Clouds are gathering again over Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma: In Ukraine, a group of MPs is accusing him of embezzlement, and the outgoing parliament has formally initiated an impeachment procedure; in the United States, a former FBI expert has determined that the taped conversations that fugitive bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko claims to have recorded in the president’s office are authentic.
On February 5, Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) requested that the Prosecutor General’s Office launch criminal proceedings against a group of former top Ukrainian officials suspected of having committed crimes in 1992-1993. The group–which includes Kuchma, who was prime minister at the time–is suspected of embezzling approximately US$5.3 million from the Ukrainian Currency Fund. Behind the drive to launch the proceedings are the Verkhovna Rada’s self-styled corruption fighters of the Anti-Mafia Association–a group active in both indicting former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko and in the anti-Kuchma protests in late 2000-early 2001.
The request to launch proceedings was used as grounds for a formal impeachment procedure, to begin two days later. On February 7, parliament voted 282-1 to put the draft resolution on the agenda. One should not overestimate the vote’s practical significance, however. The figure is so impressive only because few deputies, most of whom are running for re-election, would dare to vote down an anticorruption motion at the peak of the run-up to the parliamentary elections. Furthermore, this Rada has only several weeks remaining. It simply does not have the time. (The legal impeachment procedure requires two more votes–it must first be approved by 300 deputies and then by 338–and both Constitutional and Supreme Court endorsements.)
More dangerous for Kuchma, however, is that the matter of Melnychenko’s tapes has resurfaced in an ugly way. Anti-Mafia’s Oleksandr Zhyr told RFERL on February 7 that Bruce Koenig, now independent but formerly an audio-video expert with the FBI, had found the copies of the tape-recorded conversations to contain no trace of sound editing or altering. Official Kyiv had argued that the tapes were doctored. The FBI had recommended that they be tested.
This has been the first check of Melnychenko’s tapes to produce a meaningful result. Two previous ones, conducted by the International Press Institute in Vienna and the U.S. detective agency Kroll (see the Monitor, October 2, 2001) were inconclusive.
Koenig apparently analyzed only the records in which voices resembling Kuchma’s and former Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko’s were discussing the removal of journalist Georgy Gongadze. If other Melnychenko’s records are also authentic–and he claims to possess hours of them–Kuchma and his entourage may also be accused of election-rigging, persecution of the opposition and free press, and corruption. Melnychenko’s records so far released on the Internet suggest that all those sins were a regular practice.
Melnychenko himself has said on several occasions that he would like to bring his tapes to Ukraine from the United States to testify against Kuchma. It seems that he won’t be able to do so. First, his return is apparently now out of the question. The Ukrainian Supreme Court on February 8 forbade Melnychenko to run in the elections because he has lived outside Ukraine for more than a year. The Socialist Party thus failed to secure him a place on its list of candidates (see the Monitor, January 30). If elected, Melnychenko would have enjoyed deputy immunity, which would have enabled him to ignore the arrest warrant and return home. Second, the U.S. authorities are likely to take the audiotapes from him. A court in California has upheld the U.S. Justice Department’s request that Melnychenko hand over the records. In an interview to New York-based Svoboda weekly, Melnychenko said that Washington wanted the tapes to investigate several other criminal cases, including former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko’s affair (Lazarenko is accused of money laundering in the United States). He also said that he did not want the tapes to end up in the Justice Department because they contained state secrets.
Official Kyiv has pretended that nothing is amiss. Kuchma has departed Kyiv for a tour of Siberia. Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksy Bahanets said on February 8 that results of the U.S. examination of Melnychenko’s records has no value in Ukraine. This may be so, but the opposition now campaigning in the Ukraine’s parliamentary election is scarcely likely to ignore those results, or to keep quiet about them (Ukrainska Pravda, January 31, February 7; RFE/RL, Interfax-Ukraine, February 7; New Channel TV, February 8).
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