Another Dead Body

KIEV, Ukraine -- The suspiciously timed June 22 death of hugely influential Ukrainian media mogul Ihor Pluzhnikov reminds us that there are safer things to do for a living than to be a member of the Kuchma-era elite.

Ex-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma

Ukrainians who wielded power and influence during the notoriously corrupt administration of former President Leonid Kuchma have wound up dead with a startling frequency since last December. First there was Yuriy Lyakh, chairman of Ukrainian Credit Bank, who at the height of the Orange Revolution last December was found dead in his Kyiv office. The cause of death was a series of paper-knife wounds to his neck.

Lyakh was a member of the so-called Big Seven, an inner circle of business associates and friends close to Viktor Medvedchuk, the powerful head of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united) and Kuchma’s Presidential Administration chief. A suicide note was reportedly found at the scene, but we’re probably not the only ones who were suspicious. Who kills himself with a paper knife?

Next, Transportation Minister Heorhiy Kirpa was found shot to death at his house on Dec. 27. Kirpa’s ministry, like others, was rumored to be burdened with financial improprieties. The day before, Viktor Yushchenko had been voted in as Ukraine's new president. Kirpa's death was also ruled a suicide.

Then, in February, a Donetsk businessman named Roman Nikoforov was killed in what was called a freak accident at his home. He allegedly shot himself with his own gun. Nikoforov was a close associate of Donetsk businessman Rinat Akhmetov, reportedly Ukraine’s richest man.

In March, former Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko was found dead at his country house just before he was to give testimony in the case of Georgy Gongadze, the opposition journalist whose murder became a Kuchma-era cause celebre.

Now comes Pluzhnikov’s death, which is at least as shocking as any of the others. Pluzhnikov is one of the most influential people in Ukraine. He's a politician, a businessman, and the owner of Inter, one of the country's most popular TV channels. In Western terms, it is as if Rupert Murdoch mysteriously died – and at a very crucial moment in his career. It is being alleged that Pluzhnikov was coming close to selling a controlling interest in Inter to interests supportive of President Viktor Yushchenko.

Rumors are already spreading that Pluzhnikov was poisoned. They’re just rumors, of course, but nobody familiar with the behavior of those who set the tone in Kuchma-era Ukraine will be surprised if they turn out to be true. The stakes here – who controls a powerful means of communication, and with next spring's important parliamentary elections on the horizon – are very high.

This latest strange death comes as Kyiv cleans up in the wake of the World Economic Forum at Ukraine House – an event many hoped would serve as a harbinger of this country’s closer integration with the West. Mysterious deaths of politically connected power-players are not a phenomenon we associate with the West, however, but with the Third World.

This speaks to a strange dichotomy in Ukraine's identity at this point. On the one hand, its leaders are lionized in the West, where they speak to legislative bodies, win prestigious awards, pose with top politicians, and talk up the possibilities for Western investment in their newly fashionable country. On the other hand, back home things go on too much in the same way they always have. Riffraff like David Duke continue to hobnob with members of the president’s political faction. The judicial system continues to be a mess. Policemen and bureaucrats continue to be on the take. Parliament continues to vote down legislation necessary to Ukraine's World Trade Organization bid. Whoever poisoned Yushchenko continues to get away with it. The Gongadze murder continues to be unsolved. And powerful people keep dying suspiciously.

President Viktor Yushchenko has to do more about these latter events – or talk about them, which under the circumstances would amount to much the same thing. What does Yushchenko think about this series of deaths? Is he willing to personally manage investigations into them, and demand results from his underlings? Or, like the Gongadze case, is this another Ukrainian mystery destined to remain unsolved by a passive and still corrupt government? Is he willing to tolerate this? Does Yushchenko understand that all his hobnobbing in the West about closer ties and more investment remains empty as long as such strange deaths keep happening, and remain unexplained?

This is crazy. Yushchenko might not be able to expunge Ukraine's residual craziness, but he can more loudly struggle against it. As the cliche goes, that’s what leadership is all about.

Yushchenko’s job is to a large extent symbolic, and the more closely he’s associated with coming to grips with all this nonsense, the better a symbol of a new Ukraine he’ll be. His strong voice now, and his stout promise that he’ll see a real Pluzhnikov investigation through to the end, would be healthy for the country. We’d love to see it happen.

Source: Kyiv Post