Orange Princess targets `Kuchma clan'

UKRAINE'S NEW rulers have started to unwind the country's biggest privatisation on the grounds that it was "bare-faced robbery" and set about stripping the former president, Leonid Kuchma, of his official perks.

The process is being driven by the country's new Prime Minister, Julia Tymoshenko, who suffered at the hands of the old regime when she spent more than a month in jail on what she says were trumped-up embezzlement charges.

There is personal animosity between Mrs Tymoshenko - known as the "Orange Princess" because of the role she played in the Orange Revolution - and Mr Kuchma, who fired her when she was deputy prime minister in his administration in 2001.

And now that the tables have turned the so-called "Kuchma clan" - the billionaire businessmen who grew rich under the former president - are also believed to be firmly in her sights.

Her attack, which has apparently been sanctioned by Ukraine's new President Viktor Yushchenko and is likely to see many of the country's most lucrative assets redistributed, will be two-pronged.

Firstly, one of Mrs Tymoshenko's first acts as Prime Minister was to begin the reversal of the 2004 privatisation of Krivorozhtal, Ukraine's biggest steel producer. The company employs 52,000 people, and has pre- tax profit of about $300m (pounds 161m).

The move, announced at the administration's first cabinet meeting last Saturday, strikes right at the heart of the Kuchma clan. The company is co-owned by Viktor Pinchuk, an MP who is also Mr Kuchma's son-in-law, and by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, who bankrolled the election campaign of Mr Yushchenko's defeated presidential opponent, Viktor Yanukovych.

Its sale last year took place amid accusations of corruption and nepotism.

The deal was pushed through by Mr Kuchma in the face of vocal opposition. The tough auction rules set out by Ukraine's state property fund meant that foreign bidders, of whom there were many, were barred from bidding.

Mr Kuchma's son-in-law and others snapped up Krivorozhtal for what was regarded as a ludicrously low price of around $800m; a US-UK consortium had offered $1.5bn.

Mrs Tymoshenko called the sale "a bare-faced robbery" and Mr Yushchenko has said the sale needs to be reversed in order to give Ukraine a future.

Mr Yushchenko said: "Many of its shares were transferred without any competition, in the same way as Catherine the Great handed out land in the south of Ukraine to her lovers and favourites 200 years ago.

"If ... we forget how Krivorozhtal was stolen we will never bring order to this country."

Legal proceedings to renationalise the firm have now begun and the government has said it will re-auction Krivorozhtal fairly once these proceedings are completed.

Mr Kuchma's perks as a former president are, it would seem, next in the firing line.

Mrs Tymoshenko has ordered the government to conduct a detailed analysis of the "legality" of his state privileges, which are reported to include a state-owned dacha (country house), two cars and four drivers, an undisclosed monthly cash payout, two assistants, an adviser and a security detail. Calls to prosecute Mr Kuchma, who does not enjoy legal immunity, have also begun. His detractors accuse him of treason, corruption and of ordering the murder of an investigative journalist.

Mr Kuchma denies he has done anything wrong. Mr Pinchuk has said Mr Kuchma is relaxed about the situation. Earlier this month he said his father-in-law was going to the gym every day and working on setting up a special foundation.