Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko has returned to the country to face court on treason charges he believes are politically motivated.
Poroshenko was greeted by several thousand cheering supporters at Kyiv airport, where he arrived on a flight from Warsaw on Monday morning. Some carried banners saying “We need democracy” and “Stop repressions.”
From the airport, Poroshenko headed straight to court, which will rule on whether to remand him in custody pending investigation and trial.
A prosecutor has alleged that Poroshenko, the owner of the Roshen confectionery empire and one of Ukraine’s richest businesspeople, was involved in the sale of large amounts of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15.
Poroshenko’s assets have been frozen as part of its investigation into the allegations of high treason. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Poroshenko insists he is innocent and accuses his successor as president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of seeking to discredit him politically to distract from Ukraine’s widespread problems, including economic woes and rising deaths from Covid-19.
The charges are the latest in a string of accusations levelled against Poroshenko since he was defeated by Zelenskiy in 2019. The allegations have generated concerns of undemocratic score-settling in Ukraine and also alarmed the country’s allies.
They come as Russia has built up troops along the border and the US has voiced concerns that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, might be planning an invasion of Ukraine.
Poroshenko was defeated by voters after a corruption scandal and a mixed record on reforms, but he emerged with strong patriotic credentials for his work in rebuilding the Ukrainian army as it fought Russian-backed insurgent fighters in the east.
Zelenskiy says he is waging a fight against oligarchs that is aimed at reducing their influence in Ukraine’s political and economic life.
Poroshenko has been outside of Ukraine for weeks, meeting with leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other European capitals.
Outside Kyiv airport on Monday, the former president greeted a large crowd of his supporters and delivered an elaborate speech, urging them to follow him to the courthouse. He called the charges against him “a challenge to all of us”.
“(The authorities) are setting us back 10 years. We’re here not to defend Poroshenko, we’re here to join forces and defend Ukraine,” Poroshenko said. “United Ukraine is strong, and a strong Ukraine is capable of pushing back (against) Putin.”
His supporters believe the charges against him are politically motivated. “It is a revenge of the authorities and an attempt by Zelenskiy to eliminate his biggest rival in Ukraine’s politics,” Anton Ivashchenko, 42, said at the airport.
“Persecution of Poroshenko sows animosity and discord among those who push for … Ukraine’s closer ties with the west.”