The integrity of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been called into question by a barrage of media reports suggesting that they or their families live beyond their means. Their awkward reactions to the reports have only added fuel to the fire. The top Ukrainian leaders have become targets for corruption allegations that may tarnish their international reputation and should be a boon to their opponents ahead of next year’s parliamentary polls.
The scandal around Yushchenko was sparked by two publications discussing the lavish lifestyle of his elder son, Andriy, which the Ukrayinska pravda website ran on July 19 and 22. It reported that Andriy used a luxury mobile phone, was escorted by private bodyguards, and was seen driving a BMW worth $160,000. Ukrayinska pravda wondered how a 19-year university student could afford such expensive toys.
President Yushchenko’s and his son’s careless reactions turned what initially looked like an innocent attempt to boost readership through tabloid-style reporting into a very serious matter. Yushchenko Jr. sent a letter to Ukrayinska pravda explaining that the car belonged to a friend of his, and that he could afford the lifestyle described by the journalists, as he “has been working for one company for many years.” Interviewed by Ukraina Moloda later, Yushchenko Jr. confessed that the mobile phone he uses, a platinum Nokia Vertu, whose cost Ukrayinska pravda estimated at $43,500, was “a present from a friend.” He also said that he works not for one, but two companies, “involved in construction and insurance,” and that he was renting the car spotted by journalists, again, from a friend whose name he refused to disclose.
President Yushchenko further complicated matters at a press conference on July 25. Asked by Ukrayinska pravda to comment on his son’s lifestyle, he confirmed that the pricey phone was a present from a friend, and insisted that a salary that “one consulting firm” pays Andriy was sufficient to pay for renting the car and hiring private bodyguards. Yushchenko called the journalists who wrote about his son “hit men” and said that they “did not work for the freedom of speech a single day.” This was probably a bit too much to say about Ukrayinska pravda, a website whose founder was none other than the murdered Heorhiy Gongadze and which played a crucial role during the Orange Revolution, siding with Yushchenko from the very start. Yushchenko’s news conference prompted more than 600 Ukrainian journalists to sign an open letter demanding that he apologize, which he did on July 29. But serious questions remain unanswered.
Ukrainian paparazzi have uncovered evidence that Yushchenko Jr. recently moved into an expensive penthouse in downtown Kyiv, which the presidential press office confirmed, adding that he was renting it. But renting such a posh apartment (paying around $5,000 a month, according to the Segodnya newspaper), plus hiring private bodyguards, plus renting the car, would add up to a sum that no consulting company would pay a 19-year undergraduate student in a country where the average monthly wage hardly exceeds $150. This should mean that either Yushchenko Jr. is paid so much for being the son of a president or that the “friends” pay his expenses, Ukrayinska pravda has suggested. If so, what do those friends get in return?
Prime Minister Tymoshenko may be asked the same questions this fall, when the election campaign, begins in earnest. She told a group of journalists who were guests at her house in Koncha Zaspa, a prestigious suburb of Kyiv, in early August that she does not pay anything for its rent. Again, it belongs to “friends,” she said.
Renting the house would cost much more than the sum she disclosed in her 2004 income declaration, Ukrayinska pravda noted. The Pora pro-democracy youth movement has openly questioned Tymoshenko’s income statement, but Tymoshenko, speaking at a press conference on August 10, insisted that neither she nor her husband “have any material valuables” because the previous government had ruined her business. A week earlier, however, she had confessed that her husband was a successful agricultural businessman, but refused to expand on this.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have demonstrated that they are not ready for the current level of media freedom, which is probably unprecedented in Ukraine, and which they themselves encouraged during the Orange Revolution. A penchant for living beyond one’s means or, worse, at someone else’s expense, was widespread among top officials before the revolution, but the discovery that not much has changed after the democratic revolution must have shocked many Ukrainians.
(Ukrayinska pravda, July 19, 22, 25-29, August 8; 1+1 TV, July 26; Segodnya, July 27; Ukraina moloda, July 28; Channel 5, August 10; also see EDM, July 27)