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22nd Jul 2018

EU sanctions on former Ukraine regime unravel

  • People at Yanukovych's Mezhyhirya complex, shortly after he fled the country in 2014 (Photo: aleksandr.andreiko)

In March 2014, Ukrainian authorities found 42kg of gold and $4.8 million in cash in the home of Edward Stavytskyi, Ukraine’s former energy minister, after he fled the Maidan revolution.

But the combined investigative capacities of 28 EU states and 18,000 officials in the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office over two years failed to build a case that he and others were guilty of “misappropriation” of state funds.

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  • EU court says you can't list people based on a letter, which lacks content (Photo: katarina_dzurekova)

That's one reading of an EU court decision in Luxembourg on Thursday (28 January) to annul an EU asset freeze on five former regime members that was imposed in March 2014.

The other four men are former PM Mykola Azarov, his son Oleksyi, former PM Sergej Arbuzov, and Sergiy Klyuyev, the brother of a presidential aide.

Most of them are still under an asset freeze, based on a subsequent EU decision in March 2015.

But they are also challenging the 2015 list in separate legal action. Most of the other 12 people on the 2014 and 2015 lists, including former president Viktor Yanukovych, have also filed cases.

The judges said the 2014 asset freeze was based solely on a letter from the Kiev prosecutor to the EU Council in Brussels.

They said the letter provided "no details concerning the matters specifically alleged against the five Ukrainians or the nature of their responsibility".

They added that a person cannot be blacklisted "solely on the ground that he is the subject of a preliminary investigation in a third country".

Stavytskyi-type wealth was also on display in other cases.

Klyuyev lived in an opulent mansion.

Viktor Pshonka, the former prosecutor general, who is also pursuing an EU court challenge, had gold-plated bathroom ware, gem-encrusted clocks, and oil paintings of himself as Napoleon.

Yanukovych lived in a luxury complex called Mezhyhirya in which the main house alone is worth $160 million and which is now a Museum of Corruption.

EU appeal?

The EU foreign service said on Thursday it might appeal against the judgment.

“The EU institutions are studying the ruling carefully. They will reflect on the options open to them and will, in due course, decide on any appropriate remedial action,” spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told EUobserver.

She said the asset-freeze criteria and the “Ukrainian information” they were based on were “updated” last year.

She also said: “[Court] rulings concern legal requirements in relation to specific listings, not sanctions policy in general.”

But Lansky Ganzer & Partner (LGP), the Austrian law firm that represents Mykola Azarov, says Thursday’s verdict does have broader implications.

LGP’s Michael Laubsch told EUobserver it shows the EU acted based on "political abuse instead of rule of law".

“Of course Mr Azarov is satisfied … [He] is hoping that the verdict will also will have an impact on future decisions of the EU Council,” he added, as talks go on in Brussels on whether to extend the asset freeze into 2017.

Azarov, who lives in Moscow, recently told EUobserver he has no assets in the EU in any case.

But he said that winning the EU case would help his political project - the Committee for the Rescue of Ukraine - which is designed to unseat the pro-EU government in Kiev.

Thursday’s verdict came shortly after Interpol, the international police body, also suspended Azarov and Yanukovych from its wanted list.

An Interpol spokesman told EUobserver they might stay off the list “pending review” of Ukrainian evidence.

Political blow

The developments come at a difficult moment for Ukraine's current leader, president Petro Poroshenko, who is trying to pass a law on holding local elections in Russia-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine.

The elections are a key part of the so-called Minsk 2 ceasefire accord.

EU diplomats say he lacks a majority in parliament. If he fails, it will help Russia to say Ukraine is the guilty party on ceasefire non-compliance.

But the court ruling risks harming Ukrainian public support for both Poroshenko and the EU more broadly.

The day Yanukovych fled, on 23 February 2014, Valentyna, a 40-year old Ukrainian economist, told EUobserver in Lviv, western Ukraine, that Europe had “insulted” the Maidan activists.

“People stood on the Maidan for three months and Europe did nothing,” she said.

“Now it should block their [the Yanukovych regime’s] bank accounts. It should work with the new authorities on this, because most of them have put their stolen money in Europe.”

Two years down the line, and people like Valentyna are apt to feel “insulted” once again.

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