Ten years after the murder of the journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, the Justice Department of Ukraine has charged former President Leonid Kuchma with involvement in the crime. Astrit Dakli asks who wants this high profile trial and why bring back to life an investigation that itself has been a litany of mysteries?
On 3 November 2000, a headless corpse was found in the Tarashanka forest, about 70 kms from Kiev. Not only had it been decapitated: half the body had also been eaten away by a corrosive liquid. Nevertheless, the corpse was soon identified as that of Heorhiy Gongadze, a local journalist noted for his distinct lack of deference to authority, who had mysteriously disappeared a few weeks earlier on 16 September. More than ten years later, the Justice Department of Ukraine has reopened the case, charging former President Leonid Kuchma – the man who wielded absolute power in the county at the time – with involvement in the horrific murder. The sensational court case about to take place in Kiev will put Ukrainian affairs under the international spotlight.
At first sight, this trial might seem like the closing of the circle. However the oddities, the discrepancies and the doubts which have dogged this affair from the start are still far from being cleared up. And judging by the circumstances, the trial will do little to resolve the situation. Quite the opposite. The charging of Kuchma has raised a whole new set of questions and lifted the lid on even murkier scenarios, implicating players beyond the borders of Ukraine.
The doubts and ambiguities can be divided into several categories. First of all there are the doubts about the crime itself: even though the circumstances and the actual killers are more or less known (as we shall see), the motives remain incomprehensible – the investigators being unable to offer any plausible explanation whatsoever. Then there are strong reservations about the way the various investigations have been conducted over the years – and in particular about the evidence which supposedly implicates Kuchma – the tape-recordings. The incredible saga of these tapes would constitute a murder mystery in itself. And finally, there are the enigmatic deaths of many (too many) people associated with the case (unlikely suicides, strange accidents and sudden-onset fatal illnesses). Not to mention the mystery surrounding the remains of poor Gongadze, whose head has yet to be reunited with his body and receive a decent burial. The “ambiguous” role played in the whole ten-year long affair by a cross-party range of top Ukrainian politicians also needs to be examined in depth. And finally, there is the question raised simultaneously with the charging of former president Kuchma : Who wants this trial and why? Or to put it more classically, cui prodest?
It should be noted that in Ukraine – as in Russia – the investigative judiciary is linked directly to the government, in particular to its highest authority, the Office of the President of the Republic. It would therefore be unthinkable for a high level political investigation – which the Gongadze case was, and still is – to be conducted without the approval of the President. During the ten years since the killing of the journalist, in Ukraine there have been three presidents: Kuchma himself, then Viktor Yushchenko and finally the current President, Viktor Yanukovich. With each change in president, there have been radical changes in the regime’s internal and foreign policy: a pro-Russian and state-controlled economy under Kuchma, that has seen a return under Yanukovich, and a Liberal, pro-western policy under Yushchenko – which led to realignments in the investigations of the Gongadze case each time.
Right from the very beginning, the case seemed to be tied up with the world of politics. Along with some fellow journalists, Gongadze had just founded an online journal, Ukrayinska Pravda, which was dedicated to fighting corruption and defending the principle of the freedom of information. Even if he had not yet undertaken any particularly “delicate” journalistic investigations, he had started to make a name for himself with his biting articles against the president, the government and the links between politicians and the powerful oligarchs, who had possessed themselves of half the country. Immediately after his disappearance in September his colleagues suspected that Gongadze was silenced because he was “a thorn in the side” and the opposition member of parliament Hryhoriy Omelchenko maintained that the journalist had come into possession of documents that were compromising to President Kuchma, and for that reason he was “disappeared”. Then in November, a few days after his decapitated body was found, with its ensuing identification, a Russian newspaper sold in Ukraine, Sevodnya, published the story that the journalist had been kidnapped by some police officers “by mistake”, and that the body was therefore made unrecognisable to avoid any consequences for themselves. At the end of November 2000, a leader of the opposition Socialist party, Oleksandr Moroz, produced his tape recordings.
These tape recordings were carried out in a clandestine fashion in the office of the president, unbeknownst to him, by the secret service agent, Mykola Melnychenko, head of the presidential body guard team. In one of these recordings, Kuchma was having a discussion with the Interior Minister, General Yuriy Kravchenko, and the head of the presidential staff, Volodomyr Lytvyn, as to how to get rid of the annoyance of Gongadze. They mentioned “sending him to Chechnya”, and “making him keep quiet”. Kuchma said to Kravchenko “you deal with it”, but none of them explicitly mentioned killing the journalist. The quality of the recording is very bad, and most importantly, it was never explained how and why Melnychenko put microphones in the president’s office, nor why he passed on those recordings to Moroz.
Despite the massive political ruckus created by the case and the serious suspicions relating to the President, the official inquiry went ahead wearily, entertaining completely different theories. In May 2001 the police announced that they had “solved the mystery”, announcing that Gongadze had been killed by two low-lifers that he accidentally came across by chance. Unfortunately, they added, the two killers had both died in the meantime in a rather unclear “accident”. Not even the head of the investigative judiciary gave such a dubious theory much credit, and so the investigation went on while public opinion and some foreign governments were increasingly inclined to point the finger at Kuchma. The President tried to clean up his image by firing some of his close collaborators, the head of the Secret Services, and had the person in charge of the initial investigations arrested and tried for negligence and falsifying evidence. Then – in June 2004 – the police found another guilty party, “self confessed” this time, a common criminal whose name was kept secret. As chance would have it, the accused never made it to the trial, dying from a mysterious illness affecting his spine while he was in his cell. The investigation was closed.
The atmosphere in Ukraine had by then reached a flash point. The liberal opposition and the left leaning parties were demonstrating on the streets every day, western governments, led by the USA, were openly accusing Kuchma and were financing some opposition groups. The Gongadze case was one of the key issues being argued about. The presidential elections in November 2004, saw the fraudulent victory of Kuchma’s political heir apparent, Yanukovich, which led to the “Orange Revolution” and a repeat of the vote in January, with the victory of the pro western Yushchenko. With Yushchenko in power, the head of the investigative body Sviatoslav Piskun – who was left in his job while everyone expected him to be replaced by someone else – decided to immediately re-open the Gongadze case.
The investigation, this time headed in a completely different direction, and within a few weeks new charges were brought against the figures who from the very beginning of the investigation had generally been presumed to be responsible. Three police officers were arrested on the charge of “participation and complicity” in the kidnapping and murder of the journalist; a fourth officer who was accused with the actual killing of Gongadze, by strangling him and then decapitating him, could not be found. The former Minister of the Interior Yuriy Kravchenko was accused of having ordered the killing. This all took place on 1 March 2005. Three days later, when the police came to arrest him, they found General Kravchenko dead. Suicide was immediately suggested as the official version. Unfortunately, this time as well, there was a detail that was rather suspect, the General had shot himself in the head, not once but twice.
Two entry holes and two exit holes showed that two bullets had passed through his skull. Nobody was able to explain how this might have been possible. The gun was his own, as was the note that he left proclaiming his innocence. The suicide theory was consequently not cast into doubt.
The three arrested officers were tried in 2006 and sentenced to various prison sentences, the fourth officer, Oleksiy Pukach, was considered to have escaped abroad. Case closed? No, quite the opposite. The problem of Melnychenko’s tape recordings still remained, recordings which cast suspicion on Kuchma, the Secret Services, on the super-witness, Lytvyn who with the passing of one regime to another had eventually become the Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament (Rada) and an ally of President Yushchenko, and even about Yushchenko himself, who at the time of the crime was still on Kuchma’s side, he was actually the head of his government. And over and above the tape recordings, there was the mystery of Gongadze’s body which had in the meantime disappeared.
The decapitated and corroded body which his wife Myroslava had identified back in November 2000 at the Tarashanka mortuary, was taken away by the police to later reappear in the judicial mortuary in Kiev but in 2003 when the body was given to his mother Lesya so that a funeral could be performed she had no doubt at all that this was not the body of her son and she refused to accept the body for the funeral. In her opinion, the body of Heorhiy Gongadze had once again been “disappeared” so as to avoid any detailed examination and the State was trying to fob her off with some other body. Until the head of my son has been found, she said, or until there are DNA exams carried out by independent laboratories, there will be no funeral.
During his entire presidency, Viktor Yushchenko continually repeated that establishing the truth about the Gongadze case was one of his main priorities, but after the startling turn of events in the spring of 2005, with the arrests, trials and suicides, the work of the investigators started to wind down. Up until the summer of 2009 when the furious political battles leading up to the presidential elections in January led to unexpected developments in the Gongadze case. On 22 July, in a village in the region of Zhytomyr, Oleksiy Pukach was “found” and arrested, and by all accounts he had always been there living under his real name, and using his own identity documents but inexplicably nobody was able to find him despite being the most wanted man in Ukraine. A few days later the Head of the Chief Investigator’s Office, (the post in the meantime had been filled by Oleksandr Medvedko), triumphantly announced that Pukach had “confessed”, giving the names of the people who ordered the killing and indicating the place where Gongadze’s head had been buried – the remains of which were immediately found and officially identified as those of the victim. However, once again, the “solution” was anything but an open and shut case.
The declarations from the Chief Investigator’s office, were quickly denied by Pukach’s lawyer, and the investigation was formally given the status of “secret” and nobody was actually charged with ordering the killing (we still do not know when the presumed killer will be tried); as for the remains of the head of Gongadze, his family refused to accept its identification, given that their request for an independent DNA exam had not been granted. In reality, everything remained vague, and the clumsy attempt to close the case only managed to raise even more pressing questions regarding the role of Kuchma as well as that of Ukraine’s new leaders in the affair.
The presidential elections took place in 2010, at which the incumbent president was trounced after obtaining just over 5% of the vote, whereas in the run-off ballot, the former heir apparent of Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovich, easily beat the former ally of Yushchenko, Yulia Timoshenko. This vote basically turned the political clock back 5 years – out with the liberal nationalists and in with the pro Russian advocates of state power. But that was not all, because against all expectations, the Chief Investigator nominated by Yanukovich, Viktor Pshonka, turned the clock back even further saying that he was now charging former president Leonid Kuchma.
The reasoning behind this sensational charging of the former President is anything but clear. There are those that maintain that there is some bad blood between Yanukovich and his ex-boss, who during the “Orange revolution” did not defend him, thus exposing him to the humiliation of a repeated vote and eventual defeat at the polls second time round. Others – for example, the main political rival of the president, Yulia Timoshenko, who was herself charged by the Chief Investigator for economic crimes – are calling it an act of pure propaganda, an attempt to try his ex boss to distract public opinion from the current economic disaster effecting the country, to regain the trust of western governments and demonstrate there does exist impartiality within the judiciary under the new regime. These are theories that could easily co-exist and complement one another if it were not for a few obvious inconsistencies. It is clear that this famous defendant could very easily, (as the trial will be closely followed by the international media) involve Yanukovich (and even his predecessor too, Yushchenko, who had carefully avoided having the Chief Investigator charge Kuchma) and demonstrate their complicity in the crime. As well, it is not a given that Ukrainian public opinion will allow itself to be so easily distracted from the pressing problems of daily life, and as for pacifying western opinion, it is to be noted that one of the most important legal firms of the United States promptly accepted the job of defending Kuchma which shows that a trial is not sufficient to alter US diplomatic policy.
Could it be that the real aim of the trial is to absolve Kuchma and his men once and for all? As far as we know, the only proof against the former president is the famous tape recordings of Melnychenko, which do not contain anything that would lead to a guilty verdict for murder (there is no mention of “killing” or “eliminating” Gongadze but only a mention of “keeping him quiet”). This may explain why the formal charge against Kuchma is “abuse of power with fatal consequences”, and the tapes might even be thrown out as valid proof by the court given their poor quality, the difficulty in proving with certainty that the person speaking is truly the former president of Ukraine and that the dialogue is original and not the result of a manipulation of the tapes.
Over and above the tape recordings, the only other element that could be used against Kuchma would be a testimony by his ex Chief of Staff and the current Speaker of Parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who, so, far, has not shown any interest in talking about this case and has never been officially questioned by the investigators. Either way, he would probably be the first person that the former president would accuse, it were necessary to do so.
It is still unclear why Yanukovich would want to run the risk of holding such a complicated trial, as it is sure to be. The trial will be under the international spotlight where just one unforeseen event could unleash an uncontrollable chain reaction. Would it not have been smarter to let the whole affair remain in limbo, as it was a case that by now everyone has decided is “unsolvable”? The answer to that, from those who claim to know the darker side of Ukrainian politics, is that the President was obliged to make this move by manoeuvres in the Kremlin, thus becoming an involuntary (or even unwitting) pawn in the subterranean struggle between President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the run up to Russia’s presidential elections. According to this scenario, it was Putin, who right from the start, via the Secret Services, used the “Gongadze case” and the tape recordings of Melnychenko to manipulate and control Kuchma and his successors, whereas a sensational counter-move might have come from the current Russian President Medvedev, using the Kremlin’s influence on the Ukrainian Federal Prosecutor’s office, so as to expose and defuse Putin’s control, thus creating difficulties for both Yanukovich and Putin and thus remaining the sole true master of the situation.
Fantasy politics? Possibly, but after ten years of mysteries and unanswered questions even this could be a credible scenario. In the meantime, a body without a head and a head without a body are still waiting for the truth in the Kiev mortuary, as are the mother and wife of Heorhiy Gongadze.