Gongadze Murder Still Casts a Shadow over Yushchenko Presidency

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 32

On January 27 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued another damning report about the poor state of Ukraine’s investigation into the murder of opposition journalist Georgi Gongadze in the fall of 2000 (www.assembly.coe.int). The involvement of senior Ukrainian leaders in the murder was made public using tape recordings made in President Leonid Kuchma’s office by presidential guard Mykola Melnychenko, who sought asylum in the United States in April 2001.

Four years after the Orange Revolution and Viktor Yushchenko’s promise to investigate the Gongadze murder, there has been little progress in the inquiry. Three lower-ranking policemen have been sentenced for their involvement in the murder, but the organizers have managed to escape justice thus far: Leonid Kuchma remains in Kyiv, then-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko allegedly "committed suicide" under suspicious circumstances in March 2005, and General Olexiy Pukach, who is alleged to have actually murdered Gongadze, supposedly fled Ukraine in 2004. Gongadze’s wife, Myroslava, accused senior Interior Ministry officers of hiding Pukach in a similar manner to that of Ratko Mladic, a Serbian war criminal.

Melnychenko’s recordings, which are crucial to any investigation, were ignored by the prosecutor until December 2008, when the tapes and tape recorder were handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office, which agreed to organize the first analysis of the tapes by an impartial European organization.

It is no coincidence that after four years of inactivity the Prosecutor’s Office, which is constitutionally under the control of the president, has only now become interested in the Melnychenko tapes. Ukraine will hold presidential elections in December, and progress in the Gongadze murder case could help Yushchenko improve his current dismal 2.4 percent popularity rating (Democratic Initiatives, January 2009 poll [www.dif.org.ua]).

Three key individuals in the investigation have refused to give voice samples for comparison to those on the tapes: Kuchma, Volodymyr Lytvyn (head of the presidential administration during the Gongadze scandal), and the chairman of the Security Service at the time, Leonid Derkach. Lytvyn, as speaker of parliament, is the only one of the three who is still a public figure.

Melnychenko suggested that Yushchenko should set an example by voluntarily giving a voice sample: "If Yushchenko states that this affair is a matter of his honor, then he is obliged as a Ukrainian citizen to come forth and set an example and give evidence" (Radio Svoboda, January 29). The PACE report demanded that the identity of the voices on the tapes be ascertained.

In a visit to Ukraine last month, Melnychenko said that the European analysis of his tapes not only would reveal information about the organizers of the Gongadze murder but would allegedly include details about high-level abuse of office by Ukraine’s elites and interaction with their Russian counterparts.

Melnychenko directs much of his criticism at Lytvyn as the agitator who persuaded Kuchma to order the Interior Ministry to "deal" with Gongadze. Any undermining of Lytvyn could potentially unravel the Orange coalition that was reestablished in December only after the Lytvyn bloc had agreed to join. Without the Lytvyn bloc’s 20 deputies, there could not be an Orange coalition, and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s government could collapse.

A full analysis of the tapes could be problematical for more people than Lytvyn; after all, the majority of Orange leaders (including Yushchenko and Tymoshenko) were either in government or in business, or both, in the 1990s. Melnychenko’s recordings were made in 1999 and 2000 after Tymoshenko had entered parliament in the opposition Hromada but before Yushchenko joined in 2001.

Melnychenko has accused Lytvyn of being protected by Russia in a deal struck in the last days of the Kuchma regime. On January 12 the Russian Prosecutor’s Office declined to assist in the investigation because it would infringe on Russia’s "national interests."

Melnychenko asserts that "the organizers met and required certain assistance from senior levels of the Russian authorities." Whether this indicates that the Gongadze affair was a "Russian conspiracy," as Yushchenko and his national democratic allies have always believed, or (more likely) that the organizers sought Russian support after the crisis began unfolding remains unclear. Kuchma re-orientated Ukraine to Russia from 2001 to 2003 after becoming isolated and shunned by the West.

Melnychenko claims that Russia’s knowledge of the real details of the Gongadze murder enables it to "blackmail Lytvyn and Kuchma’s entourage," something that is more in Russia’s national interests than assisting the investigation. In a BBC Ukrainian service interview (February 2), Melnychenko said that as a presidential candidate, "Lytvyn is supported by Russia in the form of Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin, and FSB Director Oleksandr Bortnikov."

It is very likely that blackmail materials on Kuchma and Lytvyn are in Russian hands (as are similar materials about Russian leaders in Kyiv). Ukrainian and Russian elites, particularly in the energy sector, are said to have operated as a criminal joint venture during the "Wild West capitalism" of the 1990s. With such blackmail materials, Russia may indeed hope that it would be in a position to manipulate a future "President Lytvyn."

Opinion polls show, however, that this scheme would be farfetched: the two top presidential candidates have long been Tymoshenko and Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych (on whom the Russian leadership might also have blackmail material, as Yanukovych was Donetsk Governor during the "Wild West" of the 1990s). Lytvyn is both trailing and is being out-flanked by the rising star of former speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The PACE report and Melnychenko’s accusations continue to shed light on an episode that is one of the most important in recent Ukrainian history and remains a black spot on Yushchenko’s presidency. As Melnychenko rightly states, "The result we received [from the Kuchmagate crisis] in 2004 was in the form of the Orange Revolution" (Radio Svoboda, January 29). Other young democracies have managed to investigate similar conspiraciesPeru under Alberto Fujimori and contemporary Turkeybut the Gongadze affair continues to elude a thorough investigation by Orange Ukraine.