Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s former president, flew back to Kyiv on Monday to face treason charges which he claims are part of a politically motivated witch-hunt orchestrated by his successor Volodymyr Zelensky.
The charges were announced late last year as Poroshenko travelled abroad for the holiday period and involve coal purchases from Russian-backed breakaway eastern regions while Poroshenko was president from 2014 to 2019.
Along with dozens of other criminal probes into Poroshenko under Zelensky’s presidency, the cases have alarmed Ukraine’s western backers who fear domestic political instability at a time when the country faces a threat from an estimated 100,000 Russian troops amassed along its borders.
“All political leaders in Ukraine need to unite against Russian aggression right now. So important at this time not to lose sight of this or be distracted by polarising domestic politics,” Melinda Simmons, the UK’s ambassador to Kyiv, tweeted on Monday.
Appearing at court on Monday Poroshenko, who is now an opposition leader and MP, described the case as a “red line” and “farce organised by Zelensky”.
The judge in the hearing was expected either to set bail for Poroshenko, order him to be held or release him.
Since defeating Poroshenko by a landslide in a 2019 presidential runoff, Zelensky has repeatedly suggested his rival would face criminal charges for alleged wrongdoings but he has not in past weeks commented on the current case.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, in comments to Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Monday criticised Poroshenko for exhibiting “disrespect for the basic procedural rules” by leaving the country late last year when he was summoned by investigators.
“This behaviour of a particular politician largely explains the reasons why the transformation of Ukraine into a modern and rule-of-law state has dragged on so long since the 1990s,” Podolyak added.
If convicted Poroshenko, a confectionery and media magnate, faces up to 15 years in prison. In a ruling issued while Poroshenko was abroad, a court ordered his assets to be frozen.
Zelensky has pledged to crack down on the country’s oligarchs, including through recently adopted “de-oligarchisation” legislation, which prohibits them from funding political parties and requires all contact with public servants to be reported.
Speaking to the Financial Times before his return from Poland, Poroshenko offered to work with Zelensky in the interests of national unity while expressing concern that politically motivated criminal cases against him could destabilise the country. That, in turn, he said, would make Ukraine more vulnerable to an invasion by Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented a proxy separatist war in eastern regions.
“Instead of joining forces, as our foreign partners are doing, the Ukrainian government is irresponsibly destroying national unity instead of building it,” said Poroshenko, leader of the opposition European Solidarity party.
“I and my political force are ready to provide our backs to Zelensky,” he said. “I am returning to Ukraine not to fight with Zelensky, I am returning to Ukraine to defend Ukraine.”