Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich on trial. What is he being accused of?
May 4 marks the start of the trial against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has been accused of high treason. The trial is being held in Kiev. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office maintains that, in the heat of the Maidan in 2014, Yanukovich, who now lives in Russia, had appealed to Russian authorities with a request that their troops be deployed to Ukrainian territory. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko insists that this was the reason that Russian military officials appeared in Crimea in March 2014. Meduza provides the main facts about this story.
The case against Yanukovych was initiated in 2014. On the night of February 22, 2014, Yanukovich left his residence of Mezhyhirya near Kiev and fled to Russia. A few days later, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office accused him of organizing massacres at the Maidan on February 18-21. More than 100 protesters and 17 law enforcement officers died during clashes between Maidan participants and police. On February 28, Yanukovych gave a press conference in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he declared the Ukrainian new government illegitimate and himself the rightful president. In spring 2014, Oleg Makhnitsky, Ukraine’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the supervision of the country’s General Prosecutor’s office, said that another criminal case had been opened against the former Yanukovitch “for attempts and calls to overthrow the constitutional order in Ukraine.”
Yanukovych really did appeal to President Vladimir Putin with a request that Russian troops be deployed to Ukraine. On March 3, 2014, when Russian military officials were on Crimean soil, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin read out Yanukovych’s statement from two days earlier: “I appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin with a request to use [Russian] Armed Forces to restore law, peace, order, stability, [and] security [for] the population of Ukraine.” On March 1, 2014, Russia’s upper house of parliament – the Federation Council – had allowed Vladimir Putin to send troops to Ukraine. During a March 4, 2014 press conference, Putin too referred to this statement and called it the direct appeal of a “legitimate president.”
In February 2017, Yanukovych insisted that he had not written any letters to Putin. Instead, he claimed to have made a statement and wanted nothing more than to protect the people of Ukraine “within his [rightful] powers.” Both Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov and Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova confirmed Yanukovich’s claim that no letter had been written. In March 2017, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office responded to Ukraine’s request for clarification by stating that there had been no official “statement” from Yanukovych to Russian authorities. Two months earlier, however, the Ukrainian version of online news source Censor.net published a photocopy of the document in question which had the word “statement” written across its header.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office maintains that this document is proof of Yanukovich’s act of treason. On November 28, 2016, Ukraine’s current Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko charged Yanukovych in absentia, accusing the former president of “committing treason, [being an accomplice to Russia’s] deliberate actions to change the borders of [Ukraine] in violation of the order established by the Constitution, [and] conducting an aggressive war.” On the same day, Yanukovych was interrogated as a witness in the case of the five Berkut fighters accused of massacring protesters on the Maidan. The interrogation took place via video link, as Yanukovych was in Rostov-on-Don.
Two former members of Russia’s Duma, namely Ilya Ponomarev and Denis Voronenkov, testified against Yanukovych. Ponomarev has not lived in Russia since 2014. First he went to the United States and then received Ukrainian residency in 2016. Voronenkov moved to Kiev in October 2016 and received Ukrainian citizenship just two months later. Voronenkov was murdered in the center of Kiev on March 23. The person who ordered his murder yet to be identified. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office claims that Voronenkov and Ponomarev gave valuable evidence both in the case against Yanukovich and in the case of the murder of protesters on the Maidan, but Voronenkov’s testimony is no longer valid in light of his death and cannot be taken into account by the court. The specific nature of Voronenkov’s testimony is unknown.
Ukraine hopes that Yanukovych will be found guilty. This is the first time that the country has condemned a former president for treason in absentia. Yuriy Lutsenko has called the trial “unprecedented” on many occasions.
As Ukrainian political scientist Vladimir Fesenko said in an interview with Meduza, it is important that the Prosecutor General bring the matter to an end, as it remains the most important and loudest affair in his career. Fesenko is sure that Kiev has enough evidence to convict Yanukovich, which would mark the current government’s first major victory in cases against its predecessors. Whether Yanukovich himself will be questioned is yet unknown.
If Yanukovych is found guilty in absentia, Ukraine may demand that Russia extradite the former president. “I think that Yanukovych will not be extradited, but this is not especially [important] for the Ukrainian government. The verdict itself is important,” said Fesenko. As a citizen of Ukraine, Yanukovich can formally be extradited. Russian authorities have not publicly commented on whether this would be a possibility.