A former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma who alleges to have secretly made recordings of the president's conversations and then used them to implicate him in massive corruption and the recent disappearance of an opposition journalist met with RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky and two other journalists over the weekend. Ex-security officer Mykola Melnychenko spoke for six hours. This first of a two-part series focuses on what motivated Melnychenko to take the risks he took to make the tapes and then to make public excerpts from them.
Prague, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The audiotapes secretly made by former Ukrainian presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko have fuelled the biggest demonstrations in Ukraine since the country gained independence 10 years ago. On 25 February, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, accusing President Leonid Kuchma of involvement in the disappearance, and presumed murder, of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Gongadze, who had repeatedly accused Kuchma and his close associates of large-scale corruption, disappeared on September 16. A headless corpse, which DNA tests later showed to be Gongadze's, was discovered near Kyiv in November. Yesterday, Ukraine's State Prosecutor's Office finally ruled that the body was indeed that of the journalist. The ruling enables Gongadze's mother and widow to submit official complaints and evidence in the case.
Kuchma has denied any involvement in Gongadze's disappearance. But in late November some excerpts from recordings of alleged Kuchma conversations made by Melnychenko were released. The tapes purported to show that Kuchma had ordered that Gongadze be kidnapped. They also were said to reveal a foul-mouthed president discussing a range of corrupt deals for his personal enrichment.
Melnychenko says he left Ukraine with his wife and daughter two days before the first excerpts from the tapes were published on November 28. Since then, he has been living at a secret location in Central Europe while, he says, the Ukrainian intelligence service is searching for him.
Over the past weekend, Melnychenko met for the first time face-to-face with journalists -- two from RFE/RL and one from a U.S. newspaper ("The New York Times"). Our correspondent says the person who guided him and the other journalists to Melnychenko took elaborate precautions to make sure they were not followed. The interview was conducted in a private room at an inn near the Hungarian border with Slovakia.
Melnychenko arrived in disguise, but once the disguise was removed the journalists saw a tall man with neatly combed brown hair and a serious look that occasionally broke open into a smile. During a six-hour interview, the 34-year-old former security officer carefully measured his answers as he explained why he made the recordings.
Melnychenko, who was born in Vasylkiv in the Kyiv region, said that his childhood dream was to be in the army. After being refused to the Kyiv military academy at age 16, Melnychenko joined the army. During his military service, he was asked to join the KGB. He eventually worked in the KGB's Ninth Directorate, which guarded VIPs. He said he was for a time one of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's bodyguards.
After Ukraine attained independence, Melnychenko said, he returned home and rejoined the army, where he received electronic surveillance training. He first became part of Kuchma's bodyguard team when Kuchma was prime minister. He continued in the job when Kuchma was first elected president in 1994.
Melnychenko said that at first he thought that Kuchma would be a good leader. He was often present during Kuchma's meetings with senior officials and gradually, as he heard their conversations, he became disenchanted. He told the journalists:
"The material that I've got ready clearly shows Kuchma is a criminal, that he gave illegal orders and oversaw their execution. These are various orders having to do with financial machinations, the political repression of opposition leaders, and how he influenced individuals such as directors [of state enterprises], heads of government agencies, and the like."
Melnychenko said he routinely overheard conversations between Kuchma and others which showed how corrupt Kuchma was. He said he saw what he ironically called "gifts" of millions of dollars in cash being delivered to Kuchma. He also talked with people who had dealings with Kuchma or who wanted access to him and thought that they could obtain it from Melnychenko.
All these elements, Melnychenko said, convinced him that Kuchma and his closest cronies were thoroughly corrupt, out for their own personal gain with little or no concern for Ukraine's well-being.
Melnychenko said that what disgusted him most was that Kuchma, in his words, "has ruined lots of businesses that could have provided work for ordinary people and could have brought economic benefit to Ukraine." According to Melnychenko, if businesses were not paying for a "krizha" [literally, a "roof," but meaning money paid for protection], Kuchma would ask: "How can this be?" Kuchma, he said, wanted everyone to pay protection money and, if they didn't, the president sought to put them out of business.
Melnychenko summed up his view of the president in these words: "There is no greater criminal in the country than Kuchma. He has turned Ukraine into one big protection racket."
He said he decided to make secret recordings of Kuchma's conversations because "every person has to make a choice at some stage [and] I decided to try to stop this kind of corruption."
His army training had furnished Melnychenko with knowledge of the surveillance techniques needed. With access to the president's rooms, he said, he was able to plant a listening device in the sofa in Kuchma's inner office. The position of the microphone, he said, often made the sound quality of the recordings poor and it could only record Kuchma's side of telephone conversations.
Melnychenko would not provide any details of the surveillance equipment he installed or say when he began making the recordings. He did say that he had had time to listen to less than half the recordings he made and indicated that they totaled more than 1,000 hours.
Melnychenko said that he is spending his time going through the tapes and is seeking to obtain special equipment to eliminate some of the background noise that obscures the voices in some recordings. "I'm not sure how much time I need to study and transcribe all these [recordings]. To do it even superficially, and say who met whom and when, would take about one or two months. But if it is done more carefully -- by piecing together all of Kuchma's illegal activities and eliminating some of the background noise -- well, for this I don't know how much time is needed."
Melnychenk says that when the media began reporting Gongadze's disappearance, he remembered that he had heard Kuchma talking about the journalist with Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko. He said he took some vacation time and spent about two weeks sifting through the recordings. By the middle of October what he heard on the tapes, pieced together with other information he had, convinced him that Kuchma was linked to Gongadze's disappearance.
Some of those recordings -- which Kuchma's office says have been edited to distort their meaning -- have already been published. Purportedly, Kuchma is heard to say that he wished that Gongadze could be kidnapped by Chechen bandits.
Once he was convinced that Kuchma was linked to Gongadze's disappearance, Melnychenko said, he looked around for someone to whom to funnel his information He told the journalists: "That's not an easy thing to do. You could draw up a list of 10 prominent politicians in Ukraine who you thought were honest, but I could show you such incriminating material about them that you wouldn't believe it. But there was nothing on Oleksandr Moroz, the leader of the Socialist Party." Melnychenko approached Moroz, whom he trusted, and offered him copies of the recordings. Melnychenko said he then had to get himself, his wife, and child out of Ukraine before the recordings were made public by Moroz. He said he told his boss that he was resigning because he has been offered a lucrative job as head of security at a Ukrainian company, and needed to leave Ukraine for a month for training in Britain and to get medical treatment for his daughter.
Despite his boss' suspicions, Melnychenko said, he managed to leave Ukraine on 26 November, two days before the first recordings were released to the public.
Melnychenko said that he had saved $2,000, which he thought would be enough for him, his wife, and child -- who is not ill -- to live for a few weeks abroad. He said he thought Kuchma would be forced to resign within a few weeks.
Since he left Ukraine, Melnychenko has been living with the help of friends in a Central European country. On 25 February, his legal status in that country expired. Melnychenko said he needs two to three months to complete his work and then wants to return to Ukraine. But Melnychenko said: "I do need protection. I want my wife and daughter to be safe. Not only are the Ukrainian intelligence services trying to find me but professional killers are also trying to find me. I can't feel totally safe anywhere. I use disguises and am very careful about my movements."
Melnychenko said he is not afraid to return to Ukraine and is willing to take any test to prove he is telling the truth. But he wants Kuchma to submit to the same tests. "I'm not frightened to return to Ukraine because there is nothing more precious to me than my Ukraine. I'm a soldier of Ukraine and I'm ready to do anything that's necessary for its independence and democracy. I'm also truly willing to give my life so that there is democracy in Ukraine and ordinary people can begin to live better and not in the way they have been driven to live today by Kuchma's policies."
But Melnychenko said that he is worried for his family. "I am frightened for my wife and for my child because I am familiar with the forces -- not just Ukrainian but from elsewhere -- that want to change what I've done and would try to influence me through [endangering] my wife. And they are capable of anything because they have no morals. They will protect themselves. I'm not just speaking about Kuchma or [interior minister] Kravchenko or their group but a much wider circle of people."
In our next report, Melnychenko explains what he thinks happened to Gongadze and talks about some of Kuchma's alleged corrupt dealings.