On March 1, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko made the sensational announcement that the murderer of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze had been apprehended (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1). Three senior Interior Ministry (MVS) officers are in custody, but it is not clear if one of these is Oleksiy Pukach, who was in charge of Gongadze’s surveillance (The Independent, March 2).
This announcement came after Yushchenko’s January 25 revelation that two witnesses in the Gongadze affair had already been murdered (Ukrayinska pravda, February 23). The break in the case occurred when Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko promised clemency to any officers who came forward with evidence. Yushchenko’s statement applauded the honest MVS and Security Service (SBU) officers who were now assisting the investigation.
Yushchenko explained how resolving the murder of Gongadze — and of other journalists and politicians from the Leonid Kuchma era — is important evidence that the rule of law exists in Ukraine. Resolving the Gongadze case is also, “My, and my teams political, moral, human responsibility before Lesia Gongadze, before my country, and before the international community” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1).
Investigators found the car used to kidnap Gongadze, but the SBU has refuted reports that Gongadze’s head has been located. Military and Ministry of Emergency troops searching for Gongadze’s head, which likely would have a bullet wound that could help identify the murderers. Investigators believe Gongadze was shot in the head and then decapitated so that the bullet could not be traced.
Yushchenko believes that the next — and most important — aspect of the Gongadze affair is, “Who organized and ordered this murder. At the moment, the investigation is moving to this stage” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1). This is the most delicate phase, because the identity of those who ordered Gongadze to “be dealt with” has long been known.
Yushchenko pointed out that his government produced concrete results after only a month in office, while four years of “investigation” under President Kuchma led nowhere. The reason, Yushchenko stated, is that the authorities under Kuchma had no interest in uncovering the crime. In fact, “The previous authorities provided protection [a roof] for the murderers” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1).
Yushchenko blamed the previous prosecutor, Hennadiy Vasyliev, for dismissing the Gongadze investigative group in order to “never reveal the accomplices in this murder” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1). Then Yushchenko paid a compliment to the current prosecutor, Sviatyslav Piskun, saying he was probably dismissed in October 2003 because he came too close to resolving the Gongadze matter.
Whether this compliment is correct or misplaced is another important question, as not everyone is confident that Piskun, who was prosecutor from July 2002-October 2003, can be trusted to complete the investigation. Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, and Mykola Melnychenko, the security guard who taped conversations in Kuchma’s office, both live in exile in Washington and have no confidence in Piskun. They are wary of his past association with Kuchma and wonder why he is the only holdover in the new government.
Many suspect that Yushchenko granted Kuchma immunity from prosecution as part of the round table negotiations during the Orange Revolution. Piskun might be in place to guarantee the deal. If true, this may explain Piskun’s reluctance to utilize the Melnychenko tapes. The existence of the tapes was first revealed after Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz released a portion to parliament on November 28, 2000, leading to the “Kuchmagate” crisis. But even if such an understanding exists, it is only a personal agreement between Kuchma and Yushchenko with no legal validity. Parliament has not adopted a law providing rights and immunity for ex-presidents.
Moroz recently accused Yushchenko of wanting to exclude the tapes because they would incriminate members of his own team who did not defect to the anti-Kuchma opposition until 2001 or later (Silski Visti, February 25). The tape released by Moroz incriminates three high-ranking members of the Kuchma camp.
Kuchma’s alleged order to “deal with” Gongadze was given to Yuriy Kravchenko, then interior minister. Kravchenko is heard bragging about a special group of “eagles” that is capable of undertaking any task. Yushchenko has stated his disgust at the torture inflicted upon Gongadze before he was killed, saying it was worthy of the “Middle Ages” (Ukrayinska pravda, March 1). Kravchenko is allied to the Party of Regions led by defeated presidential candidate and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych. Although rumored to have fled Ukraine for Russia he was seen at a weekend congress of the Party of Regions in the Crimea. Kravchenko could very easily be made the scapegoat.
The third official heard on the tape is Volodymyr Lytvyn, currently speaker of parliament, but head of the presidential administration in 2000. Lytvyn has played a delicate balancing act during the transition from Kuchma to Yushchenko by providing a safe haven for former Kuchma officials who were not enamored by Yanukovych’s candidacy. Lytvyn is reportedly heard on the tape suggesting that Kuchma delegate the task of “dealing with” Gongadze to Kravchenko.
Some members of the Yushchenko camp would prefer that charges be filed against Kuchma so that he is morally denounced as having ordered the crime against Gongadze, but then allow him to move to Russia and out of Ukrainian politics. Charging Lytvyn, however, is another matter entirely, as he provides a haven for former Kuchma loyalists and sees himself as a “quiet opposition” to Yushchenko.
Piskun admitted that resolving the Gongadze affair “is going to be a litmus test of democracy in this society” (New York Times, February 3). Until there is closure on the Gongadze affair Ukraine cannot move forward. The release of the first tape in November 2000 sparked the Ukraine Without Kuchma movement that, exactly four years later, led to the Orange Revolution. When Yushchenko was elected on December 26, Lutsenko said the “Ukraine Without Kuchma movement is over” (1+1 TV, December 26). The final break with the past will come when the Gongadze investigation is finally closed.