Europe's fourth largest country, Ukraine, is sliding into a potentially
cataclysmic political crisis over allegations that President Leonid
Kuchma is guilty of massive corruption, electoral fraud and conspiracy
to commit murder.
The president's foes--an unusual coalition of Communists, democrats
and right-wing nationalists--have held almost daily protest rallies
over the past several months. On several occasions, crowds numbering
more than 10,000 have surged through the streets of Kiev demanding
Kuchma's resignation over tape recordings that purport to show him
planning the murder of opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze.
Kuchma has lashed out at the demonstrations as "psychological warfare"
and "a direct
threat to Ukraine's national security," and has warned that he is
ready to mobilize the security forces to "defend constitutional order."
On March 9, 10,000 people
took to the streets
of Kiev demanding Kuchma's resignation.
Police violence against protesters has escalated sharply in recent
weeks, including a brutal raid on the opposition's downtown Kiev
tent camp in early March, which resulted in many injuries and dozens
Gongadze's headless corpse was found half-buried in a forest near
Kiev in November. He had been an editor of a crusading Internet
newspaper, Ukrainskaya Pravda,
which specializes in documenting corruption accusations against
In February, prosecutors verified the corpse as that of Gongadze
and launched an official investigation into his murder. Kuchma,
who won post-Soviet Ukraine's only free and open presidential election
in 1994, has consistently and emphatically denied any involvement
in the journalist's fate.
But the 300 hours of secret tape recordings, publicly released
in late 2000 by parliamentary opposition leader Oleksandr Moroz,
suggest otherwise. Former presidential bodyguard Mikola Melnychenko--who
has since fled abroad--recorded the obscenity- peppered conversations,
apparently by means of a taping device hidden under a sofa in Kuchma's
The Melnychenko tapes seem to contain enough dirt on Kuchma to
launch a dozen impeachment trials. Among other explosive revelations,
Kuchma is allegedly heard telling security officials that Gongadze
should be made to "disappear," perhaps by having him kidnapped by
In sections recorded during the president's re-election campaign
in 1999, Kuchma orders aides to threaten local leaders and factory
directors with arrest on corruption charges if they don't bring
in enough pro-Kuchma votes. "We need to win by a comfortable margin,"
the voice says.
In another conversation, Kuchma is heard railing against a Ukrainian
judge who was "too lenient" with a lawyer accused of spreading false
information about the president. "You take this judge out and hang
him by the balls," Kuchma allegedly shouts.
Kuchma has not denied that the voice on the tapes is his, and has
confessed that he often uses "salty language" in private, but has
repeatedly insisted that crucial sections of the recordings were
"doctored" by his enemies. Several others whose voices are heard
on the tapes, including parliamentarians and officials, have verified
their participation in those conversations.
However, a two-month examination of the recordings by the International
Press Institute in Vienna ended inconclusively in early March with
experts unable to determine if the digitally recorded tapes had
Ukraine largely has disappeared from the world's radar screens
since it gained its independence from the USSR a decade ago. Fearful
of pushing Kiev into Russia's embrace, the West has tended to downplay
the growing signs that Ukraine's post-Soviet democracy is slipping
off the rails.
Critics warn that Kuchma, a former Soviet rocket factory director
with strong ties to Moscow, is maneuvering to curb the powers of
Ukraine's parliament and set up an autocratic "presidential republic,"
following the examples of Boris Yeltsin's violent crushing of his
opposition legislature in Russia in 1993.
The crisis has given new life to Ukraine's parliamentary opposition,
which has warned it will begin impeachment proceedings if prosecutors
file criminal charges against the president. However, the crisis
ultimately may be resolved in the streets. Although the protests
against Kuchma have yet to attract mass public participation, most
of the country's usually fractious opposition leaders appear to
have thrown in their lot with the burgeoning "Ukraine Without Kuchma"
movement, including Yulia Tymoshenko, a liberal economist and wealthy
business tycoon whom Kuchma fired from her post as deputy prime
minister in January, and later had arrested on charges of embezzlement
and fraud. Tymoshenko has become the chief poster girl of the anti-Kuchma
opposition and, some say, its main political force. From her cell
in Kiev's Lukyanivka prison, "Iron Yulia" continues to issue a stream
of statements and directives to her followers.