I know my colleague Barbara already blogged Monday about the charges filed last week against former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma over his complicity in the horrendous murder of an opposition journalist over a decade ago. But this case says so much about today’s Ukraine and its possible future that I wanted to give the case even more prominence.

Overall, the news prompted (at least in me) mixed emotions. On one hand, it’s great that Kuchma could finally face the consequences for his long-suspected role in the murder, even if it was most likely an indirect one. (The widely believed assumption is that Kuchma himself didn’t give a direct order to murder Georgiy Gongadze (pictured above) back in 2000, who had rankled top politicians with his reports on corruption and other misdoings for his website Ukrayinska Pravda. But he did possibly provide encouragement in one way or another.) On the other hand, the overwhelming reaction to the move, that political reasons are the motivation, is a depressing appraisal of the current state of the prosecutor general’s office and the judiciary.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on why the charges were filed now, and few people believe that justice has finally run its course and that the evidence of Kuchma’s involvement has simply become too overwhelming to ignore.

On 1 April first, the Kiev Post ran an excellent overview of the Gongadze case, with background on all the twists and turns (the apparent suicide of the man who might have given the orders for the killing, secretly recorded tapes that allegedly implicate Kuchma, the arrest of an interior ministry officer for the killing and his supposed confession, and so on. The article includes a rundown of the speculation currently percolating in Ukraine:

Some believe that President Viktor Yanukovych must have given prosecutors permission to file the charges, noting widespread suspicions that Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka is politically subservient.

Those suspicions are fueled by Pshonka himself, who – after Yanukovych appointed him to the powerful post last year – described himself as a loyal member of the president’s team.

If Yanukovych is, indeed, calling the shots, what ends will he seek?

Some speculate that a script has already been written in which the final scene is Kuchma’s exoneration in an attempt to, once and for all, remove the cloud of suspicion that has hung over the 72-year-old former head of state.

There is also speculation running the opposite way. According to this line of thinking, Yanukovych wants to punish Kuchma for at least two reasons: for not breaking up the 2004 Orange Revolution that denied Yanukovych the presidency then, and to show the West that nobody – not even an ex-president – is above the law in Ukraine.

The Economist, among others, cites speculation that this might be a way to curry favor with the West and supposedly rebut criticism of democratic backsliding. The magazine also quotes opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s view “that Mr Kuchma’s arrest is no more than a PR stunt designed to distract people from their economic woes and to prop up Mr Yanukovich’s sagging popularity.”

I asked Ivan Lozowy, a Kiev-based journalist that has written for TOL in the past, for his opinion. He sees a clear financial motive, a way for the governing Party of Regions and the government to find some quick cash:

The indictment of Kuchma came as quite a surprise here and even somewhat of a shock. Although the shock is, naturally, somewhat tempered by the general belief that Kuchma will never go to prison.

It is clear why Yanukovych is doing this — and there should be no doubt that this has been approved by the President. The lead prosecutor in the case, Rinat Kuzmin, is not only First Deputy General Procurator of Ukraine, he is very close to Rinat Akhmetov [Yanukovych's oligarch ally].

The Party of Regions (or, the Donetsk “clan”) is attempting to put pressure on Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, for the latter to cede assets which he controls to the Party of Regions (PoR). Whether Pinchuk does this or not is difficult to predict. But if he does not cooperate with the PoR, Pinchuk himself may well come under pressure, i.e. legal suits even a criminal case against him personally may follow, he then flees the country, etc. A compromise is also likely, i.e. Pinchuk cedes some of his assets, such as his pipe manufacturing business, which has a tie-in with Akhmetov’s metallurgical holdings, while holding on to other assets. Or, he may cede control over the Nikopolsky Ferrous Alloys Factory, a real “gold mine” in terms of revenues and profits. He’s in a difficult situation because the PoR are hungry and, no doubt about it, they’ll want it all.

The government still needs money desperately, they are still saddled with huge debts, hemorrhaging money through various corrupt schemes, the price of Russian natural gas is rising inexorably, more business is being driven into the “shadow economy,” etc., etc. Thus, the PoR have been unable, as of yet, to move to their desired game plan, i.e. handing out money to the population in order to keep it happy by paying pensioners and government workers more, etc. Yanukovych’s poll ratings have dropped sharply after only one year in power. Mutterings on the street have gotten quite bad. I’m a bit taken aback at how badly the PoR have done thus far, in this respect.

In the end, it is very likely that Kuchma will go free. If Pinchuk coughs up, the PoR will let Kuchma go. If Pinchuk doesn’t cough up, then Kuchma will lose his usefulness as a “card to play” or a “hostage.”

What is significant in all this is that the long-standing rules of high-level power politics have changed, dramatically. The PoR have done away with the “Omerta on corruption” which has prevailed right through Yushchenko’s presidency, i.e. “Don’t touch your predecessors.” If the pressure against Tymoshenko and her allies could be characterized as, for example, highly aggressive political hard-ball, then Kuchma’s indictment breaks all the stereotypes. It means the PoR can never, under any circumstances and including saving themselves through the use of force, cede power in Ukraine.

Whatever the reasons behind the move, it will be fascinating to see how this all develops. As the Kiev Post noted, “in charging Kuchma, prosecutors said they would consider audiotapes made by former Kuchma bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko as ‘material evidence.’ ” But those tapes reveal a lot more than just Kuchma supposedly ordering his lackeys to “take care of” Gongadze:

According to the disputed tapes, the 1999 presidential elections were falsified, the 2001 criminal case against Tymoshenko was political, Kuchma bought votes from the Communist Party in parliament, a Donetsk lawyer was thrown in jail on a fabricated case, and Kuchma and current Prime Minister Mykola Azarov covered up massive embezzlement of state assets.

So if the trial serves to “authenticate” the tapes and somehow prove their admissibility, will that open up a series of other prosecutions of the rich and powerful? And if Yanukovych really gave the order to prosecute, isn’t that quite a risk, since he also plays a role on the tapes?

Image of Georgiy Gongadze care of the Maidan website.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

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