You probably haven’t read this story anywhere else, and I’m not sure why. In the gory details, the plot twists, and the potential for surprise endings, it seems less like an ordinary political intrigue, more like a murder mystery. It began one night in September, when Heorhiy Gongadze, a well-known Ukrainian journalist, failed to return home from work. A few weeks later, a mutilated, decapitated corpse was discovered outside Kiev. But before anyone could establish whether it might be Gongadze, police intervened. The body disappeared from the morgue … and vanished.
Look a little closer, and the story gets less mysterious and more nasty. The 31-year-old Gongadze was not just any journalist: He was the editor in chief of Ukrainskaya Pravda, an Internet newsletter. I would like to be able to describe Ukrainian Pravda as the Ukrainian Slate (which would make Gongadze the Ukrainian Michael Kinsley), but I’m afraid that doesn’t quite capture its place in Ukrainian politics. While no one has been paying much attention—while all eyes have been on Putin’s Russia and Milosevic’s Serbia—Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president, has been slowly eliminating opposition media. He has shut down some hostile newspapers, harassed and investigated opposition TV stations, and threatened journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps track of these things, claims Ukraine now “lacks any genuinely independent major news media,” and ranks Kuchma among the world’s top 10 enemies of press freedom.
Hence the importance of the Internet, and of Gongadze, one of the few journalists in the country who still published articles critical of the president. (Click here if you read Ukrainian and want to have a look at the newsletter; click here to read an English translation of one of its attacks on Ukrainian corruption.) Radio Free Europe discussed the article Gongadze had published Sept. 11, five days before he disappeared. The article, by a journalist based in L’viv, described the manner in which the Ukrainian government collected signatures in support of a petition to change the constitution, granting more power to the Ukrainian president. Among other things, the author noted, the petition contained names that are clearly fake: “Khuy Khuoyovich” (rough translation: “Prick Prickovich”) was among them.
Hence also the importance of Gongadze’s death. In fact, the story of what happened after Gongadze disappeared tells you just about everything you need to know about the struggle going on in Ukraine—as in most other post-Soviet states—between nascent civil society and encroaching dictatorship. On the one hand, Gongadze’s disappearance caused an immediate outcry. Fifteen members of parliament set up a commission to look into his disappearance. Other journalists raised a fuss. Ukrainian Web sites, of which there are a surprising number (partly thanks, I suspect, to the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora), kept churning out commentary.
On the other hand, when the headless corpse vanished from the Kiev morgue, police were distinctly unsympathetic. Initially, they said they had ruled out “political motives” for the death; the investigation seemed to progress very, very slowly.
Each subsequent twist of the plot raised the stakes for both sides. At the beginning of this month, Aleksander Moroz—leader of the Ukrainian Socialist Party and President Kuchma’s main opponent—announced that a renegade Ukrainian security officer, Maj. Melnychenko, had sent him an audiotape. The tape contained a conversation, during which someone, alleged to be President Kuchma, ordered Gongadze’s death: “Deport him. Let the Chechens kidnap him.” Major newspapers refused to print transcripts of the tape—but no one could prevent it from being published on the Internet.
A few days later, Ukrainian members of parliament traveled abroad to meet Melnychenko. Despite their parliamentary immunity, customs officials at the airport confiscated a videotape of their conversation. They slightly damaged the tape—but couldn’t prevent the damaged version from being screened in parliament.
Last week, throngs of demonstrators, by now an organized “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement, staged three days of demonstrations in Kiev’s main square. They protested, waved placards, set up tents, and moved into them. A district court ruled they had to take the tents down—but it didn’t manage to disband the group altogether. “Our protest has no time limit,” one of the organizers told the Kiev Post, “No court in the world” can stop it.
It’s a story with quite a few old-fashioned elements to it. The vast numbers of stray cassette tapes and videotapes that appear to be floating around Kiev bring to mind the methods of both the old KGB and the new Russian security services, whose colonial interest in Ukraine continues. The Internet, the protesters, and the independent members of parliament seem to herald something new. But before deciding whether to be heartened or discouraged by this tale, we will have to get to the end of it. We still don’t know exactly who killed Gongadze, or how. And when we learn that, I suspect we’ll learn a lot more that we didn’t know about Ukraine as well.