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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 4, 6 February 2001

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team


WHAT DID THE PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE SAY? Last week the Prosecutor-General's Office issued quite an enigmatic statement on the most resonant political scandal in independent Ukraine's history -- the alleged complicity of President Leonid Kuchma and high-ranking state officials in the disappearance of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. In December, Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko told the parliament that the audiotapes provided by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko -- allegedly including Kuchma's words that urge state official to get rid of Gongadze -- were doctored, since it was impossible to eavesdrop on the president's office. The 2 February statement modifies that official stance on the Gongadze case to some extent, although it remains to be seen to what extent exactly.

The Prosecutor-General's Office says the Gongadze criminal case (which includes both his disappearance and the identification of a corpse that is believed to be his) is being conducted at "an appropriate professional level in accordance with the requirements of national legislation, thoroughly and objectively." The office simultaneously protests the pressure on prosecutors from "interested political forces."

The office says the Melnychenko audio recordings were "compiled from separate words and fragments, which is essentially a falsification." According to experts involved in the investigation, it is impossible to identify whether the taped voices belong to high-ranking state officials.

Now comes the most interesting part of the statement. The office admits that the above-mentioned "words and fragments" were actually taken from "conversations of the president of Ukraine," including those taped in secret when Kuchma was briefed by law enforcement officials on the crime situation in the country.

Then come a number of obscure suppositions about the ulterior motives behind the tape scandal.

"Individual political forces, including some lawmakers, while pursuing their own interests, are trying to make the public accept illusion instead of the reality. For this goal, they use primarily 'Tovarysh,' the Socialist Party's newspaper, which continues to publish materials that do not conform to reality.

"In order to achieve their goal, those individuals use international organizations, including the Council of Europe. Fearing that Melnychenko may give true testimony of his and their inadmissible actions, which entail responsibility under the legislation in force, they use all possible and impossible [sic] means to prevent his extradition to Ukraine.

"Cynically taking advantage of the situation, which has been artificially created around Gongadze's disappearance, they are seeking to make a kind of hero of a man who committed a crime [ed. note: Melnychenko]. They even go as far as to dictate to the investigators how and what investigative actions should be conducted, thus intentionally pushing the prosecutor's office to violate the law."

The statement ends with an appeal to the president to take urgent measures to extradite Melnychenko "who should be made accountable on the territory of Ukraine" where he committed his crime. (The Prosecutor-General's Office opened a libel case against Melnychenko.)

The Internet newsletter "Ukrayinska pravda" commented that the statement actually confirms, first, that the president's office was bugged, and second, that the voices on the audiotapes are authentic. "Prior to this [statement], international experts concluded that there was no doctoring within separate episodes [of Melnychenko's tapes]. In actual fact, the Prosecutor-General's Office, against its own will, put an end to the problem of the authenticity of Melnychenko's tapes," "Ukrayinska pravda" concluded. Other Ukrainian sources have so far remained silent on this matter.

In addition to all the other issues dividing Russia and Ukraine, scholars in those two countries are now debating which country should have the right to claim to be the homeland of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the psychological condition of masochism is named.

Vitaliy Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University in New York, argues that both countries have some reason to claim to be "the original masochists." But in a paper presented recently at an academic conference in Washington, D.C., Chernetsky said that, to an outsider, Ukrainians would appear to have a far better case.

Born in the city of Lviv then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in Ukraine, Sacher-Masoch "always considered himself a Galician Ukrainian," Chernetsky writes. And in all his writings, the 19th-century writer recalled with fondness the Ukrainian people among whom he grew up.

For that reason, Chernetsky writes, there is currently an effort in Sacher-Masoch's native city to name a street after the man whose name has come to be applied by psychoanalysts to those who enjoy being abused or otherwise humiliated.

But Russians are now staking a claim to Sacher-Masoch as well. Chernetsky notes that in 1995, a distinguished Russian psychoanalyst published "a historical sociology of SacherMasoch and his Russian readers." That book argues, Chernetsky reports, that "Sacher-Masoch may have learned the pleasures of flagellation from the Russian sect of khlysty," who beat themselves as part of their religious practice.

Moreover, the Russian book notes that the name of the main character in the 1869 Sacher-Masoch novel from which modern psychoanalysis developed the concept of masochism was Severin, a surname that the Moscow author insists is purely Russian and not Ukrainian at all. And the book notes that Ukrainians had been a part of the Russian Empire.

So far, there has been no resolution, and none appears in prospect. But what makes this debate is not its titillating aspects or even the opportunity it may present to some to look down on both Russians and Ukrainians. Rather it is an example of the extreme lengths some nationalists will often go to try to find something that they can point to as theirs alone -- even if most others would not want to do so.

Across the United States, for example, some cities and towns have advertised themselves as the hometown of one or another notorious criminal gang leader. But these efforts seem more intended to cash in on the notoriety of the individual named, to attract tourists who will spend money, rather than as a means toward promoting or cultivating a particular identity.

In the case of many post-Soviet countries, however, such claims play an additional and typically far more important role: They are part of a broader effort to create a unique past, a national narrative in which people can place themselves and, equally important, one from which others are excluded, even if that story includes incidents and individuals many would find offensive.

That defining role is especially important in the case of Russia and Ukraine, two countries whose histories and cultures have been intertwined for so long. And consequently, nationally-minded scholars, just like publicists and politicians, have a deeply vested interest in trying to untie these knots.

Despite the debate over Sacher-Masoch that Chernetsky describes, it is unlikely that very many people in either Russia or Ukraine are aware of these competing claims or would ever be prepared to demonstrate in any way their claims on Sacher-Masoch and his ideas.

But the very fact of this debate does highlight that scholars are no more immune from nationalism than anyone else, that the objects of nationalist discourse can be extremely varied and that insisting on such claims as a way of denying them to others may often go a long way to explain why nationalist histories take the forms they do.

And when the claims go to the extreme as they have in the case over the nationality of the father of masochism, there is at least a chance that some people on both sides will recognize the limits, even absurdity of some aspects of nationalism and thus begin to think in broader categories that could make international cooperation possible.

"I remember as I once 'sold myself' to Kuchma. It was on the eve of the second round of the presidential elections in 1994. There was some discussion of the presidential race in the building of the Union of Journalists, while Kuchma's election staff -- in a building across Khreshchatyk -- just publicized a statement of their candidate on how the incumbent president, Leonid Kravchuk, was pressurizing him and limiting his access to the media. I came with that statement to the Union of Journalists and asked what was their opinion about it. I heard from all sides: 'You have sold yourself for money to the red directors.' [Ed. note: Kuchma was a high-ranking party official and the director of a rocket-producing plant.] Members of the Union of Journalists hissed at any 'opposition' because they were assiduously working for the incumbent president. Several days later, those same people greeted me in a humble voice and looked attentively at me, trying to figure out whether I remember who of them was against Kuchma. Because he won." -- Independent Kyiv-based journalist Iryna Pohorelova; quoted by the 1 February issue of the biweekly "Ukrayinskyy rehionalnyy visnyk."

"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources, including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.

UKRAINIANS CONVERGE ON KYIV, DEMAND KUCHMA'S OUSTER. Protesters from around Ukraine marched into Kyiv on 6 February and converged on a tent camp on Independence Square, which was set up there within the framework of a Ukraine Without Kuchma protest action, AP reported. The protesters demand President Leonid Kuchma's ouster over allegations that he may be implicated in the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Interfax reported that the protest organizers expect some 10,000 people to gather on Independence Square later today. JM

PRO-PRESIDENTIAL FORUM CONVENES IN KYIV. Some 1,000 people convened for a pro-presidential "assembly of political parties and public organizations" in Kyiv on 5 February, Interfax reported. They claimed to represent some 170 parties and organizations, including the Social Democratic Party (United), the Democratic Union, Labor Ukraine, the Popular Democratic Party, and the Agrarian Party. The assembly pledged to unite efforts to preserve political stability in the country and to support the president in implementing his "strategy of national development." The forum simultaneously demanded that President Kuchma take all lawful measures "to prevent social confrontation and a violent scenario in the development of events." JM

UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL VACATIONED. Mykhylo Potebenko on 5 January went on leave, Interfax reported. Opponents of President Kuchma accuse Potebenko of delaying the investigation of the Gongadze case in order to protect the president. Lawmaker Hryhoriy Omelchenko told the agency that Potebenko took a 45-day leave, adding that Kuchma will most likely dismiss the Prosecutor-General because of "health reasons." JM

IMF OFFICIAL URGES MORE REFORMS IN UKRAINE. John Odling-Smee, head of the IMF's Second European Department, said in Kyiv on 5 February that Ukraine should preserve and even reinforce the policy of reforms it embarked on last year, Interfax reported. Odling-Smee said Kyiv should continue its budgetary reform and launch reforms of the pension system, education, and health care. He added that Ukraine should continue the privatization of large enterprises and stop state interference in the agricultural sector. According to OdlingSmee, Ukraine's transition economy faces typical problems resulting from the merger of interests of state officials and big oligarchic clans. He said a "new nomenklatura," which wants to maintain its monopoly on some markets in Ukraine, hinders the country's development, particularly in the private economic sector. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT OPENS SESSION. Ukraine's Supreme Council of the Third Convocation on 7 February opened its seventh session, which will last until mid-July, Interfax reported. Parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch said lawmakers are to consider 470 legislative issues, including the adoption of civil, economic, criminal, tax, customs, budget, and land codes. JM