Ukraine has had its ups and downs, but the current political crisis seems to be the country's worst since it gained independence in 1991. The President, his Chief of Staff and the Minister of Internal Affairs have all been accused of complicity in the case of missing opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. Many of foreign mass media have rushed to speak of a "Ukrainian Watergate." This may make sense considering possible political upheavals the case might cause in Ukraine, but it is perhaps too early to draw such conclusions.
The disappearance of a journalist
On 28 November, Socialist and opposition leader Oleksandr Moroz publicly announced that he had a tape with an allegedly wiretapped recording of conversations involving Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, his Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn and Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko in which, among other things, they discussed plans to get rid of the muckraking journalist Gongadze.
Moroz claimed that he received the tape from a Ukrainian security service officer—now abroad—who is ready to testify if the case ends up in court. Moroz said that his actions were a "political and moral act" and promised there would me more material, including a videotaped testimony of the mysterious officer, presented later.
Gongadze founded the Internet news site Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth), which is renowned for its investigations into the activities of Ukrainian politicians and tycoons. On 16 September, the eve of the publication of a report criticizing one of Ukraine's most influential tycoons, Oleksandr Volkoz, Gongadze disappeared.
Police were slow to investigate the disappearance and directed their enquiry against Gongadze's associates. A headless body has since been found. Friends of the journalist have said that identifying marks on the body suggest that it is likely to be that of Gongadze. However, officials failed to release any information about the discovery for two weeks and a post mortem has yet to be carried out.
A lawsuit at the highest level
Journalists transcribed the tape revealing the possible involvement of President Kuchma and his colleagues and in a few hours' time it was available to anyone with access to the Internet at the site of Ukrayinska Pravda. Internet users could both read and hear the content of the tape.
The presidential administration responded swiftly saying that the accusations are "groundless insinuation" and promised to file a slander lawsuit. Ukrainian politicians have either dismissed Moroz's allegations or are trying to take a neutral stand. Moroz himself insisted that he was sure the tape is real.
The chief of the presidential administration, Mr Lytvyn, filed the lawsuit following the public release of the tape. The Prosecutor-General's Office has immediately initiated a criminal case "on the fact" of slander (Moroz, as a Member of Parliament, enjoys immunity from prosecution). The prosecution has already questioned Moroz, President Kuchma, Lytvyn and Kravchenko. The tape has been examined abroad with specialist equipment to ascertain authenticity.
The authentication examination is continuing but no conclusive results have yet been found. The quality of recording is low and barely recognizable. Also, there is doubt over how a security guard could access the presidential chambers and set up the necessary equipment to perform the recording. These issues will be a problem in establishing authenticity of the tape.
President Kuchma remained silent until 1 December when he stated that a security service was behind the allegations and promised to determine which service was responsible. By the time Kuchma came out of the woodwork there were already several versions of the scandal—proposed by politicians, media and analysts—circulating.
Ukraine's reputable weekly, Zerkalo Nedeli, carried an article co-written by its top political reporters. The article suggested a whole classification of possible events starting with two categories: whether the tape is real or not. Internal interest groups, Western and Russian security services were "plugged into" the puzzle presented by the tape and all of the combinations had their convincing pros and cons.
On 6 December, President Kuchma delivered an unscheduled six-minute-long address to the nation stating that Ukraine was "on the edge of chaos." The very fact that such an address took place reveals that the position of the president is in danger and that this is well understood in the presidential administration.
The elaboration of numerous versions surrounding the Gongadze scandal only proves the fact that there is little real evidence to support any of the accusations. Everything in this case will depend on the results of the authentication of the audiotape and any further evidence that could be presented by the Socialist leader. It is crucial that the procedure is absolutely clear, reliable and trustworthy.
The scandal has already delivered a shocking blow to Ukraine's reputation in the world and threatens to eliminate the limited remaining trust that Ukrainians have in their leadership. At the turn of the century Ukraine is facing a hard test that could, ultimately, lead to the collapse of the Kuchma administration. Perhaps this will be a "Ukrainian Watergate," but it would be hasty to call it so now. Until there is a positive result in the authentication examination of the tape, Kuchma is off the hook.
Roman Didenko, 8 December 2000
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