A Litmus Test Turns Acidic?

KIEV, Ukraine -- The news was, at the time, sensational. On 1 March, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko emerged to declare that “we have every reason to believe that the murder of [Georgy] Gongadze has been solved.” It seemed that the central mystery of Ukrainian politics – a mystery that had turned Yushchenko’s predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, into an international pariah and helped activate opposition in Ukraine – might be coming to a close. Two Interior Ministry colonels who had taken part in the murder had been caught, Yushchenko said, topping off a series of news reports cataloguing progress in the case.

A month later, on 4 April, investigators claimed the two men had confessed to the killing. But in the meantime any sense of relief and optimism has dissipated.

Probably carried away by enthusiasm after Yushchenko’s happy declaration, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Piskun, then made what many believe was a fatal mistake. He publicly invited the two policemen’s former boss, ex-Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, for questioning on 4 March.

The questioning never took place. Hours before his interrogation, Kravchenko was found dead. He left a suicide note in which he declared that he had fallen “victim to political intrigues by Kuchma and his entourage” and that he was departing “with a clear conscience."

Yushchenko saw it differently. His judgment, delivered hours after Kravchenko’s death and before full details of his death were available, was that “everyone has his own judgment day.

“There is a choice: to sentence oneself rather than to cooperate with the court and prosecutors and give testimony.”

But hours later, the media had turned skeptical. Kravchenko had been struck not by one, but by two shots, it transpired. The first bullet hit his chin and went out near the nose. The second shot was to the temple. Police still insisted Kravchenko pulled the trigger, asserting that the first shot was not lethal. But even the justice minister, Roman Zvarych, expressed doubts about that conclusion.

A month later, on 31 March, Ukraine’s secret service confirmed the official version: forensic tests showed that Kravchenko had committed suicide.

Hopes of getting to the bottom of the Gongadze case are now fading. As the former boss of the two suspect colonels, Kravchenko had been expected to give a definitive answer to the question of why they killed Gongadze or, at least, who ordered them to do so. He might also have clarified the role of Oleksiy Pukach, a police general who, according to Piskun, was in a car with Gongadze and the two colonels on the fateful night of 16 September 2000. Pukach is now on the run.

But there is another level of skepticism about the case – the suspicion that Yushchenko and his team would prefer not to solve the case. Is there something to such doubts?


After four years of controversy, it is easy to forget how the Gongadze case began. Gongadze was the editor-in-chief of a publication, Ukrayinska Pravda, that was already fairly well known but which, as an online publication, had only a fairly limited readership. He had been critical of Kuchma, but the criticisms were, by and large, of an unexceptional nature, as for instance that Kuchma liked to drink, that he was selling Ukraine out to Russia, and was a touch simple-minded.

When Gongadze’s body has found separated from his head in woods outside Kyiv, the reason for his murder seemed to be anyone’s guess. Business, though, seemed a more likely reason than politics. The day before he disappeared Ukrayinska Pravda had published a dossier on a prominent businessman.

But two weeks later, the case began to shake the foundations of the Ukrainian state. A fugitive former bodyguard of Kuchma’s, Major Mykola Melnychenko, announced that, during his two years in the president’s service, he had secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations in the president’s offices. His first extract (so far one of few) caught a voice resembling Kuchma’s instructing Kravchenko to “deal with” that “son of a bitch” Gongadze, to "drive him out, throw [him] out, give him to the Chechens." Kravchenko told Kuchma he had a “fighting” group of “eagles” who would “do everything you want.”

The focus of suspicion immediately moved away from businessmen to the country’s most powerful man. However Gongadze’s murder was interpreted – as a warning to other journalists, as a response to particular articles – and whatever the role of Kuchma’s elite, the journalist’s killing and Melnychenko’s tapes symbolized a regime that had gone wrong.

The authenticity of the tapes is disputed. Kuchma himself admits his voice can be heard on the tapes, but says it has been doctored. But parts of the tapes have been verified, in the United States by the FBI, in the Netherlands, and in Germany. Only a few dozen hours have ever been released. Whatever their authenticity, the tapes helped ensure that the death of a troublesome, but relatively low-profile journalist had more resonance throughout Ukraine than the unexplained suspicious deaths of 20 or more of journalists, businessmen, and politicians in the Kuchma era – including the murder of a former head of the national bank, Vadym Hetman, a mentor of Yushchenko’s.

Every computer-literate Ukrainian could familiarize themselves with the recordings, as Melnychenko put several of them online. Melnychenko fled to the United States; Gongadze’s wife and children later followed his example; demonstrations gathered tens of thousands of protestors before fading out; and Ukraine spent years in the diplomatic cold. And in the meantime, prosecutors came and went, unable to solve Gongadze’s murder, and the trail faded, sometimes in highly dubious ways. Ihor Honcharov, the suspected leader of a gang of policemen-turned-bad and a key witness, died in custody, reportedly after a lethal injection.

Inevitably, then, the Gongadze affair is now, in the words of Prosecutor-General Piskun, "a litmus test of democracy” in Ukraine. Yushchenko told the European Union in February that solving Gongadze’s killing was “a matter of honor for me and my team.”

On 1 March, he declared that “the former government not only lacked the political will to solve the case. The government gave cover to the murderers. The goal was to never solve the case.”

On the face of it, Yushchenko’s administration has the political will. The car used in Gongadze’s kidnapping has been found, two suspects have been arrested, and an arrest warrant has been issued for General Pukach. Yushchenko has promised to set up a special office to investigate other high-profile deaths.

The death of Kravchenko might also be seen as evidence that he (or his killers) believed Yushchenko was determined to pursue them. That possibility seems even greater because days before Kravchenko’s death, a man implicated in Gongadze’s murder survived a grenade attack. The notion that Kuchma’s men were running scared in the face of a new leadership determined to solve past crimes had already been strengthened by two (unrelated) deaths of men close to Kuchma, his former transport minister, Heorhiy Kirpa, and Yuriy Lyakh, a business associate of Kuchma’s right-hand man, Viktor Medvedchuk.

But how determined is the new Ukraine?

Kravchenko’s death has apparently terrified the main whistleblower, Mykola Melnychenko. Instead of taking Ukrainian prosecutors up on their invitation to meet and hand over the original recordings for use in possible trials, he fled, fearing that his life was under threat after Kravchenko’s death. He turned to the self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky said that he promptly evacuated Melnychenko to London, sending an aircraft to pick him up from Poland. (It was not the first time this highly controversial figure had helped Melnychenko: Berezovsky funded the publication of Melnychenko’s tapes but not, Melnychenko insists, the deciphering of the tapes.)

Melnychenko looks reluctant to do anything other than drip-feed information to investigators. (On 14 April, two associates of Berezovsky’s arrived in Kyiv to give testimony, carrying with them “recording devices, decoded recordings, and supplementary documents” from Melnychenko.)

Melnychenko apparently fears that the offer is a pretext to get hold of the tapes and cover up the truth. His concerns focus on the prosecutor-general – the same man who is causing the Gongadze family to doubt that they will ever see justice. The problem is that Svyatoslav Piskun was first appointed prosecutor-general by Kuchma. But Piskun was also the only man who ever made headway with the investigation. When he was appointed he said he would solve the case within six months. Within months, he had arrested Pukach. Kuchma promptly fired Piskun on unexplained charges of embezzlement. Pukach was released from custody by the courts.

So when Yushchenko forced Kuchma to reinstate Piskun in December 2004 in talks aimed at bringing a peaceful end to the Orange Revolution, it might have seemed a sensible political move by Yushchenko. It leveraged the credibility that Piskun had gained as the only man to make any progress with the case, forestalled the allegations of political cronyism that would inevitably have followed any choice of a Yushchenko supporter, and – by re-appointing a man sacked by Kuchma – highlighted Yushchenko’s differences from Kuchma. (The official reason for Piskun’s re-emergence was that his sacking had breached the Labor Code.) That, though, is not enough to convince some that Piskun's role is really to get to the bottom of the Gongadze case.


In other words, the issue now is not whether there is any will to uncover who killed Gongadze but whether there is any will to let the Melnychenko tapes do their explosive work.

Kuchma, who clearly has many reasons to cast aspersions, has seized on that notion, telling the news agency UNIAN that “I do not exclude that my other fantastic talks with Viktor Yushchenko, [Prime Minister] Yulia Tymoshenko … and many other politicians might well be printed and then used against the current authorities.” Yushchenko served as prime minister and Tymoshenko as a deputy prime minister under Kuchma.

But the man who, at least on the face of it, has most reason to fear publication of transcripts is Volodomyr Lytvyn, the speaker of parliament. Lytvyn is heard on the tapes discussing how Gongadze should be handled. Lytvyn was at the time the head of the presidential administration. However, during the revolution, he sided with Yushchenko and, in return (as it was perceived), he won the position of parliamentary speaker and two members of his party became regional governors. Lytvyn is now under immense pressure, of which he complains constantly. Still, his party is strengthening, attracting deputies who have left other parties associated with Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in the presidential election. The gap between him and Yushchenko appears to be widening. One of the two governors has resigned and the other was fired by Yushchenko on 4 March. Lytvyn claims the government has launched a "hidden lustration" campaign against his party.

Others who could be affected by publication of the tapes include Petro Poroshenko, a Yushchenko ally and secretary of the National Security Council, Oleksandr Zinchenko, the head of Yushchenko’s presidential administration, and Roman Bessmertny, who has been handed the task of reforming Ukraine’s administration.

Few suggest that the tapes might implicate Yushchenko himself in any wrongdoing. However, any embarrassment and any hint of complicity in crimes by anyone close to him could undermine the new administration ahead of parliamentary elections in 2006 – and political concerns could sap the energy from the investigation or, worse, encourage some even to sabotage it.

But some have another worry: that politicians’ fear of the impact of the Melnychenko tapes could increase a danger that has always been there: that a new administration drawn heavily from the old elite might become like the old regime. Already some are pointing to worrying signs.

Yushchenko’s declaration that the murder had been “solved” – a claim made before the case went to court – was seen as an act of rash bravura by some and by others as too strong an echo of the old regime.

Echoes of the old government’s attitude to journalists are also beginning to be heard. In mid-February, Prime Minister Tymoshenko and several of her cabinet wrote an open letter, claiming that the press were abusing the government’s openness and were behaving like "hired killers" out to discredit the government. The cause: a scandal in which it emerged that a major opponent of a bill to ban the re-export of Russian oil, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, is married to the deputy director of one of Ukraine’s largest re-exporters.

Added to that are concerns that plans to transform state-owned television into a public-service broadcaster may be delayed until after parliamentary elections. That fear of government interference percolated through to the wider public when it emerged that ahead of the Eurovision song contest to be held in Kyiv in May, the government had replaced a singer aligned with the old government with a group that produced the anthem of the Orange Revolution.

So the danger for Yushchenko is that the litmus test of the Gongadze case and Melnychenko tapes may show that Ukrainian democracy is still acidic. At the very least, with Kravchenko dead, Melnychenko in hiding, and the whereabouts of his recordings unknown, it seems that Yushchenko’s confidence about solving Gongadze’s murder was premature. If Yushchenko’s administration is to pass the credibility test with an increasingly skeptical Ukrainian public, it may perhaps have to hope that Ukraine’s investigators produce results in other high-profile cases. There are plenty of them.


Anonymous said…
Well, hopefully Melnychenko's tapes, at the least, will become public thru the supposed cooperation with the FBI in the US.......and which has been sanctioned by Turchynov.....Lytvyn's toast......Piskun, at least from what I can tell, should be fired...