The scandal around the audio record of allegedly wiretapped phone conversations between top Ukrainian officials, including President Leonid Kuchma, is evolving into what is probably Ukraine’s most serious political crisis since independence (see the Monitor, December 5). The voice reportedly identified Kuchma’s indicates an individual who is decidedly xenophobic, unbalanced and prone to intimidation of political opponents, someone who hates the press and–worst of all–may be involved in removal of the political journalist Georgy Gongadze, who disappeared in September. Official Kyiv says that the tape, the contents of which were publicized by Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz, is a provocation.
Ukraine’s pro-presidential weekly Stolichnye Novosti rather awkwardly tried to shift public focus elsewhere, accusing former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko of igniting the scandal–claiming that Lazarenko, who is currently being prosecuted for money laundering in the United States, had supplied Moroz with the audiotape. The paper alleged that Lazarenko’s party, Hromada, backed Moroz’ presidential campaign last year. Now, the paper proceeded, Lazarenko wants a quid pro quo to damage the reputation of Ukraine and his main enemy, Kuchma. In response, Hromada threatened to sue Stolichnye Novosti for libel.
On December 6, more than a week after Moroz had played the tape, President Leonid Kuchma addressed the nation. He accused “the masterminds of this shady plot” of trying “to show Ukraine to the world as an uncivilized country”. He warned that Ukraine “is being pushed to the edge of chaos and anarchy,” pledged adherence to democratic values (including freedom of speech), and promised that he would not resort to authoritarian measures. He did not mention the tape as such during his speech, but neither did he deny that the alleged conversations had taken place.
Meanwhile, Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko, who is investigating the case initiated on suspicion of libel against the president, ruled out that Moroz’ tape might be passed to international experts to determine whether the record was authentic. He said that a Ukrainian expert appointed by the Ukrainian prosecution would analyze it. He indicated that this expert would be criminally punished should he draw false conclusions. Many observers took this as an amusing slip of the tongue suggesting that such an expert would have no choice but to draw “the right conclusions.”
But some foreign experts have reportedly already analyzed the record. The audio file was released online by the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant immediately after Moroz played the tape to journalists. On analyzing it, experts of the Dutch Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) concluded that the tape was not a fake and that it contained spontaneous original conversations. Due to the record’s poor quality, however, the experts could not say for certain whether one of the voices might be Kuchma’s.
Meanwhile, on December 8, a group of Ukrainian opposition MPs returned from a trip abroad where they claimed to have met the Ukrainian security officer who had passed the scandalous record to Moroz. The group included Serhy Holovaty, a former justice minister and currently vice president of the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body; former Prosecutor General Viktor Shyshkin; and Oleksandr Zhyr, a former KGB officer. The MPs said that they recorded a video of their meeting with the officer, who, they said, is hiding in an unnamed EU country. On their arrival at Kyiv Airport, they were searched (in violation of deputy immunity), the video was confiscated and later returned to them damaged. On December 11, the State Customs Service head, Yuri Solovkov, said that the airport customs agents took the cassette from the deputies because they suspected that diamonds might have been smuggled in it. Solovkov also said that the search was conducted on request from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Then he quite illogically promised that the agents who searched the MPs would be fired. It later turned out that the MPs had brought several copies of the video with them, and that not all of the copies were damaged.
On December 12, the video was shown in parliament. The security officer in the video, Major Mykola Melnychenko, confirmed that Moroz’ record was authentic, alleged that he had planted an audio recording device in Kuchma’s cabinet and accused Kuchma of “issuing criminal orders.” Parliament then turned to SBU head Leonid Derkach and Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko for an explanation; Derkach and Kravchenko are believed to be Kuchma’s interlocutors on the scandalous tape. Neither confirmed or denied Melnychenko’s testimony. Derkach denied that the SBU had requested customs to search Holovaty and other deputies in the airport. Customs chief Solovkov, who also addressed parliament, hinted that he would resign. Left- and right-wing factions then came up with a draft resolution requesting Kuchma to fire Derkach, Kravchenko and Solovkov, while Moroz called for Kuchma’s impeachment. But pro-presidential factions blocked the parliament work.
Kuchma looks likely to “sacrifice” one or several power ministers to parliament in an attempt to calm down the scandal. If he does not, it is not clear how he will manage to pull through. An awkward defense by his subordinates and the calculated moves of his opponents make Kuchma, who is helplessly groping for public support, look very vulnerable. He is apparently losing the information war, which has been unleashed, as he and his sympathizers claim, to weaken him and besmirch Kyiv internationally or, as Kuchma’s opponents say, to expose the gloomy situation with freedom of press and official corruption. (Stolichnye novosti, December 5; Korrespondent.net, UT-1, December 6; Ukrainska pravda, December 8; New Channel TV, December 8-11; Zerkalo nedeli, December 9; BBC, STB TV, December 12; see the Monitor, September 27).
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