World

Revenge of the grave

Lidia Wolansky March 5 2001
World

Revenge of the grave

Lidia Wolansky March 5 2001

Revenge of the grave

World

Lidia Wolansky

The man, whose body was found with one rigid hand sticking upward from a freshly dug grave, may accomplish in death what he failed to do in life—bring down Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma. When residents of the central Ukraine village of Tarashcha dug up the corpse last November, they found it beheaded and burned beyond recognition with acid. But police, using a bracelet left at the scene, soon identified the man as 31-year-old Georgiy Gongadze, a muckraking journalist who had become a thorn in the side of Kuchma. While the president claimed he did not know Gongadze, taped conversations released by a former top security official clearly implicated him. “Toss Gongadze, that little f-—r,” the president threatens on the tapes, “to the Chechens, in his f-—g underwear.” Kuchma, who was manager of a missile factory during the communist era, has never been wildly popular. He was elected prime minister in 1992 and president in 1994. He was re-elected in 1999, garnering 36 per cent of the vote

in the first round against 13 other contenders and 56 per cent in the runoff against the Communist party candidate. Now, since the release of the tapes on Nov. 28, hundreds of protesters calling for Kuchmas resignation have rallied daily in the capital, Kiev. They were given even more incentive last week when yet another batch of incriminat-

Secret tapes reveal an elaborate plot of suppression and deceit

ing tapes surfaced—showing how in 1999 Kuchma plotted like an old-style Soviet leader to use the power of police and security forces to silence critics and ensure his re-election.

In one, he tells security officers to blackmail local officials by reminding them that Ukraine’s intelligence service maintains extensive dossiers on them.

“You have to sit down with every head,” said Kuchma, “and tell him that he will

go to jail, or you have to provide the votes—yes or no?” For those officials who refused to go along, Kuchma offered a blunt warning. “After the election, they won’t be working,” he said. On the Gongadze tapes, the president also expressed his ire over the journalist’s controversial Web site, set up in June, 2000, called Ukrainska Pravda. In pointed articles, Gongadze, who was known as much for his womanizing as for his journalistic style, repeatedly accused the president of corruption.

Both sets of tapes came from a seemingly ironclad source: Maj. Mykola Melnychenko, a former security adviser in Kuchma’s office. They were part of hundreds of hours of conversations taped by Melnychenko, using microphones hidden under a couch in the president’s office. Melnychenko, who released the tapes to expose corruption, is now hiding somewhere in Europe.

The president admits it is his voice on the tapes, but says they were edited to discredit him. Even so, a broad alliance of opposition parties under the banner “Ukraine without Kuchma” has sprung up. And in what appeared to have been an attempt to intimidate his opponents into silence, on Feb. 13, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was arrested on corruption charges. Not surprisingly, many Ukrainians believe their country, like neighbouring Belarus, may still be little more than a Soviet-style dictatorship under the surface.

As a result, street demonstrations are expected to grow. Zenon Kohut, director of the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, said Kuchma was allowed to consolidate power in the presidency because people feared a return to communism. Now, massive protests like those that forced Slobodan Milosevic from power in Yugoslavia may be coming. “There is no institutional method of removing a president,” said Kohut. “So some people have decided to try the Yugoslav model.” Gongadze, no doubt, would cheer them on.

With George Serhijczuk and Catherine Roberts in Toronto