For almost six months, Ukraine has been gripped by a scandal that has rocked the political arena. President Leonid Kuchma has been implicated in the disappearance of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, whose headless body was discovered on 2 November 2000 near to Kyiv.
Kuchma's popularity has suffered. On Sunday 11 February, thousands of protesters spurred on by the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" movement marched on Kyiv demanding the President's resignation. Western analysts have already likened circumstances in Ukraine to those in Yugoslavia, which resulted in the ousting of Slobodan Milošević from the Yugoslav presidency in early October last year. Kuchma's demise may now be in the offing.
The Gongadze crisis
Heorhiy Gongadze founded the Internet journal Ukrainska Pravda in April 2000. The journal quickly became known for its muckraking investigations into Ukrainian business tycoons and politicians. In June, Gongadze wrote a letter to the Prosecutor General, Mykhaylo Potebenko, complaining that he had been forced into hiding. In September, Gongadze mysteriously disappeared.
Investigators into Gongadze's disappearance hinted that perhaps Gongadze had run away because of money problems. Under international pressure, and after news that opposition Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz had in his possession tape recordings allegedly of the President, Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn and Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko having discussed means to remove the troublesome Gongadze, the government set up a commission to investigate the journalist's disappearance. (See Didenko's article "The Edge of Chaos" in CER.)
An amazing four months after Gongadze's disappearance, the Prosecutor General announced that DNA from the discovered body revealed a 99.66 per cent probability of it being Gongadze's.
Riding out the storm
Since December, protests against Kuchma have been mounting, and the once disunited opposition has pulled together to oppose Kuchma's presidential position. Kuchma, however, appears to be riding out the political storm.
On 19 December 2000, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) decided to unfreeze its USD 2.6 billion lending plan to Ukraine. The plan had been frozen since September 1999, after a disproportionate rise in public spending prior to the presidential election in the following month. The IMF decision was in praise of the improved Ukrainian economy and the implementation of economic reform. The move is seen as a success and offers the prospect of a brighter future. Given the political situation, however, there is some question over whether the IMF decision was premature, and will act as a diversion from the Gongadze issue.
Kuchma has already started reeling in his opponents. On 10 February, he dismissed the head of the Ukrainian Secret Service, Leonid Derkach, and his chief bodyguard, Volodymyr Shepel, but perhaps his greatest threat was Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko held the post of deputy prime minister and was responsible for the energy sector—an area of contention in relations with neighbouring Russia. Tymoshenko's reformist approach is said to have threatened the shadow deals of the influential business oligarchs who have a strong hold on the economy and thus have a degree of political influence. The oligarchs have allegedly placed Kuchma under pressure to remove Tymoshenko from her governmental position.
On 15 January, Tymoshenko was charged by the Prosecutor General for "smuggling and falsification of documents" between 1997 and 1999 when she was employed as the director for the United Energy Systems Company (UES). During this time, she is alleged to have overseen the illegal siphoning of Russian gas from pipelines running through Ukraine, and evading taxes.
Reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko has stood by Tymoshenko, threatening his own resignation if she were dismissed. Now, it seems his threats were all but words. On 13 February—"Black Tuesday"—he made a joint address with President Kuchma and the chairman of the parliament, blaming the "National Socialists" and the opposition for "manufacturing" the current political crisis in order to ruin Kuchma's administration. Yushchenko's signature to the joint address has been interpreted by some analysts as a symbol of support for Kuchma. Tymoshenko was imprisoned that same day.
Yushchenko's image in the West as "an honest and committed reformer" (BBC News Online, 12 February 2001) is invaluable to Kuchma during this volatile time and could mean the difference between leaving and staying in the presidential office.
Signs of support from Russia
The allegations against Kuchma have intensified interest in Ukraine from farther afield. Rather ironically, support has come from a strange sector: Russia. During the 1994 presidential elections, Kuchma cleverly played on the importance of close relations with Russia, securing support from the heavily populated, pro-Russian Eastern regions of Ukraine. Following his election, his approach turned towards reducing Russian influence over Ukraine and its neighbours. Relations with Russia have since been tentative, particularly over Russian supplies of gas and oil to Ukraine.
Ukraine's change of direction encouraged Western interest and funding, but this soon dried up after the extent of corruption and restricted freedoms within Ukraine became apparent. Yushchenko was supposedly encouraged to take on the role of premier because his positive image in the eyes of the Western investors could instigate the resurrection of interest in Ukraine. As BBC News Online reported: "Most Western governments now think Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko... would make a better leader." (BBC News Online, 12 February 2001)
Meanwhile, Kuchma has rekindled his relationship with Russia. Parts of the Ukrainian economy—troubled by debt—have been bought by Russian companies for a relatively low cost, including the aluminum and oil industries. Improving relations between Russia and Ukraine were reaffirmed on Monday 12 February, when Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Ukraine to meet President Kuchma. The visit has been interpreted as a vote of confidence in the Ukrainian president, although Kuchma's role in the Gongadze affair was not discussed.
Last role call for Kuchma?
Kuchma's worst political crisis of his six years in office happened to coincide with the arrival of a senior delegation from the European Union. The EU partnership agreement with Ukraine necessitates respect for the rule of law and human rights. President Kuchma's alleged involvement in the Gongadze affair is therefore of some concern. During their visit, the EU called for a transparent and full inquiry into the Gongadze issue. As of yet, the implementation of sanctions has not been considered necessary. According to BBC News Online, one Swedish diplomat commented: "There is no talk of sanctions... We first have to see what answers we get in Kyiv." (BBC News Online, 13 February 2001).
Ukraine's deputy to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Victor Kryzhanivsky, has also commented: "There is no reason for the president to step down, because the investigation is going on. I'm sure it will reveal really who is hiding behind the scene, but it's not the president." (BBC News Online, 15 February 2001). Both the EU and the OSCE have criticised the slow progress of the investigation, but have not yet announced that President Kuchma is directly involved. Until a thorough investigation is completed they are unlikely to do so.
Kuchma has already stated that the voice on the tape is his, suggesting, however, that the tape was heavily edited. The tape has now been sent to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) for an independent analysis of its authenticity.
Kuchma may be skating on thin ice, but he has conjured up enough support to maintain his position for the time being. "Black Tuesday" surprised the opposition. Yushchenko's final decision to side with the president has been a blow to the momentum of their campaign. Tymoshenko has been made into a scapegoat and without any concrete evidence to tie Kuchma to the disappearance of Gongadze, it seems unlikely that Kuchma will experience the same fate as Slobodan Milošević.
However, there are many questions that remain unanswered: Why did Yushchenko decide to side with Kuchma now after sitting on the fence for so long? Why has the investigation into the disappearance of Gongadze been so slow? Why has Kuchma started to dismiss people? These questions will hopefully be resolved in the near future: in terms of Ukrainian politics that may be a long time. Kuchma may have secured his position for the next few months but it will not be long before the opposition intensifies their attack. Kuchma is not out of the woods yet and his political demise cannot be ruled out.
Catherine Lovatt, 15 February 2001
Also on the Ukrainian scandal:
- The Edge of Chaos by Roman Didenko
- Archived articles about Ukraine in CER
- Archive of Catherine Lovatt's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page