As an Interior Ministry colonel confesses to the murder of opposition journalist and Ukrayinska pravda founder Heorhiy Gongadze, one major issue remains; namely what evidence will the courts accept? (Segodnya, March 9)
Former presidential guard Mykola Melnychenko secretly recorded 700 hours of tapes in President Leonid Kuchma’s office during 1999 and 2000. During Kuchma’s reign the authorities first denied the tapes’ existence and later claimed they had been doctored as a “conspiracy” against Kuchma. Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylev refused to consider the tapes as evidence and claimed they probably no longer existed (Ukrayinska pravda, September 13, 2004). Just before the 2004 presidential elections, the prosecutor-general’s officer paid 850,000 hryvni (approximately $70,000) for an “expert analysis” of copies of the tapes (Melnychenko kept the originals) that concluded that the voices could not be adequately identified and were probably doctored.
Five international media organizations (Reporters Without Frontiers, the British National Union of Journalists, the International Union of Journalists, Article 19, and the Institute of Mass Media) condemned the results, noting “The expertise ordered by the Ukrainian government took place in conditions of maximum secrecy” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 13, 2004).
Melnychenko responded by releasing new excerpts ahead of the elections. These included a conversation in summer 2000 between Kuchma and then-Donetsk governor Viktor Yanukovych about plans to create a Donetsk faction in parliament. Both are heard scheming how to buy up deputies for the new faction. They wanted 15-20 Communists and hoped to eliminate the Socialist and Fatherland party factions (Ukrayinska pravda, October 2 and 21, 2004).
In an interesting twist, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Ukrainian authorities were wrong to deny Melnychenko the 15th slot on the Socialist Party list in the 2002 elections. If Melnychenko returns to Ukraine, he will therefore have the right to take any vacant seat in the Socialist faction (Ukrayinska pravda, February 1). Melnychenko’s presence in the Ukrainian parliamentary chamber would certainly make for lively proceedings, to say the least.
Melnychenko has been given “guarantees” for his safety, were he to return to Ukraine. Prosecutor-General Sviatyslav Piskun has closed the treason case filed when he fled Ukraine in November 2000. Piskun invited Melnychenko to return to Ukraine and conduct a joint analysis of the tapes with international experts.
But Melnychenko, like Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, does not trust Piskun due to his history with Kuchma (Piskun was Prosecutor-General in 2002-2003). After former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko was found dead on March 4, Melnychenko feared for his own life. Exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky sent a private plane to bring him from Warsaw to London, where Berezovsky lives. Melnychenko claims that the FBI warned him on four previous occasions that his life was in danger.
Melnychenko will not surrender the original tapes to Piskun. He believes that Kravchenko’s death is part of a deliberate cover up to shield Kuchma, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and former Security Service (SBU) chairman Leonid Derkach (Ukrayinska pravda, March 8).
Where are the original tapes and what is on the other 670 hours? Volodymyr Tsvil, Ukraine’s former consul in Munich and a former Socialist Party member, helped Melnychenko escape from Ukraine by car into Poland and put Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz in touch with Melnychenko in summer 2000.
According to Tsvil, most of the compact discs containing the taped conversations are in a bank vault in Liechtenstein, not with Melnychenko. Tsvil believes only a fraction of the conversations have been released, because the tapes are actually owned by Melnychenko’s still-anonymous supporters (Kyiv Post, July 1, 2004).
In February 2004 Melnychenko, according to Tsvil, held secret meetings with SBU officers who brought a $500,000 “inducement,” that Melnychenko refused (Kyiv Post, March 3). He also attempted to meet senior presidential administration officials such as Serhiy Levochkin, who recently became an adviser to Lytvyn.
Moroz and Melnychenko have both complained that President Viktor Yushchenko is also disinterested in using the tapes as evidence in a trial, because two senior Yushchenko officials are heard on the tapes. These two have not been identified, but rumors suggest they are presidential administration chief Oleksandr Zinchenko (a senior Social Democratic United Party member until he defected to Yushchenko in mid-2003) and National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko (whose Solidarity Party had links to a leading Donetsk member of Regions of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, until Poroshenko defected to Yushchenko in 2001).
Admitting the tapes into evidence would have several implications. Portions of the tapes have been verified by both a U.S. company headed by a former FBI expert (BEK TEK) as well as by an FBI laboratory. BEK TEK concluded that Kuchma is indeed heard speaking to Kravchenko and Derkach about Gongadze, while the FBI verified Kuchma’s voice authorizing the sale of Kolchuga radars to Iraq.
With no law granting ex-presidents immunity, Kuchma is unlikely to escape blame. He continues to deny that he ever gave an “illegal order” to “deal with” Gongadze and defended Kravchenko, who declared his innocence in his suicide note. Kuchma’s plan to be an elder statesman running his Ukrayina Foundation may now be diverted to a quiet retirement in the dacha near Moscow reportedly ready should Kuchma have to flee Ukraine.