KIEV: Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko, who faces a tough re-election bid next month, came under fire on Tuesday after a close associate was accused of enriching himself by smuggling military parts from Russia.
Accusations of ties involving Russia are extremely sensitive in Ukraine which has battled against Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, in a conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives.
Ukrainians are due to elect a president on March 31, five years after a pro-Western popular uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime, Moscow annexed Crimea and war erupted between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels in the east of the ex-Soviet country.
On Monday, an independent media outlet aired a report alleging that people close to Poroshenko had smuggled parts for military equipment from Russia.
The investigation claimed that close Poroshenko associate Oleg Gladkovsky, who is first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, and his son have been directly involved in the scheme.
It claimed they enriched themselves by selling the smuggled parts to state defence companies at highly inflated prices.
The investigation claimed that the state-run defence company Ukroboronprom and its general director Pavlo Bukin were also involved in the scheme.
The state-run defence holding accused the investigative journalists of manipulating data, suggesting they might have received some information from criminal probes that had been opened in 2015-2016.
Poroshenko himself was not involved in the scheme but Bihus.info, the Kiev-based investigative journalism unit, claimed he had turned a blind eye to protect Gladkovsky.
There was no immediate reaction from Poroshenko but his spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said the leader had tasked law enforcement agencies with conducting an “urgent probe” into the matter.
Gladkovsky said he was temporarily stepping down from the security council for the duration of the probe, a move Poroshenko approved.
“I categorically reject all allegations made in the so-called investigation,” Gladkovsky said in a statement.
Many Ukrainians have been disillusioned with Poroshenko’s rule, saying he has failed to rid the country of corruption and improve the quality of life.
Observers expect the latest controversy to further complicate his bid to win a second term in office, even though his poll numbers have recently improved.
The current frontrunner is comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky, with more 26 percent saying they would vote for the 41-year-old according to a recent opinion poll.
The poll published by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology on Monday put Poroshenko in second place with 18 percent, while former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko came third with more than 13 percent.
After the publication of the investigation Tymoshenko accused Poroshenko of treason, saying he should be impeached.
“Essentially the president worked on the side of the aggressor,” she said in parliament, referring to Russia.
Frontrunner Zelensky said he “had no words.”
“People who came to power on blood are earning on blood,” he said in an address on Facebook, in an apparent reference to Poroshenko who was elected president after the 2014 bloody uprising and has since overseen the conflict with the Moscow-backed insurgents.
Oleg Lyashko, the Radical Party leader who is also running for president, said Poroshenko “should be shot” if the report proved correct.
“If this is true,” he said in parliament,” it is a huge crime, it is state treason.”