By Bruce Pannier/Irena Chalupa
Mykola Melnychenko, an officer in the Ukrainian secret service, has sparked a major scandal in Ukraine in recent weeks. Melnychenko is a former bodyguard to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and claims to have planted tapes in Kuchma's office implicating the president in a series of crimes, including money laundering and planning to eliminate a leading journalist. The publicity surrounding the tapes has led to protests calling for Kuchma's resignation. Kuchma denies the recordings' authenticity.
Melnychenko has since been forced into hiding outside the country, but last week he spoke with RFE/RL's Ukrainian service by telephone to explain why he made the tapes and what was on them.
Prague, 5 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some in Ukraine say Mykola Melnychenko is a traitor. But Melnychenko, who has sparked a huge scandal by allegedly recording private conversations of President Leonid Kuchma, says he is a patriot.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Mykola Melnychenko says the people who accuse him of betrayal are those who are involved in crimes themselves. By that he means ministers, governors and members of the president's inner circle. He says he was only acting for the good of the Ukrainian people.
"I 'betrayed' because I know where the people's money is going -- these millions of dollars. I betrayed the interests of the president in the time when he (laundered money), he gave directions, when they built him dachas (country houses) for $4 million and $7 million. I betrayed these interests. But what then about the people's interests, those who work in the factories and plants which were ordered closed because of the political ambitions of the president?"
Melnychenko says his tapes reveal Kuchma was directly linked to both widespread corruption and plotting the elimination of his enemies.
He says, for example, that a businessman from Ukraine's Zhytomyr region paid Kuchma $5 million in gold. Melnychenka says the money could have been used to pay off the region's back wages and pensions but was not.
Melnychenko says he has recordings of even more serious matters. He says an October hand-grenade attack on one of Kuchma's political opponents, Natalia Vitrenko, was carried out on the president's orders to keep Vitrenko out of the presidential election. Vitrenko and many of her supporters were wounded in the attack.
Melnychenko also says Kuchma is highly sensitive to criticism. In an extreme example, Melnychenko says Kuchma was involved in the disappearance last year of opposition journalist Georgi Gongadze. Gongadze vanished on his way home from work in September. A decapitated body -- which many believe is Gongadze -- was later discovered in a forest, but conclusive identity tests have not yet been completed.
Melnychenko says his tapes prove Kuchma and other top officials plotted to have Gongadze killed:
"They removed Georgi, whether they killed him or not, I do not have this information... I believe Georgi is alive. They wanted to break his will and to show him that he should pay a lot of money first of all to those structures for which he (Gongadze) was working. I don't have proof that he is alive, I don't have proof that he was eliminated. But I do have proof that Kuchma ordered it (Gongadze's elimination) and there is proof the president was very worried about Gongadze's fate after the disappearance."
Kuchma has denied he has anything to do with Gongadze's disappearance. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service last week the allegations he is involved with Gongadze's disappearance are a setup.
"I believe this is a very well-prepared provocation and I don't want to say who is behind it before the end of the investigation. But I have already said that [opposition politician Oleksander] Moroz is just a mouthpiece who is being used. Nothing else."
It was Moroz who first publicized the existence of the tapes.
Copies of the tapes have been given to Ukraine's prosecutor general, independent experts and the Council of Europe. The tapes have prompted the Ukrainian parliament to call for the dismissal of Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko and Ukraine Security Service chief Leonid Derkach.
Melnychenko's revelations about Gongadze drew thousands of demonstrators in the capital Kyiv toward the end of December.
Melnychenko says he stands by his evidence. He tells RFE/RL he will return to Ukraine in the near future, but he says the power structures in Ukraine are doing all they can to see he does not return alive.