Ukraine: don’t ask who killed Georgiy Gongadze

Ten years ago Ukrainian investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze was murdered. Various officials were named as suspects, one of whom died subsequently in unexplained circumstances. The Yanukovych regime’s clampdown on freedom of speech may mean no satisfactory conclusion will ever be reached, explains Alexa Chopivsky

Alexa Chopivsky
28 September 2010

On a September evening in 2000, Ukrainian investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze, 31, the married father of twin three-year-old daughters, left his colleague’s home on a central Kyiv street. He hopped into a car, thinking it was a taxi after the driver offered him a lift and encouraged him to take the back seat. Minutes later, two men jumped into the vehicle, surrounding Gongadze on both sides. A fourth took the front passenger seat and hit Gongadze over the head with a rubber truncheon.


Georgiy Gongadze was a muckraking, enterprising journalist and co-founder of the online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda

Driven to a forest outside Kyiv, his arms and legs tied, a handkerchief stuffed into his mouth, Gongadze was beaten and strangled to death. Fuel was poured over his corpse, which was then set on fire. The next month his body was dug up, beheaded, and reburied, only to be found weeks later by local villagers who stumbled upon a hand protruding upwards from the earth.

Gongadze was a muckraking, enterprising journalist and co-founder of the online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda [Ukrainian Truth, ed]. In the weeks leading up to his death, he complained of being followed. The men who kidnapped him, including Gongadze's alleged killer Police General Olexiy Pukach, were officers from the State Security Service (SBU), Ukraine's successor to the KGB. In 2008 three police officers were convicted of taking part in the murder.  Pukach, arrested in July 2009, is expected to stand trial.

Two weeks ago, the 10th anniversary of the brutal killing, Ukraine's General Prosecutor's office announced the findings of its pre-trial investigation: that then-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko was responsible for issuing the direct orders.

The story, as it happens, is not so straightforward - and is raising more questions than answers in Kyiv. Kravchenko died in March 2005 under mysterious circumstances, an apparent suicide by not one, but two bullets to the head. His body was found the day he was due to appear for questioning about the case. A note allegedly found close to the body said he had "fallen victim to the political intrigues of [then] President [Leonid] Kuchma and his entourage.”

Many in Ukraine claim that the responsibility for Gongadze's killing goes straight to the top and that the now-deceased Kravchenko is a convenient scapegoat for the actual organizers of the crime, some of whom still serve in government. Valentyna Telychenko, lawyer for Gongadze's widow, is currently studying the Prosecutor's report. "I have not yet seen direct evidence that former Minister Kravchenko issued the order to kill Gongadze," she told me recently. "I have no doubt that [former President] Kuchma and [current Speaker of Parliament] Lytvyn and Kravchenko are guilty, because they are at the very least responsible for creating the law enforcement structure used against journalists and opposition politicians."

If Telychenko is right, last week's announcement evidences a growing culture of impunity in Ukraine, which some say partly enabled the presumed murder of Kharkiv journalist Vasily Klementyev, a well-known critic of the authorities, who disappeared on August 11. "It's worrying to see uncomfortable echoes of Gongadze's murder in Klementyev's disappearance," said Andrew Wilson, Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview. "Klementyev was a persistent critic of the government and while it is difficult to say that the regime has had a direct hand in his disappearance, it has certainly created a climate in which the local bad guys felt that taking him out was an option - if that indeed is what happened."

Burns in Kyiv

US Under Secretary of State William Burns meeting reporters in Kyiv. They heard from him that the US had "grounds for concern" about freedom of speech in Ukraine

Restriction on press freedoms since President Viktor Yanukovych took office seven months ago have intensified, following a post-Orange Revolution era which saw Ukraine enjoy more democratic freedoms. Last week's announcement may have a chilling effect on journalists' desires to report on sensitive topics like corruption, spawning an atmosphere which could hamper Ukraine's democratization. US Under Secretary of State William Burns told reporters in Kyiv earlier this month that the US had "grounds for concern" about freedom of speech in Ukraine. "People talk about challenges like fighting corruption," he said. "How can you fight corruption unless you have a media that's independent enough to hold people accountable and cast a spotlight on that kind of behavior?"

Evidence implicates Kravchenko's higher-ups in ordering Gongadze's murder. In November 2000, one of Kuchma's bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko, disclosed secretly recorded tapes which allegedly revealed the voices of Kuchma and some of his ministers, including head of the president's administration Volodymyr Lytvyn - today, the Speaker of the Parliament.  On at least five occasions they discussed following Gongadze closely, "crushing him," "taking care of" him, and "throwing him to the Chechens." Lytvyn allegedly suggested that Kuchma "let loose [Interior Minister] Kravchenko to use alternative methods." The implicated men all dispute the authenticity of the recordings. In 2002 Bruce Koenig, founder of American forensic specialist firm Bek Tek and formerly supervisor of the FBI's audio/video forensic laboratory, inspected the tapes and concluded that they had not been doctored. Conflicting conclusions from various Ukrainian and international tests have ultimately rendered the tapes' authenticity inconclusive.

In the meantime, Ukraine's president ducked last week's news. Rather than use the ten-year-anniversary of Gongadze's murder to mark the somber occasion or pledge support for Ukraine's  commitment to press freedoms, Yanukovych, Kuchma's prime minister and protege, did not comment. He did, however, find time to send condolences to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on his country's plane crash earlier that week.  Yanukovych also instructed Ukraine's Congress of Judges in the ways of integrity. "In a state which aspires to the rule of law, courts must be respected, authoritative, and truly independent," the president declared. He went on to say that "judges must prove to the people of Ukraine by their actions that courts are the way to truth and justice."

The same Prosecutor General's office that issued the finding, meanwhile, is described this month by a European human rights organization as having "extensive powers" which are "not controlled or supervised by the court system" and which "far exceed European norms." The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly stated in a September report that "a crucial shortcoming in the current system is the general oversight function of the Prosecutor General, which is a remnant of the Soviet concept of the [Prosecutor] and is contrary to European standards and values." The report also calls the justice system "heavily politicized."

For their part, Kuchma and Lytvyn welcomed the announcement, effectively, as an exoneration, although Lytvyn conceded that "very influential people, including, obviously, those in Ukraine" were behind the killing of the journalist. "The investigation confirmed my innocence in this case, despite the fact that efforts have been, are being and will be taken to make me practically the main person accused [of killing the journalist]," he said.

Kuchma, in turn, put the blame on "an international scandal designed to compromise Ukraine," saying foreign secret services were involved in Gongadze's disappearance. He added that CIA agents were present at anti-presidential demonstrations in the wake of Gongadze's disappearance. Serhiy Lyovochkin, Yanukovych's chief of staff and Kuchma's former top aide, added flames to this fire by saying that his former boss must have had reason to suggest that foreign intelligence officers were involved in the murder. "Kuchma is a politician with a vast amount of experience. He likely had grounds to declare so."

US Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft called Kuchma's implied allegation that the US was behind Gongadze's murder "clearly absurd," saying in an interview that "the United States has consistently supported freedom of the press and rule of law in Ukraine and everywhere in the former Soviet Union." He added, "there's no basis to [this allegation] at all."

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor's findings, which are due to be followed by a trial, continue to be questioned. "It is extremely convenient to put the entire blame for this murder on Yuri Kravchenko, who is dead, and to say the case is solved," wrote Valery Kalnysh, deputy editor of Kommersant Ukraina. "But what did the interior minister have against the journalist? Nothing. I assume he was acting on orders."

Gongadze's mother, Lesya Gongadze, was similarly sceptical. "The only thing that interests the country's new authorities is demonstrating to the international community that they have solved the case."

Will the international community push back? It's too soon to tell. The OSCE's Media Freedom chief, Dunja Mijatovic, visits Kyiv on a fact-finding trip next month. Viktoria Syumar, Executive Director of the Institute for Mass Information, told me that Ukraine needs active, pragmatic support from the West, not just words. "In reality, the [Ukrainian] authorities ignore all of our statements and recommendations. Now, the media has a pro-government position which means we have no outlet for our work," she said.

Gongadze death anniversary

10th anniversary of Gongadze's disappearance. Journalists, NGO workers and other supporters gathered on Maidan square, site of Ukraine's 2005 Orange Revolution, holding candles in support of the murdered journalist.

Some worry that recent clampdowns on democratic freedoms in Ukraine, including lingering questions in connection with the Gongadze case, might be overlooked in exchange for political stability -  a condition critics say Ukraine lacked during the Yushchenko presidency's five years of political infighting. "Yanukovych is pushing a kind of authoritarianism-lite at the moment and he's calculating that the Europeans and other leaders will turn a blind eye to it and not interfere because the alternative would be a return to the chaos and infighting of the Orange coalition," said Wilson.

On 16 September, the evening of the 10th anniversary of Gongadze's disappearance, 150 journalists, NGO workers and other supporters gathered on Maidan square, site of Ukraine's 2005 Orange Revolution, holding candles in support of the murdered journalist. Signs depicting Gongadze's blacked-out silhouette, inscribed, "Ukraine, are you not ashamed?" dotted the crowd. The group slowly processed up one of Kyiv's series of famous hills to Bankova Street, seat of the Presidential Administration where - just two hours short of the exact hour of Gongadze's disappearance - they chanted words of support for their murdered colleague.

Said Veronika Prohkyra, an NGO worker, "the people in power want to blame Gongadze's murder on a dead person. And we don't buy it."

Alexa Chopivsky, formerly with NBC News, is a journalist based in Kyiv.

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