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Ukraine: Gongadze Case Reflects Struggle For Nation's Future

  • Robert McMahon

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko says the controversy over the death of Ukrainian investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze is part of a "political game" being waged by the opponents of President Leonid Kuchma. Zlenko says Kuchma is trying to steer the country toward reform and integration with Europe, but is being undermined by the political opposition.

United Nations, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko has portrayed the controversy over a journalist's death as a struggle between extremist political groups and a reformist government.

Zlenko told reporters at the United Nations yesterday (Tuesday) that President Leonid Kuchma's political opponents on the extreme left and extreme right are upset with his government's pro-European policies. He said they are using the unsolved murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze to try to undermine Kuchma.

Zlenko said Kuchma's opponents prefer closer ties with Russia and Belarus rather than integration into West European multinational structures.

"This is a fight for the change of political course of my country and our dilemma -- as we follow these manifestations and demonstrations -- our dilemma is to continue our efforts to get on the way toward Europe or European integration, or to go back again to the former, not former, to the new union created by the Russian Federation and Belarus."

Thousands of people have taken part in anti-Kuchma protests since the discovery outside of Kyiv of a headless corpse -- later identified by officials as Gongadze's (though independent pathologists in Munich said yesterday that the tissue they were given to test, purportedly from that body, was not Gongadze) -- and the publication of tapes allegedly incriminating the president in the journalist's disappearance. Gongadze was an investigative journalist for an Internet publication and had been critical of Kuchma and other top Ukrainian officials in his reports.

Kuchma may have made a concession to protesters over the past weekend when, according to still unconfirmed news reports, he sacked Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko. Earlier, the president had relieved of their duties other leading officials dealing with police and security matters.

Zlenko said yesterday that Ukrainian government prosecutors had made some mistakes in the early stages of their investigation of the Gongadze case. The United States and the European Union have expressed concern about the inquiry.

Zlenko also said Kuchma was committed to carrying out a transparent investigation into Gongadze's death. He told reporters that a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently left Ukraine after failing to make progress. He said Gongadze's family had refused to cooperate fully with FBI experts.

The foreign minister said that when he took office five months ago (Oct 2000), he found Ukraine's foreign policy going in many different directions. He said he has worked to orient Ukraine's foreign policy firmly in the direction of Europe.

"We are looking for European integration. We would like to establish excellent relations with different European infrastructures, like the European Union, OSCE, NATO. We see ourselves as a European country because we respect very much the European values."

But media monitoring groups in the West say Ukraine has increasingly restricted the work of independent journalists. The media representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Freimut Duve, said earlier this month that Ukraine seeks to control media through ownership or economic pressure. The New York-based, non-governmental Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report this week that libel suits and physical attacks continue against the small number of Ukrainian journalists willing to report independently on issues such as corruption.

Zlenko yesterday acknowledged that Ukraine, as a country in transition, faces some challenges in developing open media. Part of the problem, he said, is rooted in old perceptions about the role of the press.

"We are a new state with Soviet stereotype, absolutely, with Soviet mentality and Soviet stereotype. "

The foreign minister said Ukraine was eager to work with democratic states to enact both political and economic reforms. He welcomed the recent announcement by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual that the United States would provide $750,000 in grants to help bolster independent media.

Zlenko is at UN headquarters to chair this week's sessions of the UN Security Council, of which Ukraine is currently president. He is due to visit Washington next week for his first meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice before traveling to Canada.