(Adds quotes, details, banking reform bill vote)
By Natalia Zinets
KIEV, April 27 (Reuters) - Ukraine’s Supreme Court postponed a review of a lower court decision on a major case in the legal battle over the nationalisation of the country’s biggest bank, saying pressure had been put on its judges, which it would refer to prosecutors.
Litigation over the fate of PrivatBank, which was nationalised in 2016, is widely seen as a test of the government’s ability to guarantee the rule of law under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The International Monetary Fund has made transparent resolution of the case a condition of an $8 billion aid package that Ukraine needs to stave off default.
PrivatBank was nationalised after the central bank concluded its lending was shady and it was close to insolvent. Its former owner, billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, has fought ever since to reverse the move, which he says was political.
Monday’s allegation of pressure on judges concerns a Supreme Court review of a lower court decision, that PrivatBank must pay back more than 1 billion hryvnias ($37 million) to two brothers, Hryhoriy and Ihor Surkis, whose deposits were not returned after the central bank ruled they were allies of Kolomoisky.
The Surkis case is seen as a precedent for a range of other lawsuits which seek $1.1 billion in restitution from the nationalised lender, and which the central bank describes as part of a campaign by Kolomoisky to regain control of it.
“Recently, judges of the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court have been pressured through social networks and the media related to the consideration of this case,” a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court said by phone about the Surkis case.
“Therefore, the judges decided to appeal with a relevant report of interference in their activities regarding the administration of justice.”
The court did not say which side it blamed for putting pressure on the judges. A representative for the Surkis family could not be immediately reached for comment.
Zelenskiy, who rose to fame as an actor on a TV channel owned by Kolomoisky, has denied that he would serve the businessman’s interest since coming to power last year.
Lawmakers said on Monday a banking bill, whose passage is crucial for the IMF money to start flowing, was ready to be put to a final vote in parliament. The bill prevents former owners of banks declared insolvent from regaining their assets, and is seen as a measure against Kolomoisky.
The central bank and PrivatBank worry that a Surkis victory in the case would create a precedent and trigger other claims.
“The course of all other trials on the nationalisation of PrivatBank depends on the decision in this case,” the central bank said in a statement. “These are the cases in which Ihor Kolomoisky wants to invalidate the nationalisation of PrivatBank and return it to himself.” (Editing by Matthias Williams, Mark Heinrich and Peter Graff)