Caught on Tape

Presidential scandal drives Ukraine into political chaos

Fred Weir

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.” 

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 of arrests. 

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 gov­ern­ment officials. 

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 office. 

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 Chechen bandits.” 

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 been altered. 

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.

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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