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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 8, 6 March 2001

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


MYKOLA MELNYCHENKO MEETS WITH RFE/RL CORRESPONDENT. About two weeks ago, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky and two other journalists met with Mykola Melnychenko, a former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Below is Krushelnycky's account of the meeting written for RFE/RL last week.

  1. Melnychenko's Motivations for Bugging Kuchma.

The audio tapes secretly made by former Ukrainian presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko have fuelled the biggest demonstrations in Ukraine since the country gained independence 10 years ago. On 25 February, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, accusing President Leonid Kuchma of involvement in the disappearance, and presumed murder, of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Gongadze, who had repeatedly accused Kuchma and his close associates of large-scale corruption, disappeared on 16 September. A headless corpse, which DNA tests later showed to be Gongadze's, was discovered near Kyiv in November. On 26 February, Ukraine's State Prosecutor's Office finally ruled that the body was indeed that of the journalist. The ruling enables Gongadze's mother and widow to submit official complaints and evidence in the case.

Kuchma has denied any involvement in Gongadze's disappearance. But in late November some excerpts from recordings of Kuchma's conversations made by Melnychenko were released. The tapes purported to show that Kuchma had ordered that Gongadze be kidnapped. They also were said to reveal a foul-mouthed president discussing a range of corrupt deals for his personal enrichment.

Melnychenko says he left Ukraine with his wife and daughter two days before the first excerpts from the tapes were published on 28 November. Since then, he has been living at a secret location in Central Europe while, he says, the Ukrainian intelligence service is searching for him,

Over the past weekend, Melnychenko for the first time met face-to-face with journalists -- two from RFE/RL and one from a U.S. newspaper. The person who guided the author and the other journalists to Melnychenko took elaborate precautions to make sure they were not followed. The interview was conducted in a private room at an inn near the Hungarian border with Slovakia.

Melnychenko arrived in disguise, but once the disguise was removed the journalists saw a tall man with neatly combed brown hair and a serious look that occasionally broke into a smile. During a six-hour interview, the 34- year-old former security officer carefully measured his answers as he explained why he made the recordings.

Melnychenko, who was born in Vasylkiv in the Kyiv region, said that his childhood dream was to be in the army. After being refused admittance to the Kyiv military academy at the age of 16, Melnychenko joined the army. During his military service, he was asked to join the KGB. He eventually worked in the KGB's Ninth Directorate, which guarded VIPs. He said he was for a time one of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's bodyguards.

After Ukraine attained independence, Melnychenko said, he returned home and rejoined the army, where he received electronic surveillance training. He first became part of Kuchma's bodyguard team when Kuchma was prime minister. He continued in the job when Kuchma was first elected president in 1994.

Melnychenko said that at first he thought that Kuchma would be a good leader. He was often present during Kuchma's meetings with senior officials and gradually, as he heard their conversations, he became disenchanted.

"The material that I've got ready clearly shows Kuchma is a criminal, that he gave illegal orders and oversaw their execution. These are various orders having to do with financial machinations, the political repression of opposition leaders and how he influenced individuals such as directors [of state enterprises], heads of government agencies and the like," Melnychenko said.

Melnychenko said he routinely overheard conversations between Kuchma and others which showed how corrupt Kuchma was. He said he saw what he ironically called "gifts" of millions of dollars in cash being delivered to Kuchma. He also talked with people who had dealings with Kuchma or who wanted access to him and thought that they could obtain it from Melnychenko.

All these elements, Melnychenko said, convinced him that Kuchma and his closest cronies were thoroughly corrupt, out for their own personal gain with little or no concern for Ukraine's well-being.

Melnychenko said that what disgusted him most was that Kuchma, in his words, "has ruined lots of businesses that could have provided work for ordinary people and could have brought economic benefit to Ukraine." According to Melnychenko, if businesses were not paying for a "roof," Kuchma would ask: "How can this be?" Kuchma, he said, wanted everyone to pay protection money and, if they didn't, the president sought to put them out of business.

Melnychenko summed up his view of the president in these words: "There is no greater criminal in the country than Kuchma. He has turned Ukraine into one big protection racket."

He said he decided to make secret recordings of Kuchma's conversations because "every person has to make a choice at some stage [and] I decided to try to stop this kind of corruption."

His army training had furnished Melnychenko with knowledge of the surveillance techniques needed. With access to the president's rooms, he said, he was able to plant a listening device in the sofa in Kuchma's inner office. The position of the microphone, he said, often made the sound quality of the recordings poor and it could only record Kuchma's side of telephone conversations.

Melnychenko would not provide any details of the surveillance equipment he installed or say when he began making the recordings. He did say that he had had time to listen to less than half the recordings he made and indicated that they totaled more than 1,000 hours.

Melnychenko said that he is spending his time going through the tapes and is seeking to obtain special equipment to eliminate some of the background noise that obscures the voices in some recordings.

"I'm not sure how much time I need to study and transcribe all these [recordings]. To do it even superficially, and say who met whom and when, would take about one or two months. But if it is done more carefully - - by piecing together all of Kuchma's illegal activities and eliminating some of the background noise -- well, for this I don't know how much time is needed."

Melnychenko says that when the media began reporting Gongadze's disappearance, he remembered that he had heard Kuchma talking about the journalist with Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko. He said he took some vacation time and spent about two weeks sifting through the recordings. By the middle of October what he heard on the tapes, pieced together with other information he had, convinced him that Kuchma was linked to Gongadze's disappearance.

Some of those recordings -- which Kuchma's office says have been edited to distort their meaning -- have already been published. Purportedly, Kuchma is heard to say that he wished that Gongadze could be kidnapped by Chechen bandits.

Once he was convinced that Kuchma was linked to Gongadze's disappearance, Melnychenko said, he looked around for someone to whom to funnel his information

He told the journalists: "That's not an easy thing to do. You could draw up a list of 10 prominent politicians in Ukraine who you thought were honest, but I could show you such incriminating material about them that you wouldn't believe it. But there was nothing on Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of the Socialist Party." Melnychenko approached Moroz, whom he trusted, and offered him copies of the recordings.

Melnychenko said he then had to get himself, his wife, and child out of Ukraine before the recordings were made public by Moroz. He said he told his boss that he was resigning because he had been offered a lucrative job as head of security at a Ukrainian company, and needed to leave Ukraine for a month for training in Britain and to get medical treatment for his daughter.

Despite his boss's suspicions, Melnychenko said, he managed to leave Ukraine on 26 November, two days before the first recordings were released to the public.

Melnychenko said that he had saved $2,000, which he thought would be enough for him, his wife and child -- who is not ill -- to live for a few weeks abroad. He said he thought Kuchma would be forced to resign within a few weeks.

Since he left Ukraine, Melnychenko has been living with the help of friends in a Central European country. On 25 February, his legal status in that country expired.

Melnychenko said he needs two to three months to complete his work and then wants to return to Ukraine. But Melnychenko said: "I do need protection. I want my wife and daughter to be safe. Not only are the Ukrainian intelligence services trying to find me but professional killers are also trying to find me. I can't feel totally safe anywhere. I use disguises and am very careful about my movements."

Melnychenko said he is not afraid to return to Ukraine and is willing to take any test to prove he is telling the truth. But he wants Kuchma to submit to the same tests.

"I'm not frightened to return to Ukraine because there is nothing more precious to me than my Ukraine. I'm a soldier of Ukraine and I'm ready to do anything that's necessary for its independence and democracy. I'm also truly willing to give my life so that there is democracy in Ukraine and ordinary people can begin to live better and not in the way they have been driven to live today by Kuchma's policies," Melnychenko noted.

But Melnychenko said that he is worried for his family.

"I am frightened for my wife and for my child because I am familiar with the forces -- not just Ukrainian but from elsewhere -- that want to change what I've done and would try to influence me through [endangering] my wife. And they are capable of anything because they have no morals. They will protect themselves. I'm not just speaking about Kuchma or [Interior Minister] Kravchenko or their group but a much wider circle of people," Melnychenko said.

Mykola Melnychenko fled Ukraine on 26 November -- two days before the publication of excerpts from secret tapes he had made of his former boss, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Melnychenko, who served as a presidential bodyguard for seven years, says he decided to publish the excerpts in the wake of last September's disappearance of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

The debate over the authenticity of the tapes -- which purportedly have Kuchma saying he wished Gongadze could be kidnapped by Chechen "bandits" -- will not be resolved quickly.

Kuchma's aides have said that the tapes, which have fueled recent protests in Ukraine calling for Kuchma's ouster, were manipulated to alter the meaning of his recorded remarks. Perhaps feeling the heat of mounting public pressure, Kuchma himself wrote a letter published 27 February in Britain's "Financial Times" newspaper saying the attacks against him were politically motivated. He added that Gongadze's death, although tragic, was not grounds for a murder accusation, and called allegations of his involvement "completely untrue."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) has been asked by Ukrainian investigators to arrange for an independent analysis of Melnychenko's digital tapes to determine whether they had been altered. In a statement released on 28 February, IPI said that the nature of digital recording made it impossible to say "with a nearly absolute level of certainty" that the tapes had not been tampered with. It added, however, that the finding "does not imply that the tapes are inauthentic."

Melnychenko had said he was waiting for the IPI results before releasing more excerpts of his recordings regarding the Gongadze case and other criminal dealings by Kuchma. It is not clear how he will proceed now. But for those who trust the authenticity of the tapes, the new excerpts still in Melnychenko's possession may provide additional details about the disappearance and death of the outspoken journalist.

Gongadze's headless corpse was discovered in a wood outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv weeks after his disappearance on 16 September. In the interview with RFE/RL, Melnychenko said the still-unreleased excerpts indicate that Gongadze was meant to be "removed" even earlier. But he said the journalist unwittingly bought himself time by filing a complaint that he was being followed with Deputy Interior Minister Yury Opasenko.

According to the former bodyguard, Gongadze gave Opasenko the license plate numbers of the cars he said had been following them. The deputy minister then caused delays by making official inquiries about the cars, which he traced back to the state security services.

Melnychenko said his recording captures Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko telling Kuchma that Opasenko was not trustworthy and that he regretted not firing him earlier.

On 16 September, a Saturday, Kuchma and Kravchenko were together on a hunting expedition. Four days later, when the press had already begun to ask questions about Gongadze's disappearance, Melnychenko says he recorded Kuchma asking a security official whether the journalist was alive or dead. Kuchma goes on to say that Gongadze should be found because the situation looked bad for the president.

Melnychenko said that at this stage Kuchma already knew Gongadze was dead, and was only feigning concern. The former bodyguard said of the Ukrainian president: "Kuchma can be a very good actor and he is a very cunning man."

Since leaving his homeland three months ago, Melnychenko has been living in hiding with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. Ukraine has issued a warrant for his arrest, and Melnychenko said he is aware of intelligence efforts to track him down.

He also said he is worried about his family's safety and is concerned that Kuchma's allies may have hired professional killers to find him. But he said he has no plans to seek permanent asylum.

"I have not applied for political asylum in any country because I expected, and still expect, that the situation in Ukraine will change for the better, that Kuchma will leave and democratic forces will come to the government," Melnychenko said.

Melnychenko told his interviewers he hopes to return to Ukraine to testify if Kuchma goes to trial. He said he is afraid that if he applied for political asylum Kuchma's supporters would use that to discredit him and the authenticity of his recordings.

"Why should I ask for political asylum? Why should I be afraid? Of whom, Kuchma? He should be frightened of me. If I ask for political asylum in another country, that will immediately provoke a misleading reaction from Kuchma's people. They would say, 'Look, he's frightened, he's fleeing from justice.' But I'm not frightened. If these recordings were fake, then I would have sought political asylum straight after the first excerpts were published. But I am confident [of the tapes' authenticity] and Kuchma also knows that these recordings are accurate," Melnychenko said.

Melnychenko dismissed claims by the Kuchma administration that he is an employee of foreign intelligence agencies looking to destabilize Ukraine. He says frustration with the rampant corruption he saw in the presidential office is the only reason behind his decision to put the safety of himself and his family at risk.

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.

RUSSIANS NOT PREPARED TO BACK UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT. According to a poll conducted by the National Public Opinion Research Center and published in "Profil," no. 7, only 6 percent of Russians favor supporting Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the current Ukrainian political crisis. Forty-two percent said Moscow should keep out of the conflict, and 27 percent said that they have not heard anything about the political crisis in Ukraine. PG

MOSCOW TO HOST COMPATRIOTS SOON. Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev said on 5 March that Moscow will host a congress of compatriots abroad in the first half of 2001, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that the more than 20 million Russians cut off from Russia by state borders after 1991 need Moscow's support, especially since countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic states are pursuing what he called "the model of the mono-ethnic state." He said that Moscow has earmarked 100 million rubles ($3.8 million) in the 2001 budget to help ethnic Russians living abroad. PG

UKRAINIAN STUDENTS SET UP NEW PROTEST CAMP IN KYIV. Some 20 Ukrainian students from Kyiv and Lviv set up a camp of five tents in the capital's central park to continue protests demanding President Leonid Kuchma's resignation. Last week police tore down a camp of 50 tents on Khreshchatyk Street in downtown Kyiv (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2001). Kuchma is due to visit the park on 9 March to lay flowers at the monument to national poet Taras Shevchenko in commemoration of poet's birthday. Yuriy Lutsenko, a leader of the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" protests, said some 1,000 people will come to the park on 9 March to prevent Kuchma from approaching the monument. "Shevchenko is a sacred person for our nation, and it is amoral for President Kuchma to come here," Reuters quoted one student as saying. JM

INTERNATIONAL SLEUTHS TO LOOK FOR UKRAINIAN DEFECTOR? President Kuchma told reporters from Poland's PAP news agency in Kyiv on 5 March that Ukraine has requested help from Western private detective agencies in investigating the bugging scandal provoked by former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, Interfax reported. Kuchma added that international detectives are working independently from Ukrainian investigators. Referring to Melnychenko, Kuchma said: "Some say he is a hero, but the majority of people say he is a traitor, and I agree with them. For me, he is not a human at all." JM

KUCHMA UNWILLING TO SPEAK WITH OPPOSITION... The Ukrainian president told Polish journalists on 5 March that he will not talk with the opposition that wants his dismissal. "I was elected by 16 million people, not by 3,000 or 5,000," Interfax quoted him as saying. Kuchma claimed that there is no crisis in Ukraine, adding that the authorities should show that "they are the authorities" and prevent Ukraine from sliding into anarchy. According to Kuchma, people in the provinces do not understand what is currently taking place in Kyiv. JM

...AND TO OUST YUSHCHENKO'S CABINET. Kuchma also said he is not going to dismiss the cabinet of Viktor Yushchenko. He noted, however, that the government should be efficient and depend more on the parliamentary majority. According to Kuchma, current relations between the government and the parliamentary majority are not developing well. Kuchma said Yushchenko should cooperate with all caucuses in the majority, not only with those Yushchenko "likes." JM

UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL, LAWMAKERS TRADE CORRUPTION CHARGES. Greens Party leader Vitaliy Kononov on 5 March said after his meeting with Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko that the latter will shortly publicize a list of lawmakers who "took money" from former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko, the "Eastern Economist Daily" reported. The same day, lawmaker Oleksandr Turchynov from the Fatherland Party parliamentary caucus accused the Prosecutor-General's Office of cooperation with "international swindlers" and of creating a "criminal system [to run] an international racket," Interfax reported. Turchynov said the parliamentary Budgetary Committee he heads has materials proving "the leadership" of the Prosecutor-General's Office was involved in "corruption, abuse of power, and actions inflicting damage on the national economy and security." JM

POLISH AUTHORITIES TO APOLOGIZE FOR KILLING OF JEWS... President Aleksander Kwasniewski told Polish Television on 5 March he will apologize for the killing of Jews in Jedwabne in 1941 by their Christian neighbors. "This should be done by the authorities of the Polish Republic. The anniversary, on 10 July, is a good day, and Jedwabne, because of the tragedy that took place there, is a proper place for that," Kwasniewski said. A recent book by New York researcher Jan Gross, quoting the account of an eyewitness, blames Poles from the town of Jedwabne, in northeastern Poland, for herding some 1,600 local Jews into a barn and burning them shortly after Nazi Germany's aggression against the USSR (see also "RFE/RL's Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 March 2001). JM

Instead of erecting statues of Marshal Ion Antonescu, Romania should perhaps consider erecting a statue to Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) leader Vladimir Voronin. For while celebrating the memory of the man who led Romania into its World War II debacle and was executed as a war criminal can only diminish Bucharest's (anyhow meager) chances of being admitted to an expanded NATO in 2002, nobody has contributed more than Voronin to the sudden improvement of those prospects. With the stroke of a ballot, the PCM's victory in the 25 February Moldovan elections may be redrawing the map of the region.

First, the elections may bring Russia back to Romania's eastern border, and this may be a powerful argument for NATO to conclude that it should contain Russia at that very edge. Voronin has repeatedly declared that he wants Moldova to join the Russia-Belarus Union and there is no reason to doubt his word. He would, of course, do it "democratically" -- that is to say, submitting the proposal to a referendum. In a similarly democratic manner, the PCM leader apparently intends to ask voters to back granting the Russian language the official status of a second state language, alongside "Moldovan." The electoral outcome, in fact, allows Voronin to do as he pleases in the parliament, and passing a referendum law should be the least of his worries. His PMC, which won the backing of 50.7 percent of the electorate and consequently controls 71 out of the 101 seats in the parliament, is not only able to dictate the composition of the cabinet or have the required threefifths majority (61 seats) needed to elect outgoing President Petru Lucinschi's successor, but may even amend the constitution as it pleases. To do so, the PCM needs 68 votes, three less than it commands after the parliamentary poll.

Viewed from this perspective, the PCM's Central Committee decision of 3 March to nominate Voronin as its presidential candidate must be food for thought. True, the PCM leader said on several occasions that he does not intend to change the recently adopted parliamentary system and criticized some former Soviet Central Asian republics for allowing their presidential system to develop into a "personality cult." But it is more than significant that Belarus, whose rather morganatic marriage with Russia Voronin wants to become the third partner in, was never among those countries he saw fit to criticize. It would be rather surprising if the former KGB head in Moldova would opt for a ceremonial presidential role after his astounding victory. Alyaksander Lukashenka, in any case, said he would accept Moldova in the union "with heart and soul."

Second, the electoral impact will redraw the regional map with regard to the Transdniester conflict. Voronin has clearly stated that relations with Russia are "strategic" for his party and that the Russian troops stationed in the breakaway republic cannot, and should not, leave before their arsenal has been evacuated. Those troops, he said, do nothing there but guard munitions. This shows that Voronin has a short memory at best. Some Moldovan and foreign observers are wary that Voronin might well invite the Russians to guard, and guard, and endlessly guard, perhaps by officially offering Moscow a military base on "sovereign" Moldovan territory. Should this supposition materialize, there is reason to believe, as Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev apparently does, that the PCM victory will indeed bring a solution to the conflict. After all, the separatist authorities in Tiraspol would no longer be needed by Moscow if the invitation comes from the Moldovan president himself. This explains why the Supreme Soviet chairman in Tiraspol, Grigorii Marakutsa, was obviously less than thrilled with the electoral results, whereas the head of the Russian state commission on the Transdniester region conflict, Yevgenii Primakov, was hardly able to conceal his satisfaction. Seleznev, in any case, went one step further, seeing in the Moldovan electoral outcome a prelude to Ukraine's rejoining the former Soviet family.

A third reason for worry, and this time around not only for NATO but for the EU as well, is the course of the reforms in Moldova, which never made much progress anyhow. Voronin is closer in his view of reform to his Russian Communist counterpart than he is to any other leader. Like Gennadii Zyuganov, Voronin considers the economic reforms to have been "genocidal" and to have served only the interests of the West and its "Moldovan lackeys." Needless to say, it was not the reforms but their absence which led Moldova to where it stands today. As in neighboring Romania, an unsophisticated electorate and a corrupt political leadership paved the way for the PCM's victory. This is what made some Russians (for example the daily "Segodnya" on 27 February) wonder whether Moldova's inclusion into the Russia-Belarus Union would not compound Russia's own debt problems, while "Izvestiya" on the same day wrote that the union would bring a "beggar-country" into an alliance of "two states that are even poorer."

Finally, whether Voronin, a reputed anti-Romanian, can find a common language with Bucharest just on the grounds of opposition to reforms, is, again, doubtful. First, despite Romanian President Ion Iliescu's rather ambiguous views on what reforms are all about, Bucharest is likely to be forced into pursuing that course. While Iliescu's reaction to the Moldovan electoral outcome was restrained, he still spoke of "special and privileged relations" based on the two states' "identity of language, culture, traditions, and historic roots." But unlike his predecessors, Mircea Snegur and Lucinschi, a future President Vladimir Voronin is likely to reject this approach. One of his first electoral pronouncements was to attack "the idea of two Romanian states."

Maps are obviously being redrawn, and there is as yet no way to tell whether the Moldovan electoral outcome is a prelude to a drastic rethinking of both ideological and actual boundaries. It is also too early to tell who, besides those directly affected, will become entangled. Some may say this is hardly novel for the region. And they may be right.

RUSSIAN POLITICIANS RUSH TO DEFEND KUCHMA. Boris Gryzlov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Duma faction "Yedintsvo," said he is enraged by American suggestions that Washington will cut off aid to Ukraine unless President Leonid Kuchma moves more actively to defend human rights, promote democratic reforms, and liberalize the economy, "Izvestiya" reported on 3 March. Gryzlov said that Washington has "elevated into a major political scandal a routine police story" by constantly discussing the case of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that Moscow will do what it can to support Ukraine's efforts to restructure its debts with the Paris Club of creditors, RTR television reported on 3 March.