Former presidential guard Mykola Melnychenko, whose famous records of talks in Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s office ignited a political crisis in Ukraine last year, may return home. Fearing arrest, he fled Ukraine in late 2000 and was granted refugee status in the United States early last year. The March 31 parliamentary elections may give him a chance to freely return to Ukraine. If elected, he will–as a Verkhovna Rada deputy–enjoy immunity from prosecution.
Insofar as the election itself is concerned, a single-seat constituency campaign was out of the question, given the impossibility of campaigning from abroad. A secure party ticket is thus Melnychenko’s only opportunity. The Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) is apparently going to lend a hand. On January 12, SPU leader Oleksandr Moroz, who publicized Melnychenko’s tapes in November 2000, announced that Melnychenko would be included on the SPU candidate list.
SPU’s active participation in the antipresidential protests of early last year did not add to its popularity. Opinion polls show that this party will only just pass the 4-percent vote barrier on March 31. The Socialists are clearly losing out to the Communists, their main left-wing rival. Melnychenko may be their last hope. They seem undaunted by the fact that both official propaganda and many Ukrainians view Melnychenko as a traitor rather than a hero. His running on the SPU list would attract media attention to and reinvigorate the party’s image as a principled opposition to a corrupt regime.
Central Electoral Commission (CEC) chairman Mykhaylo Ryabets has warned the SPU that it faces problems in fielding Melnychenko. According to the election law, only those who have been living in Ukraine for the last five years are eligible to run in the elections. Melnychenko, according to Ryabets, is therefore ineligible. On January 22, two days before the official deadline for registering candidates, the SPU submitted to the CEC its list for the elections. Number 15 on that list was assigned to Melnychenko. On January 26, however, the CEC officially refused to register Melnychenko. The SPU said that it would appeal this decision in the Supreme Court.
The party’s argument is that the law does not necessarily prohibit someone living abroad from running in an election–if that time has been in accordance with international treaties, if the person has maintained Ukrainian citizenship and a registered Ukrainian address. Melnychenko’s refugee status in the United States, the SPU argues, is the key point. He is still a Ukrainian citizen with a legal address in Kyiv. He is thus eligible to campaign.
There is a Ukrainian precedent for this argument. Former Acting Premier Yukyhm Zvyahylsky fled to Israel amid accusations of corruption in 1994 but returned to Ukraine in 1997 and was elected to the Rada.
Moroz has advertised that Melnychenko will return to Ukraine in March. If he does return, the powers-that-be will clearly have a problem on their hands. Melnychenko, after all, claims to possess even more records than those already publicized in the United States that compromise President Leonid Kuchma and other top officials. His return would certainly upset the campaigns of the various pro-presidential parties.
On January 24, Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksy Bahanets said that, were he to return, Melnychenko would be detained immediately. The official prosecution is accusing him of abuse of power and divulging state secrets. Conviction could bring five to ten years in prison. If Melnychenko were elected to the Rada, Bahanets said, the prosecution would ask the lawmakers to strip him of deputy immunity. Even were the Rada to refuse this, Bahanets warned, Melnychenko would be arrested in four years, on the expiration of his deputy mandate. On January 26, Melnychenko’s lawyer, Serhy Salov, retorted that his client, like any other Ukrainian citizen, can be arrested only if a court rules it. According to Salov, in accusing Melnychenko of divulging secrets, the prosecution has de facto acknowledged the authenticity of his records. An interesting scenario, at the —
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