Ukraine opposition blasts president as court freezes predecessor's assets

·3-min read
Ukraine's former President Poroshenko speaks at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Kiev

By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine's pro-Western opposition accused President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of autocratic behaviour on Thursday after a court froze the assets of Zelenskiy's predecessor Petro Poroshenko and two television channels that once belonged to him.

The asset seizures were part of a formal investigation into whether Poroshenko committed high treason by financing Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine while in office in 2014-2015.

He has denied the allegations. Poroshenko's European Solidarity party called the ruling by Kyiv's Pechersk court "illegal, unjust" and designed to silence opposition to Zelenskiy's rule.

Zelenskiy has not commented on the court's decisions but previously denied wanting to wield influence over state prosecutors or the judiciary.

"The current statements from Mr. Poroshenko's party are not surprising," Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Zelenskiy's office, said in written comments to Reuters.

"They need to say something loud to distract attention and not explain Poroshenko's de facto flight abroad from investigative actions," he said. "The status of ex-president does not give the privilege to ignore investigative actions and court hearings."

The court also froze the assets of two television channels, Channel 5 and Priamyi kanal, which Poroshenko owned until November before putting them into a holding company.

"I'm not a lawyer, but as far as I understand, arrest does not mean closure. The channels continue to operate," Zelenskiy's spokesman Sergii Nykyforov said. "Freedom of speech has not suffered," he said in written comments.

The row hit as Ukraine is scrambling to secure international support in its standoff with Moscow, after sounding the alarm about a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops near its borders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration denies planning a major military offensive against Ukraine but has demanded security guarantees from the West, including a halt to NATO's eastward expansion. U.S. and Russian officials meet for talks next week.

"...the government, instead of consolidating Ukrainian society to oppose Putin, is fuelling internal confrontation. Thus it recklessly and irresponsibly weakens the front against Russian aggression," said a statement by Poroshenko's party.

"Zelenskiy, like other autocrats, is mistaken in believing that the seizure of assets and accounts will create insurmountable obstacles to the activities of the opposition."

Last month, prosecutors asked a Ukrainian court to arrest Poroshenko with the possibility of bail set at 1 billion hryvnia ($37 million).

Poroshenko has been outside Ukraine since late December and has not yet commented on the ruling. He has said that he plans to come back to Ukraine on Jan. 17.

"The court decided to seize the suspect's property, which belongs to him on the right of ownership," the Prosecutor General's office said in a statement.

A confectionary tycoon and one of Ukraine's richest citizens, Poroshenko was elected as head of a pro-Western government after the 2014 Maidan street protests ousted his Russian-backed predecessor.

Zelenskiy beat Poroshenko in a landslide election in 2019 on a ticket to tackle corruption and curb the influence of oligarchs in the ex-Soviet country.

Zelenskiy's party passed a law last year, banning oligarchs from financing political parties or owning television stations. Opposition parties said the law concentrated too much power in Zelenskiy's hands.

Poroshenko said in November he had been forced to sell the TV channels due to the new law. Both TV stations on Thursday published comments from Poroshenko's allies that criticised the court decision.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Pavel Polityuk and Matthias Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and David Gregorio)

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