Ukraine frees farm minister on bail pending probe into graft allegations

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Solskyi attends an interview with Reuters in Kyiv

By Pavel Polityuk and Olena Harmash

KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky was released from custody on bail on Friday pending a corruption investigation into allegations he took part in an illegal acquisition of state-owned land worth some $7 million.

Solsky has denied the allegations, which relate to events in 2017-2021 before he started as farm minister in March 2022. He was ordered into custody on Friday, but later told Reuters that bail of 75.7 million hryvnias ($1.9 million) had been paid.

Solsky tendered his resignation on Thursday but technically remains in his post until parliament reviews his request. He is the first known minister under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to be named a suspect in a graft case.

The investigation is to determine whether Solsky should be formally charged and put on trial. Prosecutors told a court hearing on Thursday the allegations were punishable by up to 12 years in jail. Solsky was unavailable for immediate comment.

The 44-year-old Solsky has been at the centre of Ukraine's effort to keep its grain industry going as Russia's full-scale invasion has blocked Black Sea export routes, strewn fields with landmines and left significant farmland occupied.

Kyiv has applied to join the European Union and its farming minister will be heavily involved in negotiations to integrate the country's giant grain industry into the 27-member bloc.

Prosecutors say Solsky was part of a group of 12 officials and businessmen who organised a scheme to expropriate land from two state firms worth 291 million hryvnia ($7.35 million).

They say the group tried to illicitly transfer other land worth 190 million hryvnia but stopped when an investigation was launched.

Solsky was working as a lawyer in 2017, was elected as a lawmaker in 2019 and became the head of parliament's agrarian policy committee.

Prosecutors said the land in question was transferred to war veterans on the condition they lease it to some private firms, and that the original ownership deeds for the land had been destroyed.

Solsky denied at Thursday's hearing that he benefited from any such scheme.

A major farm union declined to comment on the Solsky custody ruling when reached by Reuters.

Zelenskiy has tried to project a zero-tolerance line on corruption and last year replaced his defence minister after graft allegations pertaining to the defence ministry.

The government has implemented reforms to eliminate embezzlement schemes targeting state enterprises, increase transparency and introduce more digital state services as part of broader efforts to reduce corruption.

Since Russia's 2022 invasion, Zelenskiy’s government has stepped up asset seizures from companies and individuals in businesses that had been working with Moscow and financing pro-Russian media and political parties in Ukraine.

In September 2023, in one of the largest anti-corruption cases, authorities arrested tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky over a wide range of criminal charges including forgery and major fraud. Kolomoisky denies those charges.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Olena Harmash; editing by Michael Perry, Tom Balmforth and Mark Heinrich)