Ukraine’s former president accuses Kyiv of risking national unity

Former Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko accused the incumbent Volodymyr Zelensky of risking national unity at a time of heightened fears of a full-blown Russian invasion by trying to sideline him through a politically motivated prosecution.

“Today, when all of Europe and the whole world including all of Ukraine need to unite against [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, strange things are happening in Ukraine,” Poroshenko, the leading opposition rival to Zelensky, said in a Facebook video post from Warsaw on Tuesday.

Pledging to return to Ukraine in the new year, Poroshenko was speaking a day after Kyiv prosecutors and investigators charged him with treason and financing terrorism for securing coal supplies from Russian-occupied breakaway eastern regions while president from 2014 to 2019. He denies the allegations.

The criminal cases against Poroshenko, a confectionery and media magnate, come amid a broader crackdown by Zelensky against oligarchs including Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s most powerful businessman.

But the timing has increased concerns about national unity and stability at a time when US intelligence suspects that Russia is plotting to deepen aggression against Ukraine after having annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist war in the country’s east in 2014.

“I’ve received a greeting from the president’s office that they will be understanding if I stay in Europe,” Poroshenko said in comments that describe the charges as an attempt to exile him as an opposition leader.

Mocking Zelensky’s past as a comedian and film producer, Poroshenko added: “I will not give them such a gift and will return to Ukraine in the first half of January . . . according to my schedule, not according to the schedule of a powerful screenwriter for Zelensky.”

Denying wrongdoing, Poroshenko described the case against him as “crossing of red lines”, adding “this is no longer a joke”.

While abroad, Poroshenko said he was meeting Polish and other European politicians to “form a powerful coalition in support of Ukraine against Russia”. He said Russia had amassed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern borders “with the threat of invasion”.

Ukrainian authorities on Friday tried to physically serve Poroshenko with a notice of suspicion relating to the case brought by investigators and to be heard by the general prosecutor’s office. But the MP and leader of a top opposition party rushed into his vehicle and was driven away to the airport.

Ilya Novikov, a lawyer for Poroshenko, told the Financial Times that the foreign trip was pre-planned and included a meeting this weekend in Turkey with the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Novikov described the case as the most recent of “100 or more criminal cases where Poroshenko’s name appears”. Ukraine had no choice, the lawyer argued, but to buy coal from the Russian-controlled eastern regions in 2014-15 to avoid power blackouts.

There was no immediate comment on the case from Zelensky, who has previously made allegations about corrupt activities by Poroshenko while he was in power.

“The US is closely following the case against former President Poroshenko,” the US embassy in Kyiv said in a tweet on Tuesday. “[It is] crucial that the process and outcome be based on the rule of law, not politics.”

Poroshenko is polling second behind Zelensky ahead of presidential elections in 2024. The incumbent beat Poroshenko in 2019 with a landslide 73 per cent of the vote, but his popularity has since fallen by two-thirds.

“The country has one issue now and so does Zelensky . . . and that is dealing with the gravest of all possible threats from Russia,” said James Sherr, a senior fellow of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Centre for Defence and Security.

“He has to rally the country,” added Sherr.

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