Former President Petro Poroshenko has returned to Ukraine to fight treason charges he rejects as politically motivated, setting the stage for a divisive political storm as the government seeks the support of its Western partners amid heightened tensions with Russia.
At Kyiv airport, where he arrived on a flight from Warsaw on January 17, Poroshenko was greeted by several thousand supporters. Some held banners reading, "We need democracy" and "Stop repressions."
From the airport Poroshenko went to court, which will decide whether to remand him in custody during the investigation and trial. Prosecutors requested bail of 1 billion hryvnyas ($37 million) and the wearing of an electronic tracking bracelet as a condition for the release of the 56-year-old Poroshenko, one of Ukraine's richest businessmen.
After hours of proceedings, the court adjourned until January 19.
The accusations against Poroshenko are linked to an alleged sale of coal that helped finance Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15, while Poroshenko was in office.
Poroshenko, who is now a lawmaker and the leader of the opposition European Solidarity party, accuses his successor, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of political persecution.
The former president and his allies also accuse Zelenskiy of promoting political division at a time Ukraine needs unity in the face of a Russian troop buildup near its borders that has spawned fears of a possible attack.
"We're here not to defend Poroshenko, we're here to join forces and defend Ukraine," Poroshenko told supporters at Kyiv's airport after being out of the country since December. "United Ukraine is strong, and a strong Ukraine is capable of pushing back against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."
The billionaire businessman has already had his assets frozen as part of the investigation. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and began supporting separatist fighters in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine that broke out the same year and has claimed more than 13,200 lives.
The allegations against Poroshenko have caused international concern that Zelenskiy and his allies are settling scores at a time attention needs to be focused on the Russian troop buildup.
"All political leaders in Ukraine need to unite against Russian aggression right now. So important at this time not to lose sight of this or be distracted by polarizing domestic politics," Melinda Simmons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, said in a tweet on January 17.
During a visit by a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation to Kyiv on January 17, Senator Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) urged a fair process and encouraged unity among Ukrainians.
"We have to be sure that the rule of law is followed," Portman told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service after a press briefing. "I hope that the message of unification will be the strongest message."
Poroshenko was elected as head of a pro-Western government after the 2014 popular protests ousted Russia-backed former President Viktor Yanukovich.
Zelenskiy crushed Poroshenko in the 2019 election on a campaign to fight corruption and curb the influence of oligarchs.