Ukraine’s Unfinished Revolution

Can the new democracy withstand a murder investigation?

Can the fledgling democracy handle the truth about Gongadze’s murder?

Five years ago in Slate, Anne Applebaum told a “Ukrainian Murder Mystery” about the September 2000 killing of Gyorgi Gongadze, an Internet journalist almost certainly liquidated for publishing articles critical of then-President Leonid Kuchma. Gongadze’s decapitated body was eventually found; his head was not.

As anyone donning an orange scarf on Kiev’s Independence Square during last year’s uprising could tell you, the Gongadze case has never simply been a crime. It has always been, from the moment the journalist was kidnapped and, soon after, beaten to death, a symbol of larger things.

Above all, it was a symbol of a past—an ideology, a consciousness, a national enslavement—that most Ukrainians wanted to move beyond. The Gongadze murder, and the state’s refusal to investigate it, encapsulated a whole history, beginning with mass death in the name of Bolshevik utopia and ending, ignominiously, with mobster rule in the name of nothing.

So, when Viktor Yushchenko was catapulted to power last December, there was widespread expectation that the government would finally solve the crime. After all, ex-President Kuchma appeared to have been implicated in the murder by audiotapes provided by a former guard.

Alas, it’s been 10 months since Yushchenko took power, and, so far, little progress has been made: The alleged murderers have been arrested, but the men behind those men have yet to be identified.

The activists and reformers, the people who once worked the phone banks and organized protests for pro-democracy outfits like Znayu (I Know) and Pora (Enough), are deeply disappointed. It seems the people have changed, but the authorities have not.

Before the government can forge a new compact with the governed, it must acknowledge the past, the reformers contend. There must be a cleansing ritual or process—the Germans’ opening of Stasi files; the Czechs’ “lustration,” which barred senior Communist officials from positions of authority; or the South Africans’ Truth and Reconciliation Commission—separating the old from the new. That has yet to happen in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials, including the new prime minister, Yuriy Yekhanurov, who was in Washington recently meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and congressional leaders, insist they are determined to get to the bottom of the Gongadze murder.

But Gongadze’s widow, Miroslava Gongadze, says that’s a lie. It seems to her that President Yushchenko doesn’t really want the crime solved, because doing so would bring down senior officials in his own government and jeopardize his party’s standing in next spring’s parliamentary elections.

“He doesn’t know what to do,” Gongadze said of Yushchenko in a recent interview, sipping tea in the basement cafeteria of Voice of America, where she broadcasts daily reports from Washington to viewers across Ukraine. “He understands that if he doesn’t investigate the case, he’s done, he doesn’t have a political future. But he understands that if he does, he’s in trouble.”

Gongadze doesn’t believe the president is in any way responsible for her husband’s murder. But his connection to Kuchma—he served as the former president’s prime minister from late 1999 to early 2001—means a serious investigation could tar him by association. Certainly, other senior, pro-reform officials close to the Yushchenko administration—most notably, Gongadze says, Speaker of the Parliament Vladimir Lytvyn—could face trouble.

For months, government officials have tried to quell frustration surrounding the case by co-opting Miroslava Gongadze. Yushchenko personally urged Gongadze, who fled to the United States after her husband’s murder, to come home. Boris Tarasuyk, Ukraine’s foreign minister, offered her a job, she says. Clearly, they recognize Gongadze’s political value: If the outraged widow moves home, she mustn’t be outraged anymore. Justice is being served. But Gongadze isn’t leaving Washington. Besides giving Yushchenko an undeserved boost, it would endanger her 8-year-old daughters, Salome and Nana. (On a September trip to Ukraine, Gongadze was confronted by Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun, who, she says, “threatened” her to get her to drop the case. Piskun, a holdover from the Kuchma regime, was fired last month, after complaints that he’d impeded the Gongadze investigation.)

Prime Minister Yekhanurov, who replaced Yulia Timoshenko in September, says the president has simply been busy—too busy, even, to find a new prosecutor-general (or attorney general) nearly a year into his presidency.

Of course, if Gongadze is correct—if Yushchenko’s prospects and those of the democratic forces in the Rada, or parliament, are jeopardized by the investigation—then perhaps it is best that the investigation be postponed. Perhaps a short-term injustice, which, in the end, involves only a single man and a single family, can serve the interest of a longer-term good, the establishment of a stable and westward-looking Ukraine, a country of nearly 50 million.

Or perhaps that Ukraine already exists. Yushchenko and his minions may be damaged by the inquiry into Gyorgi Gongadze’s death. The president’s Nashe Ukraina Party may lose parliamentary seats in March. But Ukraine is not the same country it was a year ago. A new political identity has emerged. As Gongadze puts it: “Ukraine will never be the same, because the people are different. The people realize they can stand for themselves.”

Gyorgi Gongadze’s murder may not be solved for 20 years, as his widow fears. Or it may be solved next month, unleashing a flood of denunciations, recriminations, and arrests. When the earthquakes are over, it may not matter. The democracy—however fragile or nascent—may be stronger than that. It may not depend anymore on one man but on the people’s will to govern themselves.