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BELGRADE (Reuters) - A multi-millionaire gas tycoon who is wanted by police in his native Ukraine and blacklisted by the EU was briefly granted citizenship in Serbia, only for the government on Friday to reverse a decision that risked drawing fire from the West.
The strange case of 29-year-old Serhiy Kurchenko appeared to highlight the power of connections in the Balkan country, a candidate for membership of the European Union but with close ties to Russia.
The Serbian daily Blic first reported that Kurchenko, who grew rich under Ukraine's former Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovich, had been granted citizenship in Serbia, usually a long and complex procedure that takes years except under special circumstances.
A government official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, confirmed the government had approved his request, "in line with its right to do so under certain circumstances", only for it to be revoked on Friday on the orders of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
"The decision was taken, but the procedure was never completed," the official said, refusing to discuss who approved the request or why.
Kurchenko, who was close to Yanukovich before the president was overthrown in February and who is believed to hold Russian citizenship, is wanted in Ukraine on suspicion of stealing state property.
In March, as Russia moved to annex Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, Kurchenko was placed on a European Union sanctions list, a move he said at the time was the result of a "misunderstanding".
The Blic report said Serbia's Energy Ministry had proposed the government accept Kurchenko's citizenship application, as a "foreigner temporarily working in Serbia". Kurchenko's whereabouts are not known since Ukrainian media reports said he left the country in February.
An official at the Energy Ministry, which is controlled by Vucic's coalition partners in the Socialist Party, denied the ministry was involved.
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Alison Williams