Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 77

A series of accusations of illegal arms trade flying between high-placed Ukrainians early this year (see the Monitor, January 14, March 15) pale against the most recent allegations, this time against President Leonid Kuchma. U.S. experts have confirmed the authenticity of a record by fugitive Major Mykola Melnychenko, which implicates Kuchma in illegal supplies of radar equipment to Iraq. Kuchma’s opponents in Ukraine plan to use this in a campaign to impeach him.

In the recording, which audio experts from Virginia-based BEK TEK have found to contain no trace of tampering, a voice resembling Kuchma’s authorizes Valery Malev, former head of the Ukrspetseksport company, to sell a radar system–called Kolchuga (Hauberk)–to Iraq through a Jordanian intermediary in violation of UN sanctions. The conversation apparently took place in the summer of 2000, after Kolchuga, a radar reportedly capable of overriding stealth technology and detecting flying targets at a distance of 600 kilometers, had been demonstrated at an arms show in Jordan. Malev was killed in a car accident last month. BEK TEK, run by former FBI employees, had earlier confirmed the authenticity of tapes implicating top Ukrainian officials in the kidnapping of journalist Georgy Gongadze and beating of people’s deputy Oleksandr Yelyashkevych in 2000 (see the Monitor, February 13, March 11).

Officials concerned have hurried to deny that the sale ever took place. Kuchma called the reports alleging his involvement in arms trade absurd. Secretary of National Security and Defense Council Yevhen Marchuk suggested that the reports were sponsored by Ukraine’s competitors on the arms market. The Iraqi ambassador to Ukraine denied that his country has ever bought Kolchuga from Ukraine. Yury Ryabkin, the director of Donetsk-based Topaz plant, which manufactures Kolchuga, said that only three Kolchuga systems had ever been exported, all of them to Ethiopia, not Iraq.

Oleksandr Zhyr, the head of the parliamentary ad-hoc commission investigating into Gongadze’s murder, brushed these denials aside. At a press conference on April 18, he insisted that Malev’s death, which had taken place several days before the commission announced its findings about illegal arms trade, was not accidental. Zhyr called on the police to protect Leonid Derkach, a former security service (SBU) chief, who he regards as a witness as important as Malev in the case of arms sales to Iraq. Ironically, it is believed that Derkach was fired a year ago for failing to prevent Melnychenko’s bugging. Zhyr called on Ukraine’s new parliament to discuss the reports implicating Ukraine in illegal arms trade so as to prevent international sanctions.

The faction of Kuchma’s arch critic, Yulia Tymoshenko, intends to use these reports alleging radar system sales to Iraq in its ongoing crusade against Kuchma. On April 16, former Justice Minister Serhy Holovaty and head of the Anti-Mafia group in parliament, former KGB officer Hryhory Omelchenko–both members of Tymoshenko’s faction–announced the creation of a working group to impeach Kuchma. They called on all factions in the new parliament to delegate representatives to the group.

Holovaty and Omelchenko admitted, however, that getting rid of Kuchma would be extremely difficult. Ukraine’s multistage impeachment process requires 226 votes in the 450-seat parliament at one of its initial stages and 300 at its final stage. This last task is unrealistic. All opposition factions–from the Communists on the left, to Tymoshenko’s bloc on the right–number significantly less than 300. Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the center-right Our Ukraine coalition, the second-largest faction, has turned down the idea of impeachment as populist. Additionally, swaying public opinion to support impeachment would not be easy. Major television channels, which are controlled by Kuchma loyalists, have either ignored the scandal around Kolchuga or presented it as a smear campaign against Ukraine (Ukrainska Pravda, April 16-17; Ukraina Moloda, Vecherny Vesti, STB TV, April 18; Holos Ukrainy, April 19).