Gongadze´s Legacy for UkraineMr. Karatnycky, counselor and senior scholar at Freedom House, is co-editor of "Nations in Transit 2003: Democratization in East Central Europe and Eurasia" (Rowman & Littlefield).
Three years ago this month, Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was forced into a car and spirited away into the Kiev night. Seven weeks later, his headless, decomposing body was found in a shallow grave about an hour's drive from the Ukrainian capital. Mr. Gongadze had launched a hard-hitting investigative website, www.pravda.com.ua, well-known for writing about corruption within Ukraine's ruling circles.
The scandal sparked by the murder, bubbling to this day,has played a role in the political evolution of post-communist Ukraine, stunting the growth of democratic institutions while -- paradoxically -- helping bring to life a host of new opposition parties and civic groups. The unsolved murder has also forced the U.S. and Europe, who've strongly backed an independent Ukraine, to reassess their approach to this strategically-placed country. As long as the Gongadze case remains open, Washington and Brussels must think carefully about closer relations with President Leonid Kuchma. The president eagerly wants Western friendship. Ukraine has contributed 1,600 peacekeepers to Polish-led brigade in Iraq, hoping to set aside the Gongadze case as well as allegations by the U.S. last year that Mr. Kuchma approved the sale of an advanced radar to Saddam Hussein. The death of Gongadze could have remained just another unsolved murder if not for the emergence of tapes of Mr. Kuchma's conversations with security aides implicating him in the journalist's disappearance. The office recordings were made by a bodyguard, who fled the country and was offered asylum in the U.S., and were released by Mr. Kuchma's rival, former Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Moroz. The Kuchma administration claims the tapes were doctored. But last October, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation authenticated portions of the tapes in which Mr. Kuchma approved the surreptitious sale of the early warning radar system to Iraq. Excerpts from the tapes in which the president urges the harassment and abduction -- though not the murder -- of Mr. Gongadze were said to be authentic by Bruce Koenig, a former FBI forensics expert who is a specialist in the analysis of audio and video recordings. The evidence of corruption and criminality in the tapes fueled public outrage and brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in 2001. Those protests fizzled and Mr. Kuchma hung on, yet the country continues to feel the effects of the scandal. Efforts to suppress protests have reflected the authoritarianism of President Kuchma and his inner circle, making life difficult for the opposition and free media. Among the troubling trends is greater state control of mass media, in particular national television. Last September Mykola Tomenko, head of the parliament's committee on freedom of speech, provided evidence of the practice of theme directives
issued by the presidential administration. These daily missives to news directors and editors provide instructions on which politicians and topics are to be covered and how. The "theme directives" also instruct editors to suppress the discussion of specific issues and block opposition politicians from the airwaves. Over the last three years, the State Tax Administration, the Prosecutor General's office and the police have also been used, according to various charges, to pressure political opponents and ensure discipline among political supporters. As importantly, the Gongadze case and its aftermath has exposed Ukraine's glaring absence of independent judicial institutions and parliamentary checks and balances on presidential authority. Judges who have opened cases against Mr. Kuchma or ruled against his interests have been censured or investigated, according to charges. And the president has used executive power to impede legislation that would provide Ukraine's parliament with the resources to look into official wrongdoing. Mr. Kuchma's troubles have led to his isolation and estrangement from Europe and the U.S., making him more dependent on Russian support. In return for the Kremlin's support, Mr. Kuchma now appears ready to agree to a far-reaching economic pact to establish a Russia-dominated trade and economic zone that would link Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan. Despite these negative trends, there is basis for guarded optimism as the EU and NATO move eastward next year, up to Ukraine's western flank. The Gongadze case led to nearly universal public disaffection with the Kuchma administration. The Gongadze case and the tapes have helped Ukrainians develop a very negative view of their rulers. Last year's parliamentary elections Ukrainians elected three times as many parliamentarians (171) from opposition parties as from parties supporting Mr Kuchma (54) in a party-preference vote. Mr. Kuchma was only able to prevail in parliament by winning the vast majority of seats in single-mandate districts, where pro-Kuchma parliamentarians were elected by running as "independents." And Mr. Kuchma's decision on Sept. 19 to link Ukraine's economy to Russia's through a "common market" has generated dissent among some of his supporters, including the speaker of the parliament and several key ministers, who argue that such a step would impede Ukraine's long-term objective of integration into Europe. According to recent opinion polls, Mr. Kuchma remains highly unpopular (with less than 10% support). Opposition politicians and political parties continue to outpace pro-Kuchma forces by a combined margin of three to one. And ousted Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko runs well ahead all other candidates for the presidency a year before an October 2004 vote. With Mr. Yushchenko gaining in popularity, Mr. Kuchma and his allies are now trying to rewrite the rules of the political game with constitutional amendments that would reduce the powers of the presidency. While the success of this effort is far from certain, many experts believe that even if the pro-Kuchma forces succeed in changing the Constitution, they will not be able to stave off defeat in future parliamentary elections. Ukraine is at an important crossroads in its history. Opposition parties show strength and there are rumblings of discontent among some of Mr. Kuchma's supporters. This presents an opportunity for the EU and U.S. Washington and Brussels should continue to distance themselves from Mr. Kuchma while supporting the opposition and reaching out to moderates and centrists who in the past have been pressured to make common cause with Mr. Kuchma. The EU, in particular, should make clear that the door is open to Ukraine's eventual integration, provided the country makes a clean break with corrupt practices, thoroughly investigates the Gongadze case and other political crimes, and conducts free and fair elections. Ukraine's contradictory trends make clear that the tragic death of Heorhiy Gongadze has not been in vain. It has awakened civic consciousness, created uncertainty within President Kuchma's inner circle, and kept open the possibility that -- with internal and external pressure -- Ukraine may yet jettison its stifling legacy of corruption and misrule.