Kyiv Post Editorial: Too Many Corpses

KIEV, Ukraine -- It has tended to be lost in all the excitement of a new government that some influential Ukrainians, with important ties to the nation’s business and political elite, have died recently under strange circumstances. There has been no adequate accounting for these deaths, but there must be if Ukraine is to move forward.

First, on Dec. 3 of last year, lawyer Yuriy Lyakh, 39, was found dead in his office at the Kyiv headquarters of the Ukrainian Credit Bank, of which he was the chairman. The case was ruled a suicide, and a note was reported to have been found on the scene. Lyakh had ostensibly stabbed himself to death in the neck with a paper knife.

With a paper knife? It doesn’t take a paranoid to view the official version of Lyakh’s death with a certain suspicion. Lyakh was, to put it mildly, well-connected. He was one of the so-called Big Seven, a group of associates of Viktor Medvedchuk, the former Presidential Administration chief, head of the influential Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united), and perennial power-player. Media reports have placed Medvedchuk at the center of the election fraud controversy that led to the so-called Orange Revolution, and implied that he wanted a hard line taken with anti-government protestors.

Then, on Dec. 27, Transportation Minister Heorhy Kirpa was found shot dead in a bathhouse near his home outside Kyiv., the Post’s Russian-language sister publication, reported that Kirpa had met with an unknown member of Ukraine’s elite hours before his death. His demise was also ruled a suicide. The Prosecutor General’s Office reportedly opened an investigation into whether Kirpa had been driven to kill himself.

Heorhy Kirpa

Next, on Feb. 14, Roman Nikiforov, head of Donetsk’s Artemivsky Champagne Factory, reportedly shot himself by mistake with a rubber bullet. The Artemivsky Champagne Factory, media reports allege, is co-owned by powerful Donetsk-based tycoon Rinat Akhmetov.

President Viktor Yushchenko has, appropriately, ordered the PGO to investigate the Lyakh and Kirpa deaths. We’re not sure current Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Pyskun, a holdover from the previous power structure, is the man to get to the bottom of these peculiar cases, but Yushchenko’s move is a start, if only a start. Time will tell whether Nikiforov’s death deserves investigation as well.

For years, Ukraine has been a country in which suspicious deaths – starting with the king of them all, the 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze – don’t get solved. Capital mysteries drag on for years, as if powerful people don’t want them solved. It’s hard to imagine a better index of corruption than that. If Ukraine is to become the “European” country Yushchenko says it is, it must stop being one in which the authorities are blase (or self-interested) in solving capital crimes, and in which skeletons are allowed to rattle eternally in official closets. How can Ukraine move forward if it’s weighted down with corpses?

All these cases must be resolved to the satisfaction of reasonable people; the era in which the government drags its feet on investigating suspicious cases must end. Pressure has to be kept on Yushchenko and his government until there are answers. Taking him at his word, Ukrainians should never let him compromise.