By Tom Warner in Kiev
Published: April 12 2005 03:00 | Last updated: April 12 2005 03:00
The arrest of a top politician and businessman closely linked to Ukraine's richest man has sharpened the conflict between President Viktor Yushchenko and the embattled power brokers of Leonid Kuchma, his predecessor.
Boris Kolesnikov, a close friend and partner of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest industrialist, was arrested last week for alleged racketeering in a case that Mr Yushchenko's government says was reported to police in 2002 but ignored until this year.
Yuri Lutsenko, interior minister, said at the weekend he would issue arrest warrants for Mr Akhmetov's brother and five businessmen close to him if they failed to appear for questioning. Mr Kolesnikov has not been charged, but a Kiev court has permitted prosecutors to keep him in prison for up to two months while they investigate allegations he used a campaign of threats and violence, including two bombings and a spray of machine-gun fire, to scare a department store owner in Donetsk into selling his shares at a discount.
Mr Kolesnikov is chairman of Donetsk's regional council and vice-president of Donetsk Shakhtar football team, owned by Mr Akhmetov.
Last year, a company jointly owned by Mr Akhmetov, Mr Kolesnikov and Mr Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, bought the country's largest steel mill, Kryvorizhstal, in a privatisation tender that Mr Yushchenko has denounced as rigged.
The arrest has galvanised Mr Yushchenko's opponents in parliament, many of whom are themselves businessmen who prospered during Mr Kuchma's rule.
Viktor Yanukovich, the former prime minister who lost to Mr Yushchenko in last winter's presidential elections, has threatened to lead a national strike and civil disobedience campaign.
Yesterday Mr Yanukovich published an open letter to Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, and other foreign leaders complaining that "a campaign of terror has been unleashed against the political opponents of the current authorities".
Mr Akhmetov owns a television channel and a popular tabloid newspaper which have strongly defended Mr Kolesnikov. However, protests in Kiev and Donetsk have drawn only a few hundred people.
Mr Kolesnikov's arrest came amid a review of past privatisations, which Mr Yushchenko and his government believe were abused to enrich Mr Kuchma's and Mr Yanukovich's friends.
Besides seeking to reverse the sale of Kryvorizhstal, Mr Yushchenko has said his government will review up to 40 other privatisations, including a stake in a large ore mine and mill Mr Akhmetov bought last year.
The allegations against Mr Kolesnikov are unrelated to privatisation, but they fit into a broader concern held by Mr Yushchenko that Mr Kuchma gave his cronies free reign to dominate the private sector.
Yulia Tymoshenko, prime minister, said yesterday that the arrest was a criminal case and not under her purview, but added: "The people who brazenly robbed our country in recent years certainly must answer for it."
The case has invited comparisons with the arrest of Platon Lebedev in Russia in 2003, which was a precursor to the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantling of Yukos, their oil company.