Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 49

Last week, Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) saw an avalanche of grave accusations against President Kuchma and his top aides. On March 5, the lawmakers passed a request to the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) to examine whether Kuchma assisted former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko (who is awaiting trial on charges of money laundering in the United States) in organizing the murders of two influential lawmakers. The PGO had earlier charged Lazarenko with commissioning the assassinations of Yevhen Shcherban in 1996 and of Vadym Hetman in 1998 (see the Monitor, February 11). Parliament also suspects Kuchma of taking bribes from Lazarenko and participating in his money laundering operations.

On March 6, the Rada backed a motion requesting the PGO to launch another criminal probe against Kuchma. This time, he was accused of having ordered an assassination attempt against people’s deputy Oleksandr Yelyashkevych. In July 2000, opposition deputy Yelyashkevych was severely beaten in downtown Kyiv by unknown thugs. U.S. expert Bruce Koenig has recently determined that fugitive bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko’s record of a conversation implicating Kuchma in this assault was authentic. Earlier, Koenig had found that the tape, in which the removal of journalist Georgy Gongadze was discussed by Kuchma, was also authentic (see the Monitor, February 13).

Also on March 6, the Rada requested the PGO to launch a check into accounts in foreign banks allegedly belonging to Kuchma’s former top aide Oleksandr Volkov. The deputies from the Anti-Mafia Association accused Volkov of illegally opening accounts in Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany, Monaco, Luxembourg, Israel and the United States and using them to launder money. Volkov, repeatedly accused of corruption by the Rada in 1998-2000, has of late kept a low political profile. He no longer leads the Democratic Union, a pro-Kuchma party he had founded (see the Monitor, November 2, 2001), and is running for parliament, not on his party list, but from a single-seat constituency.

On March 7, the Rada backed a request to the PGO to launch a criminal probe against the chief of Kuchma’s staff, Volodymyr Lytvyn, and State Tax Administration Chairman Mykola Azarov. Lytvyn and Azarov are suspected of abuse of power in commercial deals (alleged promotion of Russia’s Tyumen Oil Company interests) and illegal export of capital. On the same day, Azarov denied the allegations and threatened to sue Anti-Mafia members, who had drafted the request, for libel.

One should not overestimate the practical significance of the parliamentary requests to the PGO. All were nonbinding–that is, the PGO is not legally obliged to launch relevant probes. All were approved by significantly less than half of the Rada (only 90 votes in the 450-seat body are needed for such nonbinding requests). The PGO is likely to ignore them, just as it has ignored the February 5 request to launch criminal proceedings against a group of officials, including Kuchma, suspected of embezzlement in 1992-1993 (see the Monitor, February 13). Furthermore, the accusations were made three weeks before the Rada election of March 31 … obviously timed to spoil the campaign for pro-Kuchma forces, which diminishes their appeal.

Yet the accusations are too grave to go unnoticed either in Ukraine or internationally. They are also a serious warning to Kuchma: If his allies are in a minority in the next Rada, his opponents may use the accusations to revive the tape scandal, which first shook Ukraine a year ago. There are signs that the next parliament will have more antipresidential members than the current one. According to recent opinion polls, Kuchma’s moderate opponents from former Premier Viktor Yushchenko’s bloc are firmly in the lead with 20-25 percent of popular approval. The Communists, most of who backed last week’s anti-Kuchma motions, are sure to come second. Kuchma’s most outspoken opponents who played a pivotal role in the tape scandal–Oleksandr Moroz and Yulia Tymoshenko–are also likely to be elected (Ukrainska Pravda, February 19; AFP, March 5; UNIAN, March 6; AP, Korrespondent.net, March 7).