Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma probably never expected what happened last week. He is accused of ordering the murder of his staunch critic, journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000. When Gongadze’s body was found, his head severed from his body, many people, mostly from the opposition, were pointing a finger at Kuchma as the one who benefited most from the journalist’s death. That same year, Maj. Nikolai Melnichenko, one of the officers serving in Kuchma’s personal security detail, ran away to the Czech Republic. But before leaving, he gave the Ukrainian Socialist Party leader Alexander Moroz tapes with hours of conversations between the president and his closest confidants. Melnichenko recorded them by hiding a tape recorder in Kuchma’s study.
Konstantin von Eggert
Moroz promptly revealed the contents of the tapes. Among the many interesting things, like the alleged Ukrainian government’s complicity of selling arms to Iraq (which was under UN sanctions at the time), the recordings seemed to show that President Kuchma ordered the Ukrainian Security Service chief Leonid Derkach to “deal with” Gongadze.
As long as Kuchma was in power, there was no chance of any serious investigation of the murder. When, in 2005, Kuchma’s former PM-turned-opponent Viktor Yushchenko became president in the wake of the 2004 “orange revolution,” many expected that a proper investigation would be conducted. It was promptly opened but never came even close to indicting Kuchma – probably because Yushchenko felt a sort of personal loyalty to the former president who launched his political career. So no one expected that Kuchma would be charged with Gongadze’s murder while his other protégé, Viktor Yanukovych was president.
There are many theories regarding the reasons for such a scandalous move. One is a bit conspiratorial. It says that Kuchma will be found not guilty and the case, which haunted him for more than a decade, will be closed forever. Another says that the current president wants to fend off accusations of corruption and cronyism by sacrificing his political godfather. Maybe. However, the mere fact that such a thing could happen proves once again that, as the title of Leonid Kuchma’s book says, “Ukraine is Not Russia.” It is not Kazakhstan, Belarus, or any other post-Soviet country for that matter, with the possible exception of Moldova.
It is only in Ukraine that a former head of state has to come to the court as a mere mortal and explain himself to reporters who pelt him with awkward questions. The Ukrainian society shows a very un-Soviet irreverence for authority. Despite all the traditional post-Communist ills – cynicism, corruption, clannish politics – Ukrainians seem to be more autonomous, personally responsible and resilient than citizens of other former Soviet republics. And the political class has to take notice of this. That is why President Yunukovych, elected under the famously misleading slogan of “stability,” has to constantly prove to his own people and the world at large that he is not trying to set up some kind of authoritarian regime – although he probably dreams of it.
During my trips to Ukraine over the last few years, I have always admired the Ukrainians’ openness about their life and country and their willingness to discuss politics. Even those who say they are disillusioned find a way of explaining their position rather than just primitively saying: “All politics is dirt and all politicians are bastards!” I do not know why this is. Does it have anything to do with the fact that Ukraine was not an empire, and people have more time for themselves rather than for messianic ideas? Is it because Ukrainians tend to be more bourgeois and property-conscious – which is reflected in a score of non-PC jokes about them in Russia? Or maybe it is the proximity of Central Europe? Or the fact that Ukrainian politics is the arena for several powerful regional clans, which try but never can achieve a monopoly?
Probably, it is a combination of all these factors. But Ukraine (and Moldova, which is a case of its own) is unique in gradually developing a healthy democratic political culture, providing for competition and balance of interests at the same time. Certainly, it will take decades for this to mature. But it would be nice if societies in other post-Soviet states (including even Georgia, that darling of the West) start taking notice of Ukrainian experience.
What is Russia’s place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the “global West.” And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.