A leading Ukrainian opposition leader has dropped a bombshell on the local political scene by saying he has received taped evidence that President Leonid Kuchma may be linked to the disappearance of an opposition journalist. Kuchma's office calls the charges "totally groundless."
Prague, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Rumors about the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who has been missing for more than two months, have been circulating for weeks. But it took former parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz, who heads Ukraine's opposition Socialist Party, to bring the affair into the open.
At a news conference in Kyiv yesterday, Moroz played an audiotape which he alleged was a conversation between Kuchma, his chief of staff, and his interior minister. Moroz said that on the tape, the three men could be heard discussing how to get rid of Gongadze.
Gongadze edited the Internet newsletter "Ukrainska Pravda," which specialized in investigating corruption cases. He disappeared on 16 September, on his way home from work in Kyiv. Two weeks ago, a passer-by discovered a decapitated and mutilated body in a nearby forest. Fellow journalists who came to the scene say they believe the corpse was Gongadze's. But before they could arrange for transport of the body to a laboratory for forensic tests, government officials took the corpse away to a morgue in Kyiv -- to which even Gongadze's wife has been barred access.
Moroz says he is not directly accusing Kuchma of ordering Gongadze's killing, but claims the tape is damning:
"I did not accuse him of murder or organizing a contract killing, but one can clearly hear from the tape his concrete phrases, which sound like orders or proposals to relevant institutions, for instance (Interior Minister) Yuri Kravchenko, to make sure Heorhiy Gongadze disappears. Moreover, it is not something that is a faked or edited version. There is no doubt."
Moroz says the tape was given to him by an unnamed officer of Ukraine's SBU security service, who has since fled the country. He says foreign experts have validated its authenticity.
But Dutch journalist Corine de Vries tells a different story. De Vries, who writes for the Amsterdam-based daily deVolkskrant, received a copy of the tape recording from Moroz's Socialist Party several weeks ago. She then sent it to a Dutch laboratory for analysis. De Vries told RFE/RL that, according to the laboratory, the quality of the recording is too poor to draw any conclusions:
"The acoustics of the tapes were not good enough, so there was no possibility to get scientific proof, and it's not at all possible to get scientific proof because the microphone was in a room with a lot of extra sounds. And it was also somehow hidden, so it was indirect to the sound."
Kuchma's office has strongly denied the president had anything to do with Gongadze's disappearance. In a statement late yesterday, presidential press secretary Oleksandr Martynenko called Moroz's allegations "totally groundless." He said Kuchma reserved the right to take legal steps "to protect his honor and dignity."
Politicians from all sides have now stepped into the affair. Roman Bezsmertnyj, who is Kuchma's representative in parliament, told RFE/RL the recording is a fake. He says Moroz was simply duped:
"Obviously, Moroz was simply set up. They gave him this information so he'd ruin himself as a politician. It seems to me this was a well-planned action against Moroz himself."
Bezsmertnyj did not indicate who he believed was behind such a set-up. Opposition deputy Anatolij Matvienko says the Gongadze allegation is just one of many plaguing the Kuchma administration. He says it's time for Kuchma to speak out, perhaps in a court of law.
"They say the president is connected to the oligarchs. The president is silent. They say that thieves in his entourage are robbing the country. The president is silent. Today they're saying that he's connected to Gongadze's disappearance. Maybe we'll hear the president and he will show through the courts that he's not connected to the case."
Few observers expect the charges to make it that far. And even if they did, the recording would most likely not be accepted as evidence in a Ukrainian court of law.
Whether the Gongadze affair turns out to be a minor controversy or a major political scandal will probably be decided in coming days. But for the time being, at least Moroz appears to have has staked his political reputation on the case.
(Irena Chalupa and Maryana Drach of the Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.