Russian emigre tycoon Boris Berezovsky claims that he has the tape recordings made by Mykola Melnychenko, the fugitive former bodyguard of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, in Kuchma’s office in 1999-2000. Many observers believe the recordings may shed light on the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and secret sales of Ukrainian arms to rogue states such as Iraq and Iran. Berezovsky, ahead of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s visit to the United States, has accused Kyiv of being unwilling to solve the Gongadze puzzle. He also hinted that the recordings might cast a shadow on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In early March Hryhory Omelchenko, who heads the Ukrainian parliamentary commission looking into Gongadze’s murder, failed to persuade parliament to hear his report on Gongadze. Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said that Yushchenko had asked parliament to postpone the hearing. Omelchenko, who holds Kuchma and Lytvyn responsible for Gongadze’s death, accused Yushchenko of having guaranteed immunity to Kuchma — a charge that Yushchenko indignantly denied. An interview with Volodymyr Tsvil, a former consul in Munich who helped Melnychenko escape from Ukraine in 2000, released on March 17, strengthened suspicions that the recordings might be used to blacken the new authorities. Tsvil claimed that the recordings contain “a lot of conversations of Kuchma with Yushchenko and [Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko, in which they look much worse than they claim to be.”
Melnychenko was expected to return to Ukraine after the Orange Revolution and testify under security guarantees from Yushchenko. But the suspicious death of former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko caused Melnychenko to fear for his life. In an unexpected move, Melnychenko turned to Berezovsky for help. Berezovsky evacuated Melnychenko from Warsaw to London. The head of Berezovsky’s Civil Liberties Fund (CLF), Alexander Goldfarb, also revealed that the fund began to financially assist Melnychenko several years ago (see EDM, March 18).
In a March 19 interview, Berezovsky specified what kinds of assistance Melnychenko had received. He said that the CLF paid for the recordings’ transcription and authenticity checks in the United States. This prompted an angry reaction from Melnychenko, who said that Berezovsky had nothing to do with the financing of the procedures to authenticate the recordings. But on March 28 the CLF stated that in April 2002 it spent more than $115,000 to decipher Melnychenko’s recordings in the United States and to publish them on the Internet. As proof, the CLF produced a list of 16 fragments of conversations in Kuchma’s office relating to Gongadze’s death; 14 of them were posted on Ukrayinska pravda on March 31. Most of the fragments are widely known and add nothing to the general picture; they are also Russian translations of conversations spoken mostly in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. As such, they can hardly serve as convincing proof that Berezovsky has possession of the recordings.
On March 30 Berezovsky said that Melnychenko had given him all the recordings he had. He said that U.S. experts had confirmed the authenticity of the recordings that implicate not only Kuchma, but also Putin. Berezovsky called the attitude of the new Ukrainian government “strange” as, he said, Kuchma should have been officially charged long ago. But Melnychenko issued a statement on the same day, calling on the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) to “stop Berezovsky’s illegal activities.” Melnychenko denied having ever passed his recordings to Berezovsky and accused him of trying to “influence the Ukrainian authorities for personal gain.” As is known, Berezovsky had advertised his plans to come to Kyiv “within weeks,” but failed to specify the goal of his visit. According to Melnychenko, Berezovsky earlier in March offered him money for the recordings, but he turned down the deal.
In response, Berezovsky’s aide Goldfarb accused Melnychenko of conspiring with the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). On March 31 Goldfarb told Ukrayinska pravda that Melnychenko had visited Moscow late last year. “They want Melnychenko’s recordings to be discredited because they contain materials implicating Putin,” he said. And on April 1 Berezovsky told Interfax-Ukraine that he is going to open a whole Pandora’s box of compromising materials. Berezovsky said that not all of Melnychenko’s recordings have yet been transcribed, and that he also had “other similar materials from different sources.” “I intend to publish the part of the recordings that deals with relations between the previous Ukrainian government and the Russian government implicating both in corruption,” he said.
Former FSB colonel Alexander Litvinenko, who is linked to Berezovsky, revealed another sensation the same day. Speaking from London with Interfax-Ukraine, Litvinenko said that Melnychenko had told him that the bugging of Kuchma’s office had been organized by Yevhen Marchuk, who was secretary of the National Security Council when Gongadze was killed. Marchuk has denied this. But he is an easy target. None of the known scandalous recordings reveals anything wrong about Marchuk; furthermore in 1999, when the bugging apparently started, Marchuk ran in presidential elections against Kuchma on an anti-corruption ticket.
Kyiv’s reaction to Berezovsky’s revelations has so far been calm. SBU chief Oleksandr Turchynov said that his agency has started to check Melnychenko’s accusations against Berezovsky. Previewing Yushchenko’s U.S. visit, State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko has said that Yushchenko is not planning to meet with Melnychenko there. Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun, however, is expected to meet with Melnychenko in the United States.
(Tribuna.com.ua, March 17; Ukrayinska pravda, March 18, 28, 31; Korrespondent, March 19; Kievskiye vedomosti, March 29; Gazeta Po-Kievski, Obozrevatel.com, March 30; Segodnya, Interfax-Ukraine, Channel 5 TV, April 1; Den, April 2)