March 30, 2001

The Revolution Comes to Ukraine


Some time in November 2000 (reports vary on the exact day) a decapitated body was found in the Ukrainian town of Tarashcha, about fifty miles outside of the capital, Kiev. The body was badly mutilated. Its skin had been burned off with acid in many places, including the hands and fingers, making fingerprint identification impossible. Forensic examiners in Tarashcha quickly issued a death certificate identifying the body as that of Georgi Gongadze, a journalist who had disappeared in mid-September.

The body was taken to Kiev, where authorities put it under lock and key, denying even Gongadze’s relatives access to the corpse. Without further tests, the authorities in Kiev refused to identify the body as that of Gongadze, as the Tarashcha officials had done.

By this point, rumors had already been circulating for a few weeks that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had ordered Gongadze’s elimination in retribution for critical articles the journalist had published on the Internet. Suddenly, an online newspaper called Ukrainska Pravda was internationally famous as a maverick publication that had dared to speak out against Kuchma and the endemic corruption of Ukraine. Gongadze had become a martyr and the focus of demonstrations in cities around the republic. Kuchma denied any wrongdoing from the beginning, claiming he’d never even heard of the missing journalist.

On November 28th, 2000, former Ukrainian Speaker of Parliament and Socialist Party (SPU) leader Alexander Moroz suddenly announced that he possessed a series of audio recordings of Kuchma and some of his cronies discussing ways of killing Gongadze. He said he had received the tapes from a former member of Kuchma’s security detail, now in hiding abroad, who had made the recordings by hiding digital equipment under a couch in Kuchma’s office. When the content of the tapes was publicized, Kuchma admitted his voice was on the tapes but insisted the pieces of conversation pertaining to Gongadze were the product of manipulation and editing. He still claimed never to have known of Gongadze.

Less than two weeks after Moroz’s revelations, three members of the Ukrainian parliament left the country for an undisclosed destination to meet the ex-security service (SBU) officer who claimed to have made the recordings. They returned to Ukraine with a videotaped interview of 34-year-old SBU Maj. Nikolai Melnichenko, who said he had made the tapes to put a stop to the criminal activities of the regime. He also said he had quit the SBU at the beginning of November (at the exact time most press reports say the headless corpse was found in Tarashcha), fleeing the country soon thereafter.

On January 10th, 2001, Ukrainian Procurator-General Mikhail Potebenko reported to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) that a DNA test by his office and Russian experts showed with a "99.66% probability" that the decapitated corpse was Gongadze’s. Due to the extent of decay, however, he refused to state "categorically" that it was the journalist’s body, and called for further tests. Potebenko also told the Rada that it was impossible to establish the authenticity of the cassette recordings, which he said had been doctored and edited in places.


By this time, Kuchma was feeling the heat. Western media were regularly reporting that anti-Kuchma demonstrations in Ukrainian cities were attracting 5,000-10,000. A "Ukraine Without Kuchma" movement was making a lot of noise, led by leaders of various right-nationalist parties united with Moroz’s SPU. Western governments and multilateral organizations expressed their "concern" over the Gongadze case and freedom of speech in Ukraine generally. Kuchma looked increasingly agitated in TV appearances, meanwhile, and what he had initially dismissed as a provocation led by a few politically marginal people seemed to be rapidly snowballing into a full-scale Western campaign to get rid of him.

On February 28th, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) released a report on the Melnichenko tapes. The IPI said that while it was difficult to believe that the hundreds of hours of conversation on the tapes could have been produced by editing or doctoring, the same could not be said for the approximately 25 minutes of the recordings pertaining to the Gongadze case. This portion, said IPI, could conceivably have been manipulated or doctored by a "potential aggressor." In other words, the result was inconclusive.

The anti-Kuchma campaign barely flinched. A "Tent City" set up on Kiev’s main drag, Khreshchatik, had become a focus of attention for Western leaders over the course of some weeks. US congressmen came to Ukraine and somehow failed to notice that most of the attention the Tent City had attracted was in the form of disgust at the hygiene problem it was creating. Siding with the assorted drunken skinheads and their panhandling little siblings, they called on the Ukrainian authorities to leave the Tent City alone.

On March 1st, US billionaire currency speculator George Soros – who had been active in funding NGOs in Ukraine since before the Soviet breakup – published an opinion in the Financial Times calling for Kuchma to step down.

If Mr. Kuchma cares about Ukraine’s survival as an independent democratic state, he must take responsibility for his actions and hand over duties to the prime minister, the constitutionally designated successor, pending the results of the investigation. The west must take a clear position, denouncing Mr. Kuchma’s behavior and his actions. There is no way for the international community to continue to do business with Mr. Kuchma until an impartial investigation has been completed and those responsible are held to account.

On the same day, a twenty-minute sweep operation by Kiev police removed the Tent City in response to a municipal court order. No serious injuries were reported among the 42 arrests, although Western media were at pains to portray the action as police brutality. US Ambassador Carlos Pascuale appeared on Ukrainian TV (allegedly tightly controlled by the dictatorial Kuchma’s allies) to express his concern over the police action, and released a previously prepared statement by President Bush, urging Kuchma to adhere to "the rule of law" and the goal of "Euro-Atlantic" integration. US State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher called on Ukrainian leaders to "observe their international commitment to freedom of assembly," and for Kuchma to obey his country’s constitution. European Union Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said the EU was "very worried about developments regarding political freedom, media freedom and the specific case of the disappeared journalist." Ukrainian opposition figures were shown on television denouncing the tyrannical regime, and former Justice Minister Sergei Golovaty – one of the three MPs who had traveled abroad to interview Melnichenko – even declared that "practically, martial law exists" in Ukraine.

On the morning of March 9th, the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" movement planned to block the president when he came to lay flowers at the foot of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Shevchenko Park, in honor of the Ukrainian poet’s birthday. When the big day came, the revolutionaries were late. At 9:30 am, there were about 2,000 people in front of the Shevchenko statue, and about a third of them looked like either reporters or passers-by who had come to check out the commotion. The number of active participants looked to be about 200. This was the crowd that Western media described as starting off at around 10,000 and swelling to a violent horde of 18,000 by the afternoon.

According to people at the scene, Kuchma had already come and gone. At 4 a.m., police had cordoned off the park, so that when Kuchma arrived shortly after daybreak he proceeded to the monument without confrontation. The few demonstrators who were there confined themselves to shouting matches with the police. After Kuchma left, the police removed the barricades and the demonstrators started to arrive in greater numbers. Angry at having missed the action, they vowed to march on the presidential building.

A couple of Ukrainian reporters smirked as they recounted the story, but how could such grave and momentous events be treated as a joke? A stroll among the numerous big red banners of the UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense Organization) revealed the seriousness of the occasion. Many UNA-UNSO warriors wore paramilitary gear, black and red armbands, and bandannas over their faces. Someone had spread a vicious rumor that these young freedom fighters had a reputation for drunken brawling. They certainly did look belligerent in their leather biker jackets and earrings. One gallant dissenter was vomiting behind a tree, his condition undoubtedly a symptom of the tremendous will he had been forced to summon for the pursuit of his noble cause. It couldn’t be drunkenness. It was far too early in the morning for that.

At lunchtime the violent confrontations were broadcast on the TV news. The protesters had struck a decisive blow! Truncheon-wielding police had beaten some of the intrepid revolutionaries less than a mile from Shevchenko Park. The protesters caused some injuries, took a little beating here or there, and inhaled some tear gas. Kuchma, meanwhile, was in western Ukraine inspecting damage from recent flooding in the region.


Text-only printable version of this article

Write to Chad Nagle

Chad Nagle is a professional writer and lawyer licensed in the District of Columbia. He has been published in the Wall Street Journal Europe, the Washington Times, and several other periodicals. Mr. Nagle traveled extensively throughout the ex-USSR from 1992-97 as a research consultant. Since mid-1999, he has traveled widely in the former Communist bloc on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

His column, At the End of History, appears alternate Fridays on

Previous articles by Chad Nagle

The Revolution Comes to Ukraine

Red Dawn in Moldova?

Musings On The New Imperialism and Post-Western World Government

Soros: False Prophet-At-Large

Belarus: Oasis In The Heart Of Europe

Serbia Joins the West

Death of a Patriot

The Twilight of Sovereignty in Azerbaijan

The Ukrainian Model of Democracy

The Slow Strangulation of Democracy in Slovakia

Patrick Buchanan and the American Reformation

The Betrayal of Democracy in Post-Soviet Georgia


First of all, who was – or is – Gongadze? According to "Ukraine Without Kuchma," he was a brave reporter who dared to uncover the truth and tell his fellow countrymen about it on the Internet. Western mainstream media has consistently carried this line. Problem: the Internet was practically the only place Gongadze ever published anything. Since less than 1% of the Ukrainian population has ever had access to the Internet, Gongadze wasn’t famous before the murder scandal broke and almost no one had heard of Ukrainska Pravda.

Second, the headless corpse discovery smelled rotten from the start. Official reports about how and where the body was found were so varied and conflicting it was impossible to know what to believe. For example, Tarashcha is a small city about 50 miles south of Kiev (about 75 miles by road). Yet BBC News Online reported that the body was found "in a rubbish tip by the side of the road near Tarashcha, 75 miles north of Kiev"! The Independent newspaper in Britain also reported that the body was found north of the capital. As for how it was disposed of, said "a corpse believed to be that of Mr. Gongadze was found buried at a crossroads with one arm sticking out of the ground." Well, which was it – one arm sticking out of the ground, or the rubbish tip by the side of the road? Other reports have put the body on the outskirts or suburbs of Kiev.

Thirdly, the initial identification of the corpse was evidently based on the fact that a necklace and bracelet found on the body belonged to Gongadze. The body was so badly mutilated and skinned that even the journalist’s mother and wife couldn’t say for sure whether it was his. The editorials of the Kyiv Post – a glitzy newspaper published in both English and Ukrainian whose editorial board is made up entirely of ex-pats – had chimed in week after week attacking Kuchma as a murderous tyrant, joining the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" movement’s calls for the president to step down, and presuming the body was Gongadze’s. Yet if anything was clear it was the unclear identity of the headless corpse. In March, a DNA test in Munich resulted in a finding that the body was not, in all likelihood, that of Georgi Gongadze. In other words, no one could be sure the journalist was even dead.


Who is Maj. Melnichenko? Interestingly, more than one person in Kiev described the young SBU officer as "Lazarenko’s man." Pavel Lazarenko was Ukraine’s prime minister for a couple of years before he fled the country, allegedly with several hundred million dollars tucked away in offshore accounts. About three years ago, Lazarenko was imprisoned in the United States for embezzlement.

During his tenure as premier, Lazarenko acted as the government patron for a private gas marketing corporation called Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU), which was essentially set up to resell natural gas siphoned illegally off the Russian pipeline running through Ukraine to the West. One of UESU’s chief beneficiaries was the lovely Yulia Timoshenko, who – with her husband – may have reaped as much as $1 billion running the corporation. Timoshenko was made Deputy Premier for the Energy Sector by the current premier, Viktor Yushchenko, and put in charge of "reforming" the gas industry. However, Timoshenko’s government tenure took the gaspipe in mid-February this year, when she was jailed in Kiev for fraud and tax evasion. Her husband has been in prison since last year.

What does all this have to do with Kuchma? "Kuchma has failed to fulfill Washington’s expectations in creating a favorable climate for Western business," says Oleg Grachev, a member of parliament from the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). "When Yushchenko became prime minister, the next phase of American policy began, which involved attempting to install Yushchenko as president." But how? "Lazarenko will testify to Kuchma’s corruption, and Kuchma may be forced not only to resign, but to go to jail," Grachev says. In other words, Lazarenko used Melnichenko to arrange the Gongadze operation and thus improve his [Lazarenko’s] chances of getting a get-out-of-jail-free card. "We were approached about participating in the tape recording plot and refused," reveals Grachev. "Later, we found out Moroz was using the tapes." According to Grachev, Moroz had seized an offer to publicize the tapes to halt his slide toward political outsider status after losing his Speaker post. "If the plan succeeds, Kuchma will ask for a pardon, as Yeltsin did, and Washington will install Yushchenko as president after three months."

Bogdan Boyko, a member of parliament from the National Movement of Ukraine (NRU) for Unity (one of three split-offs from the right-wing group once collectively known as "Rukh") is more blunt. "The West is carrying out operations here on behalf of Yushchenko without any concern for the interests of Ukraine," he says. "There is an attempt underway to mechanically apply the Yugoslav model." Okay, but who’s in on it? "[Rival Rukh leader Yuri] Kostenko, [Reform & Order leader Viktor] Pynzennik, and [Fatherland leader Yulia] Timoshenko are acting as agents of western intelligence by financing political provocations in Ukraine." These "thieves," claims Boyko, hope to avoid jail by abolishing the presidential republic. And Moroz? "Moroz is a sick man," he says bitterly. "Our party analyzed the affair and concluded that before February 26th Nikolai Melnichenko was located on a NATO base somewhere in Sustenberg, the Netherlands."

Progressive Socialist Party (PSPU) leader Natalya Vitrenko, who was injured by a hand grenade thrown into one of her presidential campaign rallies in 1999, says, "The PSPU is the most anti-Kuchma party in Ukraine. But the Melnichenko cassettes are a trick, and we couldn’t side with Moroz when he accused the president." She is no more forgiving of the West than Boyko is. "US attempts to use the politics of western Ukraine to control the whole country are futile," she says. "If the West applies the Yugoslav model to Ukraine it will result in a catastrophe for Europe."


Kuchma may have staved off the inevitable for now, but it’s doubtful he can stem the tide of the Glorious Revolution indefinitely. Kuchma cannot be allowed to continue his move away from NATO and the West since winning a second term in 1999, regardless of what most Ukrainians want. Democracy is one thing, but it can’t hold a candle to the March of History.

For one thing, Ukraine is too honest. Ukrainians have come to refer to the ruling political elite in their republic as – seriously – "the Oligarchs." The Oligarchs are a group of parliamentarians and other leading politicians who have amassed tremendous wealth in the post-Soviet era by using their political offices to gain control of Ukraine’s most productive resources and enterprises. Now, it’s okay by us to have oligarchs, obviously. In fact, we like oligarchs. But you can’t call them that, for Christ’s sake! It’s embarrassing. Yushchenko understands the need to "reform" that little social habit right down the memory hole. Lies and lectures are an important part of our Western culture, and if Ukraine wants to be part of it, Ukrainians are going to have to learn how not to call a spade a spade.

As for ordinary Ukrainians – getting by on an average salary of $46 a month, an average pension of $12 a month, and trying to heat their apartments with Yulia Timoshenko’s gas at $18 a month – well, you all will manage somehow. It’s reform, you see. Our hollow sanctimony wins; you lose. Nothing personal, just business, and here’s a swift kick in the face to help you remember that. "If the current desperate situation continues, Ukraine will either have a social revolution or fascism," says Natalya Vitrenko. Why not try a little fascism, Natasha? Just ask the UNA-UNSO demonstrators. They’ll tell you how you can get some more money if you really need it.

"We were always pro-Western and pro-American," says Bogdan Boyko angrily. "But now we’re reexamining our position." He says the Verkhovna Rada is considering expelling Ambassador Pascuale from the country. "Ousting Kuchma will not bring Yushchenko to power but the Communists, so we’ll do everything in our power to stop it," he says. "Liquidating presidential power in Ukraine will result in a loss of our independence." Yeah, but why would you want to be independent from us? "If this continues, Ukraine will become anti-American." Oh, you mean the Ukrainian people? You’re kidding, right?!

"Such a serious operation as installing Yushchenko as president has to involve foreign intelligence services, particularly the CIA," says Oleg Grachev. Are you suggesting that the fine folks at the CIA would involve themselves in something as grisly as murder by decapitation and leaving a headless corpse where anyone could find it? "The hand of the CIA is evident in all the methods and technology of the Melnichenko recordings." Yeah, so what are you going to do about it, tough guy? "In April the parliament will decide on a vote of no-confidence in Yushchenko’s government. If Kuchma can hang on until then, Washington’s protégé will be out of the premiership and be at a distinct disadvantage in presidential elections," Grachev muses. "But if Kuchma resigns before we vote, then Yushchenko automatically becomes acting president and is almost guaranteed victory in the elections after three months, because he will control all the media regional apparats." Well, you certainly seem sure about your parliamentary vote, pal. Didn’t you know that money talks, and little red flag-shaped lapel pins walk? It’s called "buying votes." You know, like in the Academy Awards. By the way, Oleg, didn’t you think Gladiator was overrated?


And that’s the Ukrainian Revolution. The bold young reformer Viktor Yushchenko – who many Ukrainians say stashed millions of dollars of Western credits in his own private bank in Cyprus just to cream cool multi-millions off in interest overnight – is our man, the Great White Hope of Reform. You needn’t care, of course, if you’re content to picture children of the future reading history books about the irrepressible "popular" movement that forced an old Soviet Sad Sack President Kuchma out of office so a glory boy Westernizer like Yushchenko (whose American wife Ukrainians believed to be a State Department employee) could answer the people’s calling. By then, history as written by the Winners will have long ago consigned this little "conspiracy theory" to oblivion.

Finally, take this little Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty blurb from less than a year ago:

Taking into account the latest outburst of popular love for and confidence in the president during Ukraine’s constitutional referendum, Kuchma may be said to be one of the most successful politicians on the post-Soviet territory.

~ RFE/RL Report, Apr. 25, 2000 (Vol. 2, No. 16).

I can just see myself shaking this in the face of an RFE/RL official a few years from now, after the authorized history of Ukraine has condemned Kuchma to ignominy forever.

"But you published this! You wrote that Kuchma was so loved by his people they voted by 80% to expand his presidential powers, and within months you became implacably opposed to him! You’re nothing but a mouthpiece for power."

"Really? [shrug] Prove it."

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