In a wide-ranging interview, the newly-appointed Prosecutor General of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko told EURACTIV of his adventurous life, the shocking corruption cases he has already uncovered, and the daunting tasks ahead.
Yuriy Lutsenko, born on 14 December 1964, is a Ukrainian politician. He was appointed the Prosecutor General of Ukraine in May.
Lutsenko spoke to euractiv.com’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.
You were recently appointed Prosecutor General of Ukraine and this is your first visit to Brussels in your new capacity. But only a couple of years ago, under the regime of former president Yanukovich you were in jail, where you spent more than two years. And you have had an interesting life in general…
I am an electronics engineer, from western Ukraine. I studied at the Polytechnics Institute of Lviv. Then I worked in a big military factory. My entry into politics was taking position against President Kuchma (Leonid Kuchma was president between 1994 and 2005). Then I became an MP. During the Orange Revolution (the winter of 2004-2005) I became the first civilian Minister of Interior. Then Yanukovich came to power and the revanchist pro-Russian forces put me in jail, as well as Yuilia Tymoshenko, as leaders of the parliamentary opposition. I spent two and a half years in jail, of which two years were in a nine square meter concrete cell.
Were you alone in the cell?
No, we were four in the cell. Then the European Court of Human Rights concluded that my sentence was politically motivated.
The accusation were quite strange…
Indeed, I was accused of illegally celebrating the day of the militia (by the Ministry of Interior). [He laughs.] And that my driver worked illegally in the militia (the police). But this was like a present to me, because it showed that the biggest ever team of investigators were not able to find anything against me. Then there was this Kafkaesque court.
When I left jail (on 7 April 2013), I said that in six months there will be a new Maidan, a new revolution (the Euromaidan started on 21 November). Most of my friends said I was crazy. At that time the opposition was weak, Yanukovich was (supported) both in the East and in the West. Well. My estimate was two weeks short.
But today, from my new position, I understand what happened. When he came to power, Yanukovich usurped the power. He cracked down on the Constitutional court, he bought judges.
He physically bought judges?
We have found black accountancy documents stating the sums for buying judges, or things like such MP buys another MP for a sum in millions. This MP takes 6 million to buy the next MP. The Central Electoral Commission receives 2 million and pays back 100.000. Such honest people! A document shows that 1.2 million have been paid for passing the budget.
Now we know that from the outset, Yanukovich was buying and intimidating people. Later the Constitutional court gave Yanukovich prerogatives which he shouldn’t have according to the constitution and he became an outright dictator. Then he signed the so-called Kharkiv Agreements [of 12 April 2010], according to which Russia could bring additional military personnel and equipment in Sebastopol, which a few years later helped achieve the Crimea annexation.
Do you have evidence that Yanukovich bought Western politicians as well?
No, in this list there are only Ukrainian politicians, journalists, artists. By the way, we got these documents only recently, a couple of weeks ago.
And then Yanukovich sent the opposition to jail and started plundering the country. Billions of dollars were lost, and this is no exaggeration. During my first ten days in office, we made two arrests. Those arrested are not household names, but they created a scheme to siphon income from natural gas produced in Ukraine. Before, part of this gas was sold at very low price to the population, and the rest was sent for higher price to industry. But from the first month of his tenure Yanukovich started selling this gas at low price to governors, who signed papers that the gas went for the population, but it was in fact sold to industry at market price, generating illicit profits and depleting the budget.
Only this scheme has caused losses to the state of 5.5 billion Hryvnias, which you can divide by eight to obtain the sum in dollars. This is almost one billion dollars, the same amount we are now trying to obtain from the IMF. And as we investigate those people, we see that they have huge property, both in Ukraine and in the EU. We will soon send the relevant information to the law enforcement authorities in the EU.
Another scheme during Yanukovich concerned VAT. Half of it went into the budget, the other half in the family budget. The estimated losses here are so huge, I don’t even dare say how many billions. Here again, I expect a number of arrests.
In what way are you different from your predecessors?
My approach is different in the sense that I believe that we should not only fight the VIPs, but the organisations they created. I say – “fry big fish, but (also) fry big fish organisations” [he said this in English]. I will give an example. We have a big state grain company. During Yanukovich, its management stole hundreds of millions from a Chinese credit. Then came the revolution. The company’s new leadership was given to the radical party Svoboda. They continued in the same way. Then we had parliamentary elections. Then the leadership was given to the liberal party Samopomych. They also continued the same way. So the issue is – it’s not important who is the manager. The mafia way of running the company remains and doesn’t change no matter who is leading.
Will you be courageous enough to bring to justice those who are powerful today?
Over the last two years Ukraine has established the harshest anti-corruption legislation. As an MP I was also involved when we created a national anti-corruption agency with an anti-corruption prosecution, and the investigation of the current VIPs is under their sole responsibility. But when we investigate Yanukovich, in two thirds of the cases those involved are current VIPs, current managers, current politicians. So when we talk about the former thugs and the new thugs, the boundaries are very elusive.
Regarding courage – my adventurous life speaks for itself.
The first name that made headlines following the Panama papers disclosures was that of President Poroshenko, whose chocolate company Roshen reportedly used tax evasion schemes. Will you investigate him?
We already did.
This is a unique case in which the president of a country publicly stated that he will sell his company, but in the conditions of a war with Russia he wasn’t able to. No crazy person would buy a company a part of which works in Russia. That’s why [this year] he handed his company to Rothschild under a trust agreement. That could only be made through an offshore company.
In Brussels many people say, “We pay money to Ukraine, whose president uses offshore companies to avoid paying tax.”
We have an official conclusion, made by the best international specialised companies, saying that there was not a single case of tax avoidance.
By the way, one of the people investigated is a deputy minister of economy, who served when Mr. Poroshenko was economy minister. And the investigator who will take charge will do it in complete independence.
Few people notice it, but the scope of our reform is huge. Right now we will attest 8.000 judges, according to professional and moral criteria, in public contests. The same thing happened in the police, it will happen in the prosecution. These are giant, tectonic changes. But the issue is that most of the laws adopted are not yet implemented.
Why did you become the prosecutor general? You were a surprising and controversial choice.
The former three prosecutors general in the post-revolution period did not succeed. I cannot blame them. And I know that my appointment, as I don’t have a law degree, was controversial. Speaking in parliament, I apologised because the law was changed because of me.
It’s always bad to change a law because of a person.
I agree completely. At least the law also changed a number of things which allowed to open up the system. Finally, it is possible that a person can become prosecutor without having worked in the prosecution service. Finally, we are able to conduct open concours, finally we get rid of the investigation services. But you asked: why me? I think in the current conditions of Ukraine, this is a job for an experienced politician. I can refuse any politician whatever request they may have. And I intend to use this strength.
When Mr. Poroshenko was in opposition I spoke to him on the occasion of one of his Brussels visits and he said that in Ukraine, the judges are independent of the law.
This is true. Themis is indeed blindfolded, but a wad of dollars is placed on her scale. I don’t want to put all the judges, all the prosecutors, all the policemen in the same category. There is a lot of corruption, but in each office there are honest people. The most important think is that despite the divisions, we have been able to achieve a two-third majority, change the constitution and reset the entire judiciary system. This is a full reset of 8.000 judges. I think this is a big success. As to when our judges will become normal, that’s difficult to answer. But you know, I gave my first interview as prosecutor in my cell.
In your prison cell?
Yes, on those 9 square meters.
And you see, I also started this interview with your prison experience.
I only gave two interviews so far, I don’t want to talk much about my plans, I would like to be able to report results. In the prison cell, I made two statements – that this is not about revenge, and that I remember how many innocent people are in the prisons. Yesterday a process started to review the detention of people and we freed the first person, according to a list I received from the Ombudsman. This is s person who indeed committed a serious crime, but he awaits trial in prison for over four years, in the same conditions as me. There are people who await trial in prison 10, even 12 years. We will take the necessary decisions, as the European Court of Human Rights has been insisting from long ago.
This year my task is to restore the confidence of the people. How? Starting by cleaning the system. First we need people from the outside. Of my deputies, three came from outside the system, they are diplomats, lawyers, all are between 30 and 35 years old.
How exactly the cleaning will take place?
Objective professional tests will be made, in cooperation with Western colleagues. Also open colloquy with the participation of civil society – journalists, lawyers, human rights activists. I personally know judges, and prosecutors, who have 12 cars, 4 yachts. One of them owns a bank.
What do you want to discuss with them? Can’t you just sack them?
We need to discuss. We need proofs. What if these are the wife’s cars, what if she’s a businesswoman? But I can tell you that 20% of the judges gave up applying.
It means they understood.
They understood that their time is finished. The others applied. We need to process the applications. The wife with the 12 cars can be a businesswoman, but if in her tax declaration doesn’t support that, the trick won’t work.
Do you have any obligations to deliver under the Minsk agreement?
Thank god, no.
Maybe on the return of prisoners [point 6. of Minsk II agreement]?
Indeed, we participate in the issue of the exchange of people. We have many of them, some have received sentences for supporting terrorism, for organising separatist movements. Under humanitarian considerations, we are keen of exchanging them. Of course, the court or the president will have the final word.
How about the Odessa tragedy? Recently the EU insisted that the investigation should lead to a result.
Yesterday I met with my Dutch colleague, we discussed the investigations of the downed airplane of Air Malaysia [MH17]. It is not possible to go faster. Despite the fact that there are many clear circumstances, that there was military hardware, there was a rocket, there was military personnel who was involved, we know from where they came, where they went, from where they fired. But this is a huge work to question witnesses.
Similarly, the Odessa tragedy needs time and effort. This was one of the first ten cases I have studied, and I didn’t sense efficiency from the investigators. This is why the services in charge were given twice as many personnel. This also concerns the teams investigating the Maidan killings. 150 people at present deal with this dossier. I hope this will lead to positive results, and to honest answers to the questions.