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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 19, 22 May 2001

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


DOUBTS REMAIN OVER 'RESOLUTION' OF GONGADZE MURDER CASE. Last week, Ukraine's interior minister, Yuriy Smyrnov, announced that police had solved the murder of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

The case of the journalist's death last autumn has become a national sensation. Allegations that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma might be involved in the murder have led to widespread demonstrations calling for Kuchma's ouster.

But on 15 May, Smyrnov said the killing had not been politically motivated. He said Gongadze's murderers were common criminals who were later murdered themselves. A map showing the location of Gongadze's grave had been found on one of their bodies, he added.

Smyrnov went on to say that those responsible for the killings of the two murderers are now in custody. He also referred to the involvement of a mysterious crime boss nicknamed "Cyclops." He added that "as [interior] minister, I consider the crime to be resolved. We have proof concerning the criminals, who have died, to our sorrow."

Smyrnov's announcement, however, does not spell an end to the case. The Ukrainian press has reported that the Prosecutor-General's Office, in comments to the lawyer of Gongadze's mother, called Smyrnov's statement "premature" and said that the matter has not yet been concluded. Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Obikhod said his office will issue a full response to Smyrnov's statement this week.

Many opposition politicians -- as well as Gongadze's widow, Myroslava -- have called Smyrnov's announcement a deliberate attempt to confuse the public and deflect attention from Kuchma's possible role in the murder.

Myroslava Gongadze says Smyrnov's version of events is, in fact, a fabrication. "Right now we're witnessing the latest in a series of announcements which, in my opinion, Internal Affairs Minister Smyrnov had no right to make," she said. "[I say this] because the investigation is being conducted by the ProsecutorGeneral' s Office, and only the Prosecutor-General's Office can say whether the matter has really been concluded and talk about the results of the investigation. Therefore, I have no reason to trust [Smyrnov's] announcement. Actually, I haven't trusted him for a long time, and in the present situation I have even more reason to distrust him."

The investigation into the disappearance and murder of Gongadze has been plagued by confusion and conflicting information from the start. Gongadze disappeared from Kyiv last September. The following month, a headless corpse -- later identified as his -- was found in a woods south of the city.

Gongadze had been an outspoken critic of President Kuchma, who he claimed was involved in corrupt business dealings.

A former Kuchma bodyguard then came forward with audio recordings he said he had secretly made of conversations between the president and his advisers. The recordings appeared to show that Kuchma had wanted action taken to silence the outspoken journalist.

Kuchma has consistently denied the authenticity of the recordings. But his political opponents -- and thousands of ordinary Ukrainians -- are convinced the recordings proved the president's involvement in Gongadze's death. Mass demonstrations have followed, with protesters calling for Kuchma's resignation.

The official investigation into Gongadze's murder also has been criticized by Gongadze's relatives and a number of Ukrainian politicians. Some Western governments and entities such as the Council of Europe have also expressed doubts that the investigation is being conducted in a proper and transparent manner.

Ukrainian authorities at varying times have alleged that the corpse found in the woods outside Kyiv is not Gongadze's, and for months refused to allow the journalist's relatives to examine the remains.

Oleksandr Kryvenko, a spokesman for the opposition Forum for National Salvation, described Smyrnov's version as a "fairy tale." He said it is obvious that criminals murdered the journalist but that that in itself does not exclude a political motive.

Gongadze's widow, who is now in the United States after being granted political asylum last month, said the police in the past had deliberately muddled the investigation into her husband's death and continue to do so now. "The fact is that, in this matter, the Prosecutor-General and the police have distinguished themselves with many statements which later have not been substantiated and where, in a normal society, they would have had to be corrected. From the very beginning there were announcements that it was not a politically motivated matter, and then that the corpse that was found had been reburied there, and so forth. The police made these announcements, and when the Prosecutor-General's Office investigated, they could not substantiate the police claims," Myroslava Gongadze told RFE/RL.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry was reluctant to comment on the Prosecutor General's Office's continuing investigation into the case. A ministry spokesman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said Smyrnov is not prepared to issue any more details regarding the Gongadze case. "The minister said that he is not going to discuss the details. That's probably because the Prosecutor-General is still investigating. [There are ] probably still some outstanding matters [that] need to be cleared up," the spokesman told RFE/RL.

The spokesman denied that there were any serious differences between the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office. "I can't make any conclusions. You as a journalist have to draw your own conclusions. There has been a concrete announcement by Smyrnov. As for the Prosecutor-General's Office, I don't know, because I don't work there," the spokesman noted. (RFE/RL correspondent Askold Kryshelnycky wrote this report.)

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.

UKRAINIAN LAWMAKER SAYS PRESIDENTIAL ASSOCIATES LAUNDERED 'HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS.' Lawmaker Hryhoriy Omelchenko told the parliament on 22 May that he has received from abroad documents affirming "the laundering of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars by certain persons from the Ukrainian president's entourage," Interfax reported. Omelchenko said he asked parliamentary speaker Ivan Plyushch to impart this information to President Leonid Kuchma, adding that one of the candidates currently being considered for the post of prime minister is involved in money laundering. Omelchenko did not disclose the name of that candidate. Kuchma said later the same day that he will propose Anatoliy Kinakh, head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, for the prime minister post. Meanwhile, leaders of parliamentary groups on 21 May discussed the candidacies of Mykola Azarov, Valeriy Pustovoytenko, Anatoliy Kinakh, and Serhiy Tyhypko to head the cabinet but failed to agree on any one of them. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION UNVEILS MONUMENT TO DEAD JOURNALISTS. Ukrainian opposition groups on 21 May marked the birthday of murdered journalist Heorhiy Gongadze by unveiling a stone plaque bearing the names of Gongadze and six other journalists who died under unclear circumstances or were murdered in independent Ukraine, Interfax reported. The plaque -- which was cracked in two by vandals in the yard of the Rivne stonemason hired to complete the work -- was placed outside the offices of the UNIAN news agency in Kyiv. "We are laying a memorial to independent journalists in Ukraine today," Reuters quoted Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz as saying at the ceremony. Some 150 people staged a rally in front of the presidential administration building later in the day and placed signboards with an inscription "Heorhiy Gongadze Street" on the nearby Constitutional Court building. JM

SIMEON MOVEMENT PRESENTS ECONOMIC, FOREIGN RELATIONS PRIORITIES. The National Movement Simeon II on 21 May presented its economic and foreign policy priorities, BTA and Reuters reported. Nikolai Vasiliev, who heads the movement's economic team, said its economic program is "both bold and radical." He said the program envisages a "zero budget deficit" and preserving the country's Currency Board. At the same time, "we plan a radical tax reform and achieving dynamic, even explosive economic growth" through attracting foreign investments and completing privatization. Solomon Passy, who heads the movement's lists for the elections, said NATO and EU membership will make up the foreign policy priorities. Passy said "relations with Ukraine are just as important as those with Russia, and in some respects even more important." MS

CHERNOMYRDIN OFFICIALLY NAMED AMBASSADOR. President Putin signed a decree on 21 May officially appointing former Prime Minister and Gazprom head Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russian ambassador to Ukraine, ITAR-TASS reported. Chernomyrdin is expected to go to Kyiv before the end of the month. PG