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Whistle-Blower's Return On Eve Of Elections Sparks Debate In Ukraine

Mykola Melnychenko in Kyiv in March 2011 -- why has he come back, and why just ahead of the elections on October 28?
Mykola Melnychenko in Kyiv in March 2011 -- why has he come back, and why just ahead of the elections on October 28?
KYIV -- For over a year the Ukrainian government has been trying to get its hands on former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who is wanted on charges of revealing state secrets, falsifying documents, and abuse of his position.
But on October 24, the enigmatic intriguer appeared at Kyiv's international airport, where he was promptly taken into custody and whisked away.

Melnychenko's lawyer, Mykola Nedilko, who was at the airport when Melnychenko arrived in Ukraine, was surprised by the arrest and coy about his client's reasons for returning home.

"The goal of his visit, I think, Mykola Melnychenko will announce himself. I expected that he would be detained, but not right away," Nedilko said.

"In the warrant itself, the court sanctioned the arrest of Mykola Melnychenko and, also, noted that within 48 hours of his arrest, he will be brought to court for a ruling on whether he will be kept in custody or released."

There is no simple explanation for what Melnychenko might have been up to, showing up in Kyiv just days before Ukraine's October 28 parliamentary elections. After all, having been granted political asylum in the United States in 2001, he seemed to be safely beyond Kyiv's reach.

In August, he was detained on an Interpol warrant in Naples, Italy, but released days later.

Kuchma Tapes

Melnychenko became a household name in Ukraine in 2000 when it was revealed that he had secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations in the office of President Leonid Kuchma. Among other things, the profanity-laced tapes seemed to implicate Kuchma and senior officials in the 2000 kidnapping and killing of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and in the illegal sale of a Kolchuga radar system to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Ever since the so-called Cassette Scandal broke, Melnychenko and his tapes have hung over Ukrainian politics like a sword of Damocles. What other voices might emerge from the past to scuttle political careers in the present?

In April, Melnychenko claimed to have met in Paris with Ukrainian officials and to have handed over to them material implicating "a prominent Ukrainian politician" in the Gongadze killing. Media reports later focused attention on former parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, who was an aide to Kuchma from 1994 until 1999 and head of the presidential administration from November 1999 until 2002.

Does Melnychenko have something implicating Volodymyr Lytvyn?
Does Melnychenko have something implicating Volodymyr Lytvyn?
In August, Melnychenko said he had tapes that implicate former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the 1996 killing of Donetsk businessman and parliament deputy Yevhen Shcherban. Political observers in Ukraine have speculated that the government of President Viktor Yanukovych intends to bring new and more serious charges against Tymoshenko -- who is already serving a seven-year prison term for abuse of office -- following this weekend's elections.

Tymoshenko's supporters have rejected Melnychenko's accusations, saying he previously offered them compromising information about Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in exchange for a high place on the party list of Tymoshenko's Fatherland party.

Why Is He In Kyiv?

Hennadiy Moskal, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on organized crime and corruption, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that it would be difficult for the government to use any Melnychenko tapes in its prosecution of Tymoshenko.

"The Constitutional Court has already definitely ruled that any recordings that are obtained illegally are compromised and cannot be submitted as evidence in a criminal case," Moskal said.

Nonetheless, the government -- which is under heavy pressure from the European Union and others to demonstrate that its prosecution of Tymoshenko and other former officials is not politically motivated -- would certainly be interested in hearing what Melnychenko has to say on this matter. This has prompted speculation that he cut some sort of deal with the authorities.

But why then was he arrested?

Parliament deputy Oleh Lyashko, head of the Radical Party, claims Melnychenko was arrested because his girlfriend, Natalia Rozynskaya, a well-known television journalist, is running for a single-mandate seat in parliament from the Radical Party.

Lyashko posted on his Facebook page: "Bandits in power! Know that we are not afraid of you and we will not be broken."

Other observers are convinced that Melnychenko is simply too much of a loose cannon for the authorities to risk having him at large in the country in the days before the crucial parliamentary vote.

Written by Robert Coalson in Prague based on reporting by Dmytro Shurkhalo in Kyiv

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