “nearly half – 361 criminal cases – have been sent to court.” However, he also suggested that locating those who tampered with a computer server at the Central Election Commission, as well as “the organizers of the ballot rigging,” would be difficult. “They are very sizable cases that call for a large amount of time to be spent,” he said. (4) Shokin’s statement seemed to ignore the fact that during the revolution the Security Services of Ukraine publicly distributed a tape said to include conversations between CEC members planning voter fraud. Despite this potential evidence, and despite a number of witness statements, not a single individual thought to have organized the large-scale fraud, which led directly to the revolution, has been charged.
For months, the majority of Ukrainians have called for Piskun’s ouster, in hopes that this would lead to the justice for which so many protested late in 2004. However, the former will not necessarily lead to the latter. While a new Prosecutor-General may, in fact, vigorously and successfully pursue the cases that now seem to be lying dormant, it is just as likely that he or she simply will maintain the status quo. This is especially true if the Prosecutor-General is not the one making decisions or setting policy regarding high-profile cases.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko has suggested that Yushchenko and his allies are protecting former President Kuchma, tying the prosecutor’s hands. She and many others have long speculated that Yushchenko privately agreed to protect Kuchma from potential prosecution in the Gongadze case in exchange for his support for a negotiated settlement during the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko’s refusal to dismiss Piskun for nine months, despite repeated calls to do so publicly by some of his revolution allies and privately by Western international organizations, lends credence to this theory. It is also supported by the fact that, for months, Yushchenko publicly discouraged parliament from hearing the final report of its committee investigating the murder – a report which found Kuchma responsible. In September, Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, said, "Unfortunately, even now there is no political will to find those who ordered the killing." (5) If this is the case, a new prosecutor-general will make no difference.
Yushchenko’s critics also have suggested that delays in pursuing the organizers of electoral fraud may be related to the president’s alleged agreement with Kuchma or those close to him, and a fear of exacerbating regional cleavages, since the majority of the fraud organizers likely would be located in the East or South of Ukraine. Yushchenko’s recent signature on a bill providing immunity from prosecution to all Ukrainian elected officials, and his agreement to introduce a bill potentially providing amnesty for those accused of electoral fraud, provide support to these theories. In this case, too, replacement of the prosecutor-general will change nothing.
There is one potential shift that is likely to occur as a result of the removal of Piskun – the new chief prosecutor will be more closely allied to the president. This could provide a useful tool in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of March 2006. Whether this
result was intended or not, the timing of Piskun’s dismissal creates questions.
One month ago, Piskun announced that five criminal investigations had been opened dealing with corruption and abuse of office by those within the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which is technically led by the president. These five cases were launched following charges by Yushchenko’s former chief of staff, who suggested that some of the president’s closest aides were engaging in corrupt activities.
Just before his dismissal, Piskun opened a new case against former NSDC Secretary Petro Poroshenko, who is also one of Yushchenko’s closest confidants. Piskun charged that Poroshenko threatened to block construction of a new apartment complex in downtown Kyiv if he didn’t receive space in the building or shares in the project. Piskun also was reportedly investigating Poroshenko’s dealings with businesses in Moldova, and possible pressure placed on judges in several high-profile cases. Moreover, the president had requested that Piskun examine whether former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, Yushchenko’s former ally and current opponent, had pressured courts to forgive the debts other former company.
On 17 October, Piskun charged that his dismissal came because he refused to institute criminal proceedings against Timoshenko, and refused to drop proceedings against Poroshenko. Piskun said, on the night before his dismissal, Yushchenko “reproached me because I ostensibly closed the criminal cases against Timoshenko too quickly [The Kuchma administration had charged Timoshenko with embezzlement and bribery. She - and Yushchenko at the time - called these charges politically motivated. The majority of these charges were dismissed for lack of probable cause by courts. The rest were closed by Piskun in February.]” Piskun claimed, “Yushchenko hinted that it would be very good if the investigations were renewed,” for use “against Timoshenko in the upcoming parliamentary elections.” Further, he said that Yushchenko had urged him to drop the investigation of Poroshenko and had become angry when Piskun said that he had questions about the payment for a plane chartered to carry guests from the US to his inauguration. (6) Perhaps not coincidentally, Piskun is thought to be interested in a spot on the electoral list of The Yulia Timoshenko Bloc in the upcoming elections.
The vacancy at the prosecutor-general’s office leaves a number of deputies in charge of high-profile cases. One of those deputies, Viktor Shokin, was tasked by Kuchma in 2002 with overseeing the investigation into Timoshenko’s activities, and with “investigating” the Gongadze murder. He was also the lead investigator of the Gongadze case under Yushchenko.
Shokin is known to be close to Poroshenko, earning himself the nickname Poro-Shokin in Ukraine’s media. The activities of Shokin in the coming weeks should be instructive, particularly if, as expected, Yushchenko finds it difficult to convince parliament to confirm his new choice for prosecutor-general. The first signal of things to come came just days after Piskun's dismissal, when the prosecutor general's office closed the case against him. This decision came despite clear and unambiguous complaints from individuals who claimed Poroshenko attempted to illicit a bribe from them.
There is little doubt that Piskun’s tenure as prosecutor-general was disappointing. As Zerkalo Tyzhnia (Nedeli) put it, “Nobody was too fond of him.” (7) However, nobody has been too fond of Piskun for quite some time. His critics have been pushing for his dismissal for months. Perhaps the president simply was responding to these calls. But the fact that Yushchenko chose this particular moment, weeks after investigations were opened surrounding the activities of his aides, and months before a pivotal parliamentary election where he faces his former ally as his opponent, leads to more questions than answers.
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