Despite hopes to the contrary, the election of a new president of Ukraine has not sped the investigation into the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. At the Davos World Economic Summit in January, President Viktor Yushchenko promised that the Gongadze case would be submitted to court by May.
In fact, there is little progress beyond the arrest of two Interior Ministry officers and the release of a third on bail. All three were involved in Gongadze’s kidnapping in fall 2000.
Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun visited the United States in the second week of July where he had planned to meet Mykola Melnychenko, the former presidential guard who had bugged President Leonid Kuchma’s office. A fragment of one tape recording with Kuchma’s voice ordering violence against Gongadze was played in parliament on November 28, 2000, sparking the Kuchmagate crisis.
For still-unclear reasons, Piskun did not meet Melnychenko. Instead, he discussed other issues with the United States, such as signing an extradition treaty, the deportation of former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko (on trial in California since 2004), and the extradition of former Kuchma officials wanted in Ukraine but now living in the United States.
Melnychenko blamed Piskun for changing the time and place of the planned meeting. Piskun was to have taken Melnychenko’s affidavit and hoped to take the original recordings back to Ukraine (Ukrayinska pravda, July 13). But observers are now wondering if the “scheduling error” is really a smokescreen covering both Piskun and Melnychenko.
First, both Melnychenko and Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, have long argued that Yushchenko was mistaken in retaining Piskun as prosecutor. Yushchenko may belatedly be coming round to that same conclusion. At a meeting of central and regional prosecutors, Yushchenko accused the Prosecutor’s Office of taking bribes to block investigations ordered by the Interior Ministry (MVS) and Security Service (SBU).
Yushchenko noted that top Kuchma-era officials all seem to get advance warnings to flee Ukraine ahead of their imminent arrest. For example, General Oleksiy Pukach, who was in the car alongside three other MVS officers accused of kidnapping Gongadze, fled to Israel in 2004. When the SBU and Israeli security service jointly located Pukach in Israel and passed this information through Interpol to the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office, somebody leaked this information to Segodnya (June 23), allowing Pukach to go into hiding. As Zerkalo Nedeli/Tyzhnia (June 25) put it, “In a word, it all looks professional and smells bad.”
Second, Melnychenko’s reputation has been tarnished. Semen Shevchuk leaked information to Ukrayinska pravda (July 5) that detailed meetings in Berlin (February), August (Moscow), and September 2004 (Moscow) between Melnychenko and Kuchma officials, with Russia’s SVR acting as intermediaries. The Russian side was interested in protecting Kuchma as well as ensuring that fragments of Melnychenko’s tapes relating to corruption by Russia’s leaders in cahoots with Kuchma did not go public.
Melnychenko and Oleksandr Yeliashkevych, another political refugee from Ukraine, both demanded and received $1 million each from the Kuchma authorities. The funds were organized by Viktor Medvedchuk, then head of the Presidential Administration, and negotiated in Moscow by Ihor Bakay, then head of the Directorate for State Affairs. Bakay is now living in Moscow and wanted by the current Ukrainian authorities on charges of stealing $300 million. This explains why so little of the Melnychenko tapes were released during the 2004 election and his reluctance to assist the Gongadze investigation since Yushchenko came to power. His silence was agreed in Moscow as part of the monetary arrangement.
Third, the latest tapes to be released make top Yushchenko officials look guilty. Newly released tapes from 2000 incriminate National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko, portraying him as a Kuchma lackey hostile to then First Deputy Prime Minister, now Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Zerkalo Nedeli/Tyzhnia (July 9) described this development as the recordings’ “transformation from a heroic deed into something absolutely different. And a national tragedy has been transformed into a farce.”
However, the Kuchma camp is not the only faction that has sought to buy off people involved in the Gongadze case. The Ministry of Justice attempted to bribe Myroslava Gongadze with 100,000 Euros in exchange for her withdrawing all future claims against the government. She described this offer as “an absolutely vulgar proposal by the Ukrainian government to shut me up” (Ukrayinska pravda, June 23). Unlike Melnychenko, Myroslava Gongadze refused the offer and demanded that the Ukrainian authorities punish the “organizers,” and not just the MVS officers who carried out the murder of her husband.
Two further suspicions have also arisen. The first rests with the death of former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, whose voice is heard on the Melnychenko tape dealing with Gongadze. MVS Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and former SBU chairman Ihor Smeshko do not believe Kravchenko committed suicide — especially as he was found with two bullets to his head — after Prosecutor Piskun publicly called him to give testimony. Smeshko said, “I am inclined not to believe that he committed suicide. The information I have at the moment poses huge questions as to why the murder version was not pursued” (Channel 5 TV, July 11).
The second suspicion rests with efforts to bring Kuchma to justice. First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko believes that any investigation of the Gongadze affair should begin with Kuchma and parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn (Den, July 15). Lytvyn, who was head of the Presidential Administration from 1996-2002, has never been called in for questioning and will be a coalition partner with Yushchenko in the 2006 parliamentary election.
Deputy Prosecutor Viktor Skokin is now stating that Kuchma did not issue the order to “deal with” Gongadze (Stolichnyye novosti, June 22). Shokin was deputy prosecutor in October 2003, when the Presidential Administration responded to pressure and released Pukach from a brief imprisonment.
Failure to proceed on the Gongadze affair will seriously damage the legitimacy of those who came to power through the Orange Revolution. As SBU Chairman Oleksandr Turchynov admitted, “the death of this person [Gongadze] really shook up and changed the country” (2000, June 3). Without Kuchmagate, there likely would have never been an Orange Revolution exactly four years later.