Ukraine's Greatest Crimes, Injustices And Other Tragedies

KIEV, Ukraine -- “Bandits belong behind bars!” “One law for all!” These were the rallying cries that vaulted presidential candidate Victor Yushchenko to power during the Orange Revolution in 2004, when the nation refused to accept attempts to rig an election for Yushchenko's opponent, Victor Yanukovych.

The Leonid Kuchma era left high-profile murders and mysteries that remain unsolved today under President Victor Yushchenko. Can a nation that doesn’t confront its past ever make progress?

Yushchenko’s rise to the presidency was meant to finally cleanse the nation of the endemic corruption that marked the 10-year reign of predecessor Leonid Kuchma.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Four years into Yushchenko’s presidency, most of the suspected lawbreakers from Kuchma’s time have yet to face justice. And none of the criminal cases that invigorated protesters during the Orange Revolution has been solved – neither the poisoning of candidate Yushchenko, nor election fraud in 2004 or previous years, nor the murder of muckraking journalist Georgiy Gongadze, nor the suspicious deaths of dozens of influential figures.

The Kuchma era from 1994-2005 left a trail of dead bodies, victims whose murderers never faced justice. Countless other crimes, ranging from embezzlement, abuse of office and theft of state property have gone unpunished. There was also the injustice in how the most valuable national industries were acquired by a small group of well-connected insiders, depriving the nation of billions of dollars in revenue and giving rise to an oligarch class that still dominates today.

Taken together, these unsolved cases and unredressed grievances raise questions about how far Ukraine has progressed from its post-Soviet gangland past.

“Impunity leaves the possibility for [crimes like these] to happen again,” said Adrian Karatnycky, who headed the United States-based Freedom House democracy watchdog when many of the events happened. He is now a senior scholar at the Atlantic Council in New York. “If you have politicians knocking off politicians or businessmen knocking off businessmen, you want to know that everything will be done to punish those responsible.”

Countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic initiated “peace and reconciliation” tribunals in the 1990s in an effort to make peace with their past and shed the vestiges of their communist histories.

In contrast, suspects in Ukraine have even received awards and decorations for their past “achievements and contributions” to statehood while others continue to hold power in the upper echelons of government.

And Ukraine’s wealthiest individuals, including Kuchma’s son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, have held on to multi-billion-dollar assets grabbed at rock-bottom prices during the years of crony capitalist privatization.

“There is no political will to solve these cases now because many in power fear the disclosure of ‘kompromat’ [compromising information] and the potential political blacklist this can produce,” said Taras Berezovets, who runs the Politech political consulting company, which has advised Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc.

The nation’s awful hangover from the Kuchma era, which became synonymous with murder, graft and corruption, lingers today. The ex-president, now 70 and living comfortably in retirement, doesn’t appear to be in any danger of having his deeds or alleged misdeeds investigated by the current government.

The inexplicable dead ends to these cases have also raised questions about how much Ukraine’s power structure has really changed – and whether Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, the twin democratic Orange Revolution heroes, really represent a clean break from the authoritarian Kuchma past.

Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and other top politicians worked for Kuchma, many of them cutting their political teeth under his tutelage. Yushchenko even once famously described his relationship with Kuchma as “father and son.” The current tandem, their financial backers and their allies were part and parcel of the system that flourished under Kuchma, who rewarded friends, disdained democracy and punished enemies.

While Freedom House has noted major improvements in Ukraine’s democracy since the Orange Revolution, upgrading it to one of a few truly “free” ex-Soviet republics, the organization did offer a cautionary note in a 2007 report:

“Political conflicts revealed a lack of respect for the division of power and the rule of law, with [the country’s leadership consistently] interfering in the courts. Corruption remained a key problem, particularly in the energy sector.”

Experts and political insiders said the long dirty laundry list of unsolved crimes has been kept unwashed by a ruling class bound by informal ties and connections dating back to the crony capitalist days of striking it rich with the sweet insider deals.

One of the key rules of staying in business appears to be not spilling all the dirt on political or business opponents because they could strike back with equally-damaging “kompromat,” or compromising information, of their own.

It all adds up to a government that has many of the same faces in place, playing musical chairs with posts. Those who fell out of line or out of favor ended up dead or abroad.

“The rule of law is ruined … nobody wants an investigator to get to the bottom of a case and open a can of worms,” said Kyiv lawyer and civil rights activist Tetyana Montian.

Montian’s husband, Yuriy Vasylenko, was the only judge who dared initiate criminal proceedings against Kuchma while he was president.

Meanwhile, the number of the nation’s unsolved crimes keeps growing as Ukrainians lose faith in the country’s institutions and government.

Ukraine’s Western partners, Brussels and Washington, watch from a distance and take cautious steps to integrate with a country whose democracy is fragile and whose leaders are unwilling, or incapable, of atoning for past sins. Russian leaders, too, look on with disdain – with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly calling into question Ukraine’s claim to real statehood.

Rules of the game

“Criminal investigation and prosecution do not run things in this country. The only name of the game is money, influence, connections, etc. Justice ranks something like 150th on this list,” Montian said.

Law enforcement officers get scared when they come upon the trail of a large criminal network with extensive financial resources, intimidating bodyguards and ties to government.

If prosecutors or police take proper and lawful measures with a well-connected suspect, they can lose their jobs or, in the worst case, their heads. If they agree to hush such cases, they can be paid off handsomely.

With cops, prosecutors and judges earning meager salaries, many believe these rules are still in place today.

Although most of the unsolved crimes are perceived as a legacy inherited from the Kuchma era, the post-Orange Revolution governments have shown little willingness to pursue the cases, or fundamentally clean up the system. Salaries for police officers, prosecutors and judges have been raised slightly, but inadequately.

The media and public are often teased with news of “investigative breakthroughs” and populist proclamations that “criminals will face justice.” But the lack of progress leaves little hope that the status quo will change.

Experts contacted by the Kyiv Post declined to rank high-level criminal cases in terms of greatest impact, claiming their assessment would not be objective. However, all of them agreed that unsolved crimes damage the country’s image, both domestically and abroad.

Among the most heinous crimes left over from the Kuchma era are the decapitation of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000, the mysterious roadside death of Vyacheslav Chornovil in 1999, earlier contract killings of powerbrokers such as Vadym Hetman and Yevhen Shcherban, corruption under former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko and, of course, Yushchenko’s poisoning in 2004.

Officials often invoke the “investigation confidentiality” clause to justify not revealing any details to the public. For some high-profile cases, prosecutors and top politicians occasionally disclose tantalizing details that have the effect of soap-opera cliffhangers. But after promises of swift action, the buzz eventually dies out and the cases are forgotten.

Information about unsolved cases is sometimes leaked as weapons in political blackmail and dirty PR tactics. Rumors and speculation seem more important than the truth. Media outlets and journalists become pawns in the game.

“Cases remain unsolved because officials get involved. The main reason is that there are individuals in government who are not interested in seeing these types of cases through to their logical end,” said lawyer Andriy Fedur, who has represented Lesia Gongadze, the mother of the slain journalist, in her battle for justice. She refuses to bury her son’s body until his killers are all brought to justice.

Fedur thinks cases remain unsolved because of unprofessional investigation and because the influential exert influence over law enforcement. However, it’s difficult to believe that the case of Yushchenko’s poisoning has fallen victim to unskilled investigators, he said.

An overview of the highest profile criminal cases since Ukraine’s independence reveals a myriad of political and business connections revolving around a cut-throat battle for either power or resources, or both, given Ukraine’s intertwined political and business elite.

Experts said politicians fear that solving one case could lead to a domino effect, resulting in their photos appearing on charts resembling those elaborate FBI New York crime family charts they have seen in the movies.

Kuchma is implicated in scores of crimes, including bribe-taking, money laundering, pilfering of state coffers, and even murder, according to Hryhoriy Omelchenko, a Tymoshenko ally, a corruption whistleblower, and onetime State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) officer. He has also served on parliamentary investigative commissions on various high profile crimes since 1994.

“Until Kuchma-era top officials are sentenced, not a single high-profile crime will be solved, including Gongadze’s beheading and Yushchenko’s poisoning,” Omelchenko said.

Omelchenko said that Ukraine’s first two presidents – Leonid Kravchuk and Kuchma – are to blame for the country’s inept and corrupt justice system. He said that, while in office, Kravchuk and Kuchma created a system that provided protection for political allies while the judicial system and “kompromat” were used to keep opponents in check or to eliminate them. Omelchenko said the same system is still in place today.

“It seems that a non-aggression pact was signed [by those in power]. Criminal investigations could be opened, but courts will never rule to incarcerate anyone,” said Serhiy Taran, director of the Sotsiovymir think tank. “If the president’s poisoning case isn’t solved, what can be said concerning cases involving average citizens?”

Analysts concluded that if laws continue to be broken with impunity, especially the elite, the public will naturally follow suit. The resulting widespread legal nihilism will bring more disillusionment and put democracy further from reach.

Honest members of the law enforcement will simply stop investigating complex and politicized criminal cases, many believe, if they haven’t stopped already. There is always a risk that this trend will reach a point of no return, said Volodymyr Fesenko, chairman of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies.

He stressed that the harm to society is enormous with each unsolved economic or political crime, giving rise to a nation that views its politicians as thugs and stop caring about anything that happens in the country.

Source: Kyiv Post