Mykola Melnychenko, the presidential guard who was involved in bugging President Leonid Kuchma’s office between 1998 and 2000, returned to Ukraine on November 29. Exactly five years earlier Melnychenko fled Ukraine to Poland and then Prague, where he lived until obtaining political asylum in the United States in April 2001.
During Melnychenko’s absence his “recordings have remained a significant factor in Ukrainian domestic politics” (Zerkalo tyzhnia, November 26-December 2). Why is he returning only now, when many Ukrainian commentators expected Melnychenko to return immediately after the election of President Viktor Yushchenko one year ago? There are two answers.
First, Prosecutor-General Sviatoslav Piskun was sacked in October. Piskun had been reinstated on December 10, 2004, two days after the Ukrainian parliament adopted the “compromise package” permitting a re-run of round two of the disputed presidential election.
Piskun has been accused of blocking investigations of high-ranking officials from the Kuchma regime for a number of crimes, including the murder of Ukrayinska pravda editor Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000. The accusations seem confirmed by Piskun’s appearance on the Regions of Ukraine list for the March 2006 parliamentary elections, a party linked to the former regime.
The other factor is the upcoming parliamentary election. Melnychenko has accused parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn of complicity in the Gongadze murder, charges that could dent his popularity with voters (Ukrayinska pravda, December 6; Zerkalo tyzhnia, December 3-9).
Socialist Party of Ukraine leader Oleksandr Moroz first disclosed a fragment of the Melnychenko tapes in the Ukrainian parliament on November 28, 2000. The SPU would like Melnychenko in its parliamentary faction, but Ukrainian courts had refused to permit the guard to run on the SPU ticket in the 2002 elections. While Ukrainian courts and the European Court of Human Rights have subsequently demanded that Melnychenko be made a parliamentary deputy, the Central Election Commission continues to ignore these rulings.
However, the CEC’s obstinacy will not necessarily apply to the SPU’s 2006 election list if Melnychenko opts to remain in Ukraine. If it wins 30 seats as projected, the SPU could bring Melnychenko into parliament next year.
Melnychenko gave sworn testimony in the United States before he departed for Ukraine (Ukrayinska pravda, November 29). In Ukraine he was summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office, where he testified for another three hours. The Prosecutor’s Office also received copies of Melnychenko’s tapes from the Boris Berezovsky Foundation and former Security Service chairman Oleksandr Turchynov.
Melnychenko’s latest statements also implicate Mykola Azarov, the former head of the Tax Administration, the late interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko, former SBU chairman Leonid Derkach, and former Kuchma adviser and energy oligarch Oleksandr Volkov. Accusations against the latter two could cause problems for Yushchenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Derkach’s son, Andrei, heads the media outlets Kievski Telegraf, Versi.com, and Era TV and Radio, which all supported Yushchenko in the 2004 elections.
Volkov could be a complication for Tymoshenko. His high-profile presence in the Tymoshenko bloc tarnishes her image as a populist, anti-oligarch politician. It also raises questions about whether Tymoshenko could support an investigation of Melnychenko’s accusations when they could affect one of her key advisers.
Melnychenko’s return may not lead to charges against senior Kuchma officials. In the past year, no high-ranking Kuchma official has been charged with election fraud or abuse of office or corruption, let alone the Gongadze affair. Now, all of the likely suspects appear prominently on the Regions of Ukraine 2006 election list. If no charges are filed before the 2006 vote, they will be shielded by parliamentary immunity.
As for Kuchma himself, two factors make the Yushchenko administration reluctant to accuse him of involvement in the Gongadze murder.
First, Yushchenko may have been pressured into giving some form of immunity to Kuchma during the December 2004 round-table negotiations to stop the Orange Revolution protests. Yushchenko is also reluctant to set a precedent of filing criminal charges against former presidents, fearing he could be next.
Second, Yushchenko and his entourage believe that Russia was in some way behind the Melnychenko affair, particularly how Kuchma’s alleged order to “rough” up Gongadze ended with murder. Some other force likely wanted Kuchma implicated.
Four Interior Ministry policemen abducted Gongadze on September 16, 2000. The leader of the group, General Oleksiy Pukach, is accused of actually murdering Gongadze. After Gongadze was murdered his body was decapitated and dumped in Moroz’s Kyiv oblast constituency, where it was quickly discovered. Why would Kuchma want the body to be found, if he had indeed ordered the killing?
The alleged Russian link comes via local Ukrainian politicians seeking to weaken Kuchma, force him to resign early, and transfer power to a successor. Russia’s likely partners would have been the Kyiv clan’s Social-Democratic Party (United).
While living abroad, Melnychenko occasionally released selected fragments of conversations, but never the full tapes. “Each time the release of the recording was timed to a certain extent, it became clearer that Melnychenko was not acting independently” (Zerkalo tyzhnia, November 26-December 2).
Few observers believe Melnychenko’s claim that he taped Kuchma’s office single-handedly. The cloud of suspicion and other still-unanswered questions have led to Melnychenko’s partial discrediting. Twelve presidential guards who attended Melnychenko’s press conference insist that Melnychenko was only given access to Kuchma’s office in the company of other officers, never alone. They scoffed at his claim that he had placed a digital dictaphone under Kuchma’s sofa (Inter TV, December 5).
Melnychenko’s tapes unleashed the Kuchmagate scandal, emboldened the opposition, and compromised the Kuchma government. If the tapes were intended to make Kuchma leave office early they failed; instead they led to Yushchenko’s election and the Orange Revolution.