KIEV (Reuters) - Ukraine’s parliament provisionally approved on Thursday a law allowing the government to seize what it says are offshore assets of Kremlin-backed former president Viktor Yanukovich without the need for a court order.
Yanukovich was ousted by the 2013/2014 Maidan street protests and fled to Russia, lighting the fuse for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and a separatist uprising in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Since his ouster, Ukrainians have grown increasingly impatient with Ukraine’s new leaders for not doing enough to tackle endemic corruption and with the cozy ties between politicians and business that also flourished under Yanukovich.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk’s party said the law would allow the government to seize as much as 50 billion hryvnia ($1.9 billion) worth of government bonds and use the money for social and defense spending.
The law is “essential for our country, army and pensioners”, lawmaker Serhiy Pashinsky told parliament.
Yatseniuk’s party says the bonds were bought with money the former president and his cronies had plundered from the state. Yatseniuk said Yanukovich holds the bonds through 42 offshore companies spread across Cyprus, the Seychelles, Britain, Panama and Belize.
“Restoring justice was and is one of the key demands of Maidan and the Ukrainian people. This is $1.5 billion - equivalent to the volume of aid (to Ukraine) from the U.S. government,” he told a government meeting on Wednesday.
But the legislation drew criticism from other political parties, who argued it violated international law and could be challenged by Yanukovich in court, meaning Ukraine might be forced to pay back the money and a hefty fine. Lawmakers also warned the law could be abused to pursue political vendettas.
“(It) is not transparent, it’s very risky. This law gives Yanukovich and his comrades-in-arms the option to sue later,” lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem told journalists.
Yatseniuk’s People’s Front forced the legislation onto parliament’s agenda after disrupting proceedings for two consecutive days, saying it would not allow parliament to function unless the law was discussed.
It was approved on the first reading but needs to be voted on again and then be signed by President Petro Poroshenko in order to come into force. Confident of a positive outcome, Yatseniuk had included the expected windfall in the 2016 budget.
A representative for Yanukovich’s family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in MOSCOW; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones