A former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has been in hiding for the past three months following the publication of secret tapes he made that he says implicate Kuchma in corrupt business deals and the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Mykola Melnychenko gave a face-to-face interview for the first time last weekend to three journalists, including RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky. In this second of a two-part report, Melnychenko talks about what he believes happened to Gongadze and why he has chosen not to seek asylum in another country despite the risk to him and his family.
Prague, 1 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Mykola Melnychenko fled Ukraine on 26 November -- two days before the publication of excerpts from secret tapes he had made of his former boss, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Melnychenko, who served as a presidential bodyguard for seven years, says he decided to publish the excerpts in the wake of last September's disappearance of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
The debate over the authenticity of the tapes -- which purportedly have Kuchma saying he wished Gongadze could be kidnapped by Chechen "bandits" -- will not be resolved quickly.
Kuchma's aides have said that the tapes, which have fueled recent protests in Ukraine calling for Kuchma's ouster, were manipulated to alter the meaning of his recorded remarks. Perhaps feeling the heat of mounting public pressure, Kuchma himself wrote a letter published on 27 February in Britain's "Financial Times" newspaper saying the attacks against him were politically motivated. He added that Gongadze's death, although tragic, was not grounds for a murder accusation, and called allegations of his involvement "completely untrue."
The Vienna-based International Press Institute, or IPI, had been asked by Ukrainian investigators to organize an independent analysis of Melnychenko's digital tapes to determine whether they had been altered. In a statement released yesterday, IPI said that the nature of digital recording made it impossible to say "with a nearly absolute level of certainty" that the tapes had not been manipulated. It added, however, that the finding "does not imply that the tapes are inauthentic."
Melnychenko had said he was waiting for the IPI results before releasing more excerpts of his recordings regarding the Gongadze case and other criminal dealings by Kuchma. It is not clear how he will proceed now. But for those who trust the authenticity of the tapes, the new excerpts still in Melnychenko's possession may provide additional details about the disappearance and death of the outspoken journalist.
Gongadze's headless corpse was discovered in a wood outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv weeks after his disappearance on 16 September. In the interview with RFE/RL, Melnychenko said the still-unreleased excerpts indicate that Gongadze was meant to be "removed" even earlier. But he said the journalist unwittingly bought himself time by filing a complaint that he was being followed with Deputy Interior Minister Yury Opasenko.
According to the former bodyguard, Gongadze gave Opasenko the license plate numbers of the cars he said had been following them. The deputy minister then caused delays by making official inquiries about the cars, which he traced back to the state security services.
Melnychenko said his recording captures Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko telling Kuchma that Opasenko was not trustworthy and that he regretted not firing him earlier.
On 16 September, a Saturday, Kuchma and Kravchenko were together on a hunting expedition. Four days later, when the press had already begun to ask questions about Gongadze's disappearance, Melnychenko says he recorded Kuchma asking a security official whether the journalist was alive or dead. Kuchma goes on to say that Gongadze should be found because the situation looked bad for the president.
Melnychenko said that at this stage Kuchma already knew Gongadze was dead, and was only feigning concern. The former bodyguard said of the Ukrainian president: "Kuchma can be a very good actor and he is a very cunning man."
Since leaving his homeland three months ago, Melnychenko has been living in hiding with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. Ukraine has issued a warrant for his arrest, and Melnychenko said he is aware of intelligence efforts to track him down.
He also said he is worried about his family's safety and is concerned that Kuchma's allies may have hired professional killers to find him. But he said he has no plans to seek permanent asylum.
"I have not applied for political asylum in any country because I expected, and still expect, that the situation in Ukraine will change for the better, that Kuchma will leave and democratic forces will come to the government."
Melnychenko told his interviewers he hopes to return to Ukraine to testify if Kuchma goes to trial. He said he is afraid if he applied for political asylum Kuchma's supporters would use that to discredit him and the authenticity of his recordings.
"Why should I ask for political asylum? Why should I be afraid? Of whom, Kuchma? He should be frightened of me. If I ask for political asylum in another country, that will immediately provoke a misleading reaction from Kuchma's people. They would say, 'Look, he's frightened, he's fleeing from justice.' But I'm not frightened. If these recordings were fake, then I would have sought political asylum straight after the first excerpts were published. But I am confident [of the tapes' authenticity] and Kuchma also knows that these recordings are accurate."
Melnychenko dismissed claims by the Kuchma administration that he is an employee of foreign intelligence agencies looking to destabilize Ukraine. He says frustration with the rampant corruption he saw in the presidential office is the only reason behind his decision to put the safety of himself and his family at risk.