By Natalia Zinets
KIEV (Reuters) – The day after Ukraine elected a new president in April, former central bank chief Valeria Gontareva was summoned for questioning as a suspect in a corruption investigation.
Days later, a Ukrainian journalist launched a Facebook campaign against Gontareva, accusing her of corruption. At his request, thousands of people sent emails to her new employer in London accusing her of pilfering state funds.
Gontareva, a liberal economic reformer who quit as the National Bank of Ukraine’s governor in April 2017, denies wrongdoing. She believes she is a victim of “political persecution” and is afraid to set foot in Ukraine.
Gontareva, 54, says she is being hounded as part of a long-running battle over her decision in December 2016 to nationalize PrivatBank, Ukraine’s biggest lender. In doing so, she took on Ihor Kolomoisky, the oligarch who was the bank’s main owner.
Gontareva says Kolomoisky’s allies have been emboldened by Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election victory on April 21 because the new president and the tycoon are business associates. The aim, she says, is to undermine her and other reformers’ credibility as Kolomoisky tries to regain control of PrivatBank.
“This is not just a coincidence,” Gontareva told Reuters by telephone from London, where she now works as a Senior Policy Fellow at the London School of Economics. “They have become more active, because they feel complete impunity, a lack of justice in the country … They are Kolomoisky’s clowns.”
Reuters has seen no evidence that Kolomoisky, or the new presidential administration, was behind the General Prosecutor’s request to question Gontareva or the Facebook campaign.
Kolomoisky denies orchestrating a campaign against Gontareva. Zelenskiy has said he will not help Kolomoisky in the legal battle over PrivatBank.
How the battle unfolds could be crucial to Ukraine’s chances of continuing its recovery from the economic and political turmoil of 2014, when weeks of street protests toppled a pro-Moscow president, pro-Russian separatists rose up in eastern Ukraine and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.
The central bank said PrivatBank had been used for fraud and money-laundering. Kolomoisky has denied wrongdoing and is fighting the decision. A Kiev court ruled on April 18 that the nationalization was illegal, and the central bank has appealed against the ruling.
The central bank says that reversing the nationalization would rock investor confidence and sour relations with the International Monetary Fund, which helps keep Ukraine’s economy on an even keel with a $3.9 billion aid-for-reforms program.
In a sign of investors’ nervousness about the April 18 court ruling, deposits worth more than $300 million were taken out of PrivatBank in the next few weeks.
COFFIN LEFT OUTSIDE CENTRAL BANK
As central bank chief from June 2014, Gontareva closed dozens of banks in a clean-up of the banking system, accusing some of being money-laundering vehicles or personal piggy banks for oligarchs.
Her reforms were praised by the IMF but made her unpopular with some Ukrainian lawmakers and business leaders. Opponents once left a coffin with a cutout of her face at the central bank’s entrance.
The criminal investigation in which Ukraine’s General Prosecutor asked to question Gontareva dates to 2013 and centers around allegations that associates of former President Viktor Yanukovich helped him steal 2.069 billion hryvnia — $259 million at the exchange rate at the time — from the state.
Yanukovich, who fled to Russia in February 2014 after weeks of street protests, has denied wrongdoing. Gontareva says the allegations against her are “utter rubbish” and part of a vendetta against economic reformers. She says she has never met Yanukovich.
The General Prosecutor’s office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment, including on whether Gontareva is still wanted for questioning.
She told Reuters the April 18 court decision on PrivatBank and the Facebook campaign against her were part of “a planned act intended to destroy all our achievements over the past five years.”
Alexander Dubinsky, who launched the Facebook campaign, says that under Gontareva, the central bank and Ukraine’s economy suffered “enormous damage”.
“She acted like a vulture, attacking weakened banks in order to create conditions for the plundering and redistribution of assets,” he wrote in response to questions from Reuters.
The London School of Economics confirmed it had “a very large number” of similar emails critical of Gontareva. But an LSE spokesman said: “The School has not responded to the emails and will not be taking any action based on their contents.”
Dubinsky works for the 1+1 television channel, which is owned by Kolomoisky, but he denies the oligarch is behind the Facebook campaign.
“As for your question regarding my relationship with Mr Kolomoisky, there is none,” Dubinsky told Reuters.
It is not clear whether Dubinsky has any association with Zelenskiy but he is on a list of Zelenskiy’s top 20 candidates running for parliamentary seats in an election next month.
Kolomoisky has accused Gontareva and a deputy governor of the central bank, Kateryna Rozhkova, of blocking attempts to reach a compromise between him and the Ukrainian authorities over PrivatBank through an intermediary, Rothschild bank. Gontareva and Rozhkova deny Kolomoisky’s accusations.
The oligarch has called since the election for “odious individuals” he did not name to be removed from the bank.
Zelenskiy has said he will maintain the central bank’s independence. Artem Shevalev, a member of PrivatBank’s supervisory board, told Reuters he had seen no interference at the bank by the new presidential team.
But Shevalev said PrivatBank, the central bank and the finance ministry were under attack from “certain media sources” that were “targeting the nationalization” of the bank.
He suggested the next stage of the legal battle over PrivatBank would show whether this campaign was proving effective.
“We are expecting the next court rulings (on PrivatBank’s nationalization) some time in July,” he said. “That is your litmus test.”
(Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London, Writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by)