Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s former president, arrived in Kyiv on Monday to face treason accusations in a case he claims was fabricated by supporters of his successor, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Poroshenko accused border guards of stealing his passport during a brief standoff at border control after landing on a flight from Warsaw. Outside the airport, he was met by tens of thousands of shouting and flag-waving supporters.
Poroshenko’s homecoming sets up a battle with President Zelenskiy’s administration, which opponents say is an ill-timed distraction as Ukraine prepares for a possible Russian military invasion and seeks help from its Western friends.
Prior to the entrance of Poroshenko, who served as president from 2014 to 2019, Western diplomats appealed for political unity in Ukraine.
Poroshenko, 56, is being probed for treason in connection with unlawful coal sales in 2014-15 that were used to fund Russian-backed separatist rebels. If convicted, he may face a sentence of 15 years in prison. His party accused Zelenskiy of attempting to muzzle political opponents in a risky manner.
The administration of Zelenskiy claims that the prosecutors and judges are autonomous, and that Poroshenko believes he is above the law. In a 2019 election, Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko. He campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption and oligarchic influence in the former Soviet republic.
“We are not here to protect Poroshenko, but to unify and safeguard Ukraine,” he told the gathering before proceeding to the Pechersk court in central Kyiv for a hearing on his case, as supporters chanted outside.
“The authorities are confused, weak, and instead of fighting (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, they are trying to attack us,” he told the crowd during a break in the court session.
A spokeswoman for the State Bureau of Investigations (DBR), Tetiana Sapyan, told a separate briefing that the DBR was nonpartisan.
After a nearly 12-hour hearing, the court decided to postpone a judgement on whether or not to warrant Poroshenko’s arrest. Following the conclusion of the session, the former president and his supporters burst into song. On Wednesday, the hearing will resume.
“Today we did not win the war, we did not win the battle,” Poroshenko told the gathering, “but we kept our positions, keeping them from advancing.”
On Friday, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff dismissed claims that he was acting like Viktor Yanukovich, a former president backed by Russia whose political challenger Yulia Tymoshenko was imprisoned in a case widely regarded as politicised by Western countries.
After warning of a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops on its borders, Ukraine has attempted to mobilise Western support in its standoff with Moscow.
Poroshenko, a confectionery magnate, was elected as the head of a pro-Western administration following Yanukovich’s ouster in 2014.
After Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula and backed separatist militants in eastern Ukraine, relations between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated in 2014.
Prosecutors urged a Ukrainian court in December to detain Poroshenko, with a bond amount of 1 billion hryvnia ($37 million) on the table.