Former President Leonid Kuchma’s alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze should be thoroughly investigated if Ukraine is to move anywhere nearer in the direction of Europe
Ukraine’s No. 2 billionaire, Viktor Pinchuk, hosts his 7th annual summit, the Yalta European Strategy, from Sept. 30-Oct. 3 in beautiful Crimea. For him, it’s a way to convene – at his own expense – hundreds of journalists and influential leaders to discuss the goal of how to make Ukraine a democracy that is civilized enough to join the European Union.
Pinchuk should save his money and cancel the conference. Ukraine’s European aspirations are going nowhere – nor should they – until the nation confronts the criminality and corruption so deeply entwined with its nearly 20 years as an independent nation. And that would require serious criminal investigations to be launched against his father-in-law, ex-President Leonid Kuchma, the reprehensible leader of Ukraine from 1994-2005.
Georgiy Gongadze’s murder on Sept. 16, 2000, is usually Exhibit A in the lawlessness and impunity that epitomized the Kuchma era. Trailed for weeks by police, Gongadze, 31, got into what he thought was a taxi to take him home. Instead, he soon found himself in the same car with four police officers from the Interior Ministry – General Oleksiy Pukach and Mykola Protasov, Oleksandr Popovych and Valeriy Kostenko.
Law enforcement officers drove the Ukrainska Pravda news site founder to the country. He was beaten, strangled, burned, beheaded and buried. But the passionate, charismatic and intelligent journalist was never forgotten – nor will he be forgotten.
Finally, after 10 years of whitewash and cover-ups, prosecutors on Sept. 14 belatedly came to the conclusion that Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko ordered Pukach to kill Gongadze.
Most of the known evidence apparently comes from Pukach’s own statements. He has been jailed since his arrest on July 21, 2009. Kravchenko, a close ally of Kuchma, was killed under mysterious circumstances from two gunshot wounds to the head on March 4, 2005, one day before he was supposed to give testimony to investigators about the crime.
Kuchma, Kravchenko then-presidential chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn (now Verkhovna Rada speaker), ex-Security Service of Ukraine head Leonid Derkach and other top-ranking administration officials were all allegedly caught on recordings in Kuchma’s office plotting to get rid of Gongadze.
They all dispute the authenticity of the secret recordings, made in 1999-2000 by ex-presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko.
But subsequent events – the trailing of Gongadze by police officers and his murder by them – support the veracity of the Melnychenko tapes. Now Pukach, whose trial is months away, also implicates Kuchma and Lytvyn by talking.
It defies logic to think that Kravchenko acted alone. The Melnychenko tapes show that Kuchma governed the nation like a crime boss. Events discussed on the recorded conversations – the rigging of the 1999 presidential election, the use of law enforcement to persecute political enemies, the endemic corruption – mirrored reality.
That means Kuchma officials faced the task of investigating themselves. That obvious conflict of interest explains the routine lies, the denial of obvious facts, the destruction of evidence, the issuance of illegal orders, the foot-dragging, stonewalling and wild accusations meant to divert the public’s attention.
At one point on the Melnychenko tapes, discussing Gongadze, Kuchma reputedly said: “We need some Chechens to kidnap him for ransom.”
After prosecutors announced their findings on Sept. 14, ending the pre-trial phase of the investigation, Kuchma reacted hysterically with wild accusations – and no proof whatsoever – that foreign agents were responsible for Gongadze’s murder. He went on to imply the agents were from the United States.
Many in the Kuchma administration were in on the act. Kravchenko’s deputy, Mykola Dzhyha, lied in parliament about the headless body that turned out to be Gongadze’s. He is now doing well as governor of Vinnytsya Oblast. Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn now claims he had never met Pukach. The suspect, however, in testimony to investigators implicated Lytvyn in the crime and cover-up based on a meeting the day after Gongadze’s murder.
Truth has a way of prevailing, even if doesn’t happen in our lifetimes. Many of the implicated are leading rich, lavish lifestyles. We don’t see how they can be happy, however. Their lives are a tortuous form of moral limbo as long as they are neither exonerated nor convicted.
But will the answers ever be found? Not soon, unfortunately. Essentially, the same political and judicial system is in place as during the Kuchma era, involving many of the same people, only now working for Yanukovych.
General Prosecutor Oleksandr Medvedko, loyal to the ruling Donetsk clan, is still in charge of the Gongadze investigation. His prosecutors have yet to demonstrate the ability to conduct and finish a transparent, professional and unbiased criminal investigation into any of the nation’s greatest crimes.
As long as this impunity continues, the nation will not move forward. That’s why all of Pinchuk’s Yalta guests should either disinvite themselves, or simply drown the nation’s sorrows with all the billionaire’s wine they can drink up.
Read also the front page story 'How High Does Conspiracy Go?'.