Friday, March 30, 2007

Who’s Next In Gangster Paradise?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Anyone living in modern-day Ukraine probably has a laugh when he sees the country portrayed as a gangster paradise in some low-budget Hollywood film.


Those days are long gone – right? Following this week’s murder of reputed Russian mobster Maksim Kurochkin, the jury may still be out.

The jury was in fact in session, or at least a trial was in session on the afternoon of March 27, when Kurochkin, who is known to have rubbed elbows in top Ukrainian and Russian political circles, was shot dead outside a courthouse in police custody. Not long before, two of his close associates were murdered just outside the Ukrainian capital.

Kurochkin, who supported Viktor Yanukovych’s fraud-marred bid for the presidency in 2004, had been locked up in a Kyiv remand center since being picked up on extortion charges last fall. Just before being killed by a sniper rifle, he was seen on Ukrainian TV pleading for protection.

Unfortunately the Ukrainian police were less protective than one might expect. The Russian national wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest and the killers got away clean.

Ukrainian officials were equally incompetent and/or corrupt in their attempts to explain how they could have let such a thing happen. One excuse put forward by a top police official is that Kurochkin had not asked in writing for extra security. The 38-year-old’s alleged connections to organized crime and dirty politics have been widely reported by Ukrainian media, so suffice it to say that nobody is particularly shocked by his murder, but we really should be.

Kurochkin was uncomfortably close to Ukraine’s and Russia’s political elite. Moreover, his murder follows on the poorly explained deaths of undisputed Ukrainian politicians, such as Yevhen Kushnaryov, a top member of Prime Minister Yanukovych’s party of power. Years earlier, we witnessed the strange suicides of Transport Minister Heorhy Kirpa and Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko. Kushnaryov was killed in a hunting accident, while the other two supposedly committed suicide. Yanukovych himself has yet to satisfactorily explain serious allegations of a criminal past. But that’s all in the past – or so many thought.

Following the Orange Revolution, which swept President Viktor Yushchenko to power, the country started being seen as a place to invest and a future member of Europe. Prior to the street demonstrations that put Ukraine on the map, the country was known as ground zero for the Chornobyl disaster or, by the turn of the century, a dangerous place for journalists who criticize the authorities. Has anyone forgotten Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a wood outside Kyiv in late 2000?

A memorial to the ill-fated journalist was erected in the center of Kyiv just last week. Normally this would be considered a sign of respect, that is, if it weren’t for the fact that the people who ordered his murder have still not been brought to justice.

Murders take place in the most democratic countries of the world, and sometimes they are connected to people of power who never face justice, but their frequency in Ukraine – seemingly more frequent again – combined with the unprofessional and murky response to them by police is not something that should be taken lightly. Often the victims’ families, as in the case of Gongadze, suffer a thousand more indignities and abuses by the authorities. The question is how long such blatant disrespect for law will continue? If influential and famous people can be knocked off with impunity, then what can the rest of us expect?

The problem does not lie solely with one political party or another, as many of Ukraine’s lawmakers change factions frequently. The problem is the authorities’ attitude toward the rule of law.

Moral foundations are under attack in politics and on the streets. Yanukovych became the country’s top executive again thanks to the combination of fair elections and political betrayal by the Socialist Party. Increasingly corrupt courts are also causing headaches for investors.

Ukraine needs a fresh jolt of moral fiber. The country’s leaders should lead the way. If they fail, it will be anyone’s guess as to know who will be next and how deep their grave will be.

Source: Kyiv Post

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