Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: March 6, 2001

6 March 2001, Volume 3, Number 8
PRESIDENT, PRIMATE SPEAK ON POGROM OBSERVATION. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in an interview with the Israeli daily "Yedioth Aharonot" on 2 March that Poles should atone for the pogrom in Jedwabne, northeastern Poland, on 10 July 1941, in which some 1,600 Jews perished at the hands of their Christian neighbors, dpa reported. "This was genocide committed by Poles from Jedwabne on their Jewish neighbors. It was an extremely brutal massacre whose victims were innocent people. This is why it is time to bow our heads and ask for forgiveness," the German agency quoted Kwasniewski as saying in the interview.

PAP quoted another fragment of Kwasniewski's interview with the Israeli newspaper: "Before us is the difficult case of finally unraveling the murder in Jedwabne.... For this tragic case, irrespective of the inspiration, the reasons, the historical background which led to it, the Jewish population living there undoubtedly deserves an expression of the highest homage. I believe that the marking of the 60th anniversary of the murder will provide an opportunity for such an act of apology."

Last year, Poland's National Remembrance Institute launched an investigation into the Jedwabne pogrom. The results of the investigation are expected this spring. It is alleged that shortly after Nazi Germany's aggression against the USSR, Poles from Jedwabne and its vicinity herded some 1,600 local Jews, drove them into a barn, and burned them. According to PAP, one of the hypothetical motives for the pogrom might have been revenge for the Jews' alleged participation in Stalinist repression against Poles. Jedwabne was among the territories of pre-war Poland which from 17 September 1939 until Germany's aggression against the USSR on 22 June 1941 were occupied by the Soviet Union.

In the late 1940s, 23 residents of Jedwabne and the surounding region faced a Polish court. The sentences included one death penalty, subsequently reduced to 15 years' imprisonment. But at that time the defendants were only charged with participating in the driving of the Jews into the market in Jedwabne (from where they were driven into the barn), not with murdering the victims.

Professor Jan Tomasz Gross of New York has recently published a book that includes an account of the Jedwabne tragedy by Szmul Wasersztajn, who survived that pogrom. It follows from the book that the Jedwabne Poles asked German military policemen to be allowed "to deal" with the Jews and murdered them without any encouragement from the Nazis.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp, primate of the Polish Roman Catholic Church, said on 4 March that the Roman Catholic Church will join the Jewish community in Poland in prayers to observe the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom. Glemp also complained that he has been recently contacted by two "high-ranking politicians" who tried to dictate to him how the Church should mark the pogrom anniversary. "I would not like politicians to impose on the Church how it should atone for the crime committed by a group of believers who had run morally wild," Glemp told Radio Plus. And added: "In the name of justice we cannot label any nation as a nation of murderers. We cannot extend the derangement, which was provoked among people of Jedwabne and its vicinity, to the entire Polish nation."


By Paul Goble

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka has threatened to expel any diplomat who interferes in the domestic affairs of his country in advance of a presidential poll there later this year, a reflection of his increasing isolation both domestically and internationally.

Lukashenka told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS on 1 March that he will put in jail anyone Belarusian courts found guilty of espionage. Moreover, he said that he will expel any diplomat -- including envoys from Western countries -- who uses an embassy to spy on Belarus or interfere in the elections.

In addition, the Belarusian leader linked his domestic opponents to foreign donors who he said had given them cash and office equipment. Such people, he said, "openly declare their intention to turn Belarus into another Yugoslavia. But that will not go. Electing a president will be up to the people of Belarus rather than to [foreign] security services." His election, Lukashenka added, will take place without the "fuss" usually generated by journalists.

Lukashenka's latest outburst is typical of a man who has expressed admiration for the governing styles of Stalin and Hitler and who has shown little mercy to his opponents as he has moved to reestablish a highly authoritarian regime in Belarus. And his remarks come on the heels of a Belarusian state television program accusing the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of supporting the opposition to Lukashenka's continuation in office.

The tone of that program is suggested by one of the state television officials who oversaw its production. Aleksandr Zimovsky noted that "the Americans are making a crude mistake in regarding Belarus as a playground for their spies and agents. Belarusian special services have something with which to counter their attempts to act uncontrollably in our country."

But Lukashenka's remarks this time may reflect something more than his typical bravado: they may mirror growing concerns on his part about his own isolation domestically and internationally, on the one hand, and an effort by him to counter this isolation by portraying himself as the only true defender of Belarus against shadowy forces from abroad.

Recent polls taken in Belarus show that support for Lukashenka is declining, even among his traditional rural base. And in addition to continuing Western European and American criticism of Minsk's violation of human rights, the Belarusian leader now appears to be losing support from the one place he had always expected to receive it: the Russian government in Moscow.

In recent weeks, Russian commentators have been increasingly critical of Lukashenka's performance, especially his all-too-public differences with Moscow over the proper response to the detention in New York of Russia-Belarus Union secretary of state Pavel Borodin on an extradition request by Swiss prosecutors. Lukashenka wanted a hard line, Moscow a softer one, and Lukashenka left Moscow a day early over this issue during a January visit.

After that diplomatic spat, some Russian newspapers pointedly suggested that the Russian government was distancing itself from Lukashenka and was even interviewing possible replacements to head the Belarusian government. As one Moscow observer put it at the time, everyone understands that the president of Belarus "is chosen by the Kremlin rather than by the Belarusian people."

Such Russian criticism of Lukashenka only increased last week in the wake of the communist victory in the Moldovan parliamentary elections, with several Moscow analysts suggesting that taking Moldova into the Russia-Belarus Union would further compound Russia's problems, just as forming the union with Lukashenka's Belarus already had.

Faced with this apparent softening of Russian support and confronting continuing criticism from both the West and the Belarusian people, Lukashenka appears to be retreating into the fortress mentality typical of authoritarian rulers when they begin to feel that they are losing their grip. Again and again, such leaders have sought to save themselves at home by attacking supposed enemies abroad.

Occasionally, such lashing out has in fact won them a respite, but more often, their threatening remarks has only highlighted just how removed from reality those who make them are. And by calling attention to that fact, their remarks cut into whatever support they may still have, thus heightening rather than solving the political problems that such leaders inevitably have created for themselves.

MYKOLA MELNYCHENKO MEETS WITH RFE/RL CORRESPONDENT. About two weeks ago, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky and two other journalists met with Mykola Melnychenko, a former bodyguard of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Below is Krushelnycky's account of the meeting written for RFE/RL last week.

1. Melnychenko's Motivations for Bugging Kuchma.

The audio tapes 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 16 September. A headless corpse, which DNA tests later showed to be Gongadze's, was discovered near Kyiv in November. On 26 February, 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 Kuchma's 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 28 November. 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 for the first time met face-to-face with journalists -- two from RFE/RL and one from a U.S. newspaper. The person who guided the author 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 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 admittance to the Kyiv military academy at the age of 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.

"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.

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 "roof," 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."

Melnychenko says that when the media began reporting Gongadze's disappearance, he remembered that he had heard Kuchma talking about the journalist with Interior Minister Yury 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 had 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's 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," Melnychenko noted.

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," Melnychenko said.

2. The Gongadze Case.

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 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 (IPI) has been asked by Ukrainian investigators to arrange for an independent analysis of Melnychenko's digital tapes to determine whether they had been altered. In a statement released on 28 February, 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 tampered with. 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 said.

Melnychenko told his interviewers he hopes to return to Ukraine to testify if Kuchma goes to trial. He said he is afraid that 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 said.

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.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who promised to raise the average monthly wage in Belarus to $100 by this fall, chatted with a laboratory technician at the State Concern of Powder Metallugry in Minsk on 1 March. The technician said he earns 30,000 Belarusian rubles ($24) a month. Belarusian Television reported:

Lukashenka: On what do you live then? Do you steal?
Technician: No, I don't steal.
Lukashenka: Do you earn on the side?
Technician: I did some time ago. As an [unskilled] worker.
Lukashenka: In this case I don't see any sense to keep such a laboratory. What can it give for 30,000?