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4th Jul 2020

Interview

Former Ukraine PM hoping to beat EU blacklist

  • Azarov: 'I believe that the wrong path is definitely not irreversible' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s one-time prime minister, is hoping the EU court will, on Thursday (28 January), clear his name, and free him to work against Kiev’s pro-EU government.

“Unfortunately, I’m not wealthy. The Ukrainian regime illegally seized my flat and my house and they even seized my pension,” the 68-year old said to EUobserver from Moscow last week.

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  • Sohn, a former Maidan activist, described Azarov's version of events as 'propaganda junk' (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

“They’re doing their utmost to deprive me of political activity.”

Allegations by the Ukrainian prosecutor - that Azarov is responsible, in the EU’s words, of “misappropriation of state funds” - saw member states put him on an asset-freeze list shortly after the 2014 Maidan revolution.

The US, last year, followed suit, adding a visa ban, on similar grounds.

Interpol, the international police body, also put him on its wanted list, but is now conducting a review.

The Ukraine prosecutors say the “familia,” the former nomenklatura, stole billions of euros.

Azarov’s boss, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, for one, built himself a luxury residential complex, called Mezhygirya, in which the main structure, the Honka building, is alone worth €160 million.

But Azarov says he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing.

“Of course, I knew that Yanukovych lived at Mezhygirya … But I’ve never been at his personal home and therefore I can’t comment on this [Yanukovych corruption allegations],” he said.

Fourteen of the people on the EU blacklist have filed lawsuits at the EU court in Luxembourg.

Five of them, including Azarov’s son Oleksiy, already got off because the EU lacked evidence.

EU officials have told Azarov’s Austrian law firm - Lansky, Ganzger & Partner (LGP) - to expect a verdict on Thursday (28 January). Officials say the other verdicts, including on Yanukovych, are due soon.

If Azarov wins, he'd be the highest-ranking ex-Yanukovych figure to beat the rap.

He says he has no assets in the EU, noting that they amount, in any case, to just “some savings … due to my almost 50 years of work as a scientist, academic, minister.”

But he believes that if the EU clears him, he'll have more room for manoeuvre.

“I cannot meet and talk to politicians in Europe. This [the EU sanctions] dramatically limits my work as an opposition leader,” he said. “The only way I can get rehabilitation is to solve this issue under EU law in the EU court.”

The committee

Azarov’s "work" is the Committee for the Rescue of Ukraine.

It aims to bring about early elections, unseat Ukraine's pro-EU government, and restore Russia as the country's primary partner.

The ex-PM, while in office, personally negotiated the EU free-trade accord, which aims to integrate Ukraine with the single market.

In the end, Yanukovych refused to sign it, prompting the first Maidan protests. Azarov now also says: “For our economy, deeper cooperation with the EU only makes sense while having Russia as our main partner … Russia, as a neighbour of Ukraine, is a priority partner. One should not implement a politics which is hostile to Russia.”

Asked if Ukraine’s pro-Western path is irreversible, he said it should be called the “wrong path,” adding: “I believe that the wrong path is definitely not irreversible.”

The committee works in secret in Ukraine, where it’s outlawed, and is, Azarov said, “in contact” with members of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) - two Russia puppet-entities in east Ukraine.

He said Yanukovych, who, like Azarov, fled to Russia after the Maidan, never asked to take part in the committee’s work.

He also said the Kremlin isn’t involved and that the committee gets its “not big amount” of money from members’ donations - “politicians and business people.”

Virtual reality

EU and US diplomats like to say that Russia’s version of events on the Ukraine conflict is “virtual reality.”

It’s a reality which Azarov espouses and which absolves him of guilt.

The first Maidan activists were shot on 22 January 2014, before he resigned as PM, but he says “there was no order or approval to use live ammunition.”

The UN says Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia was invalid, but he says it joined Russia by the “free will of its people.”

The presence of Russian forces in east Ukraine has been extensively documented. Azarov says the war’s 9,000 deaths are “not at all through the fault of Russia.”

It’s a reality which sometimes gets muddled.

Russia says it gives no support to DPR and LPR. But Azarov said “Russia had no other choice than to support Donbass,” using another name for DPR and LPR fighters.

The telling of it also gets muddled.

Azarov’s law firm, LGP, which also does public relations, says the EU put him under a travel ban, which it didn’t. Alber & Geiger, a German law firm, has lobbied press and EU institutions in his name. But Azarov claims he never hired it.

EU fumbles

It remains to be seen if LGP wins the Azarov case, or if Joseph Hage Aaronson, the London-based firm which represents Yanukovych, also wins.

But EU states are losing sanctions appeals ever-more frequently.

They often blacklist people on the say-so of opposition NGOs. If they have hard intelligence, they don’t like to share it with EU judges.

The Ukraine situation is especially tricky because Ukrainian prosecutors, EU sources say, failed to collect evidence over the past 18 months.

One reason is because money-laundering structures are so complex. Another is because the prosecutor’s office is a mess.

Kalman Mizsei, an EU diplomat tasked with law-and-order reform in Ukraine, previously told EUobserver: “The prosecution is the backbone of the old system. It’s vital to clean it up.”

Roman Sohn, a former Maidan activist and a columnist for the Ukrainska Pravda news website, said: “The familia crimes are so complex, so well covered up by strings of offshore entities, that it would be hard, even for any super-honest and professional investigator to build a solid case.”

So what?

The EU verdict on Azarov comes amid EU and US hopes that Russia is preparing to freeze the conflict.

There was a flare-up in fighting last week. But when Victoria Nuland, a senior US diplomat, met Vladislav Surkov, a Russian counterpart, in Kaliningrad, Russia, on 15 January, Surkov went into so much detail on Ukraine ceasefire compliance the US saw it as a sign that Russia is serious.

“Putin appears ready to give up Donbass in exchange for sanctions relief. Could be [the] biggest news of 2016,” Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador in Moscow, tweeted on Monday (25 January).

One EU diplomat said it's not so important if Azarov, or the rest, win their EU court cases, because the 2014 listing was designed, primarily, to stop outflow of state funds at that time.

If they do win, it might complicate EU talks on whether to roll over the asset-freeze list, in March, for one more year, however.

It will feed Russia’s “virtual reality” machine.

It will also help Azarov’s committee, or similar structures, to open a political front against Ukraine’s “wrong path” if the Donbass battlefields go quiet.

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