Viktor Yanukovych, Pandora’s Box and the Moscow Orchestra


It is clear Viktor Yanukovych's recent moves against his predecessor Leonid Kuchma were driven by not by justice, but a mixture of revenge, intimidation and diversion. The Ukrainian President may well discover that his ulterior strategies are flawed, and that he is simply playing into the hands of his Moscow handlers, writes Mykola Riabchuk.

Mykola Riabchuk
16 April 2011

On February 25, on the first anniversary of his presidency, Viktor Yanukovych invited his three predecessors to his office to “discuss current issues and the future development of the Ukrainian state”. This brief item of information on the president’s official website was illustrated with a photo of the smiling participants at the meeting—Viktor Yushchenko on the left, Leonid Kravchuk on the right, and Leonid Kuchma across the round-table from the incumbent. None of them, with the exception probably of the host, realized that behind its cheerful façade, the meeting resembled one of those Byzantine banquets that would end with the poisoning, slaughtering, or impaling of the distinguished guests.


When the four post-Soviet Ukrainian presidents met
for a banquet in February, only Yanukovych could have
imagined things would end, in Byzantine fashion, with
the metaphorical poisoning of guest Leonid Kuchma

A month later, one of the participants of the meeting, ex-president Leonid Kuchma, began to understand that metaphor. On March 24, he was summoned for interrogation to the prosecutor’s office, charged with the abuse of power and implicated in the killing of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze back in September 2000. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, where the judiciary is just a part of the executive fully subordinated to the president, and where the Prosecutor General is his bosom buddy (“a member of president’s team,” as he characterized himself proudly in public), hardly anyone believes that the case against Leonid Kuchma was launched without the direct blessing of Yanukovych.

Speculation revolves mostly around the question why Yanukovych has made this dubious step and what consequences may follow. The alleged reasons typically include Yanukovych’s desire to divert public attention from his domestic and international failures, to disprove accusations against his government about selective justice, and to intimidate opponents and mobilize supporters by proving that the president is tough but just.

Journalist Yulia Mostova highlighted another reason why Yanukovych might want to prosecute Kuchma: revenge for the perceived humiliation during the Orange Revolution, when the incumbent refused to use force against the protesters and pass on the office to the president-elect, opting instead for negotiation and compromise that ended up with the repeated second round of the election and Yanukovych’s defeat. If the price of becoming the pick-up successor to Leonid Kuchma was 400 million thanks, as Mostova implies, the reasons for revenge might be even more serious (link in Ukrainian).

Remarkably, not a single expert or commentator expressed the opinion that Yanukovych was driven in his decision by some idealistic desire for justice or the practical need for house-cleaning. In view of all Yanukovych’s other deeds, it is really difficult to sell such a nice story to anyone, either at home or abroad. This does not preclude, however, a smart usage of all these arguments by some people around Yanukovych to persuade him to launch the case against Leonid Kuchma. This might well be in the interests of these people but is hardly in the interests of Yanukovych himself for the following reasons.

First, because the propaganda effect of this step, in terms of positive image-building for Yanukovych, is negligible. No one considers it an act of justice and proof of the equality of all Ukrainian citizens before the law. All the policies of Ukrainian authorities suggest the opposite from all regions and walks of life – every day and every hour.

Second, Kuchma can hardly be sentenced by any court, however “executive” they are in Ukraine, because all the people to whom he may have given a direct order (or “suggestion”) to kill Gongadze, are dead and would not be able to testify. And the records, presumably gathered from the tape recordings by Kuchma’s guard Mykola Melnychenko, even if accepted as evidence (that itself is very problematic), do not contain any direct order to carry out murder.

Third and most important, by initiating the murder case, Yanukovych very unwisely draws public attention to his own conversations with Kuchma recorded by Melnychenko, which are not just deplorable but definitely merit a criminal investigation (intimidation of judges, blackmail, bribery, large-scale corruption, etc). Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin, who mentioned Melnychenko’s records among the possible evidence against Kuchma, has inadvertently opened a Pandora’s box since this very evidence could be used against dozens of Ukrainian officials who discussed a variety of criminal plans with Kuchma. (Almost all are alive and well, and now follow their new master, Yanukovych). There is little surprise that opposition MP Yuri Hrymchak has already submitted an official request to the Prosecutor General demanding an investigation of many more episodes recorded by Melnychenko that testify to criminal conspiracy and activity of other members of Kuchma’s team, including current Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Yanukovych himself.

And, finally, Yanukovych apparently has created the precedent of prosecuting ex-presidents that may eventually be applied against him (at least as a tool of psychological pressure and possible blackmail) .

So, if the trial does not serve reliably Yanukovych’s personal interests and if the public interests are not, in principle, his concern, the question arises who is most likely to benefit from the dubious special operation and how?

Dr. Andrij Zhalko-Tytarenko, former head of the Ukrainian Space Agency and the former Ukrainian Director of the Science and Technology Center of Ukraine in Kyiv, considers the entire “Melnychenko affair” (“Kuchma-gate”) a provocation of the Russian secret services aimed at establishing full control over Leonid Kuchma. The theory is barely new since many experts have argued that Kuchma had no real reasons to physically destroy Gongadze and that he was merely framed by some powerful and influential enemies seeking to compromise him. The only weak element in this theory is the involvement of the leading Ukrainian police officers, including the late Minister of Interior Yury Kravchenko, in Gongadze’s abduction and killing. None would have dared to play into Russian hands without blessing from above—if not from Kuchma, at least from the minister who may have acted (or pretended to act) on Kuchma’s behalf. He could probably have done so only with a clear perspective to replace Kuchma as president, which seems very unlikely under those circumstances.

Zhalko-Tytarenko hypothesizes that the current re-launch of the Gongadze case is part of the Russian domestic power game. According to his theory, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev may be planning to run for a second term and needs to convince the two-time former president, Vladimir Putin, not to run. “If Kuchma will face murder charges (it is too late for abuse of power charges), he will have no choice but to provide all the names that he certainly knows from Ukrainian secret service reports.” This may hold a certain grain of truth provided that Melnychenko’s records contain, inter alia, some very unpleasant information for Mr. Putin discovered by the Security Services (SBU) about his connections with the notorious Semion Mogilevich and involvement in laundering drug money through the St.-Petersburg company SPAG.

Zhalko-Tytarenko might be right about Medvedev’s sophistication and even ambitions but hardly about his real influence and use of independent resources to launch such a complicated manipulative game. Rather, the Russian element in the story is simpler and more traditional. The Kremlin people in Yanukovych’s team persuaded him to make one more self-defeating step: exactly in the same way they persuaded him to give ministerial posts to Messrs. Yezhel, Tabachnyk, and Khoroshkovsky, to promote the Russian church in Ukraine at the cost of all other denominations, to suppress the Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, to violate and manipulate the constitution; to make a Russian citizen the head of his bodyguards; to detain one of Angela Merkel’s men at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport on the eve of his own official visit to Germany; and to make many more stupid maneuvers that not a single professional politician would ever commit. The goal of the manipulators is clear: to undermine Yanukovych’s authority, to compromise him both domestically and internationally, and to render him another “Lukashenka”, ostracized by the West and completely dependent on Moscow.

Taras Chornovil, Yanukovych’s former insider, defines these people as the “Moscow Quartet”: Serhy Liovochkin, Valery Khoroshkovsky, Dmytro Firtash, and Yury Boyko. All are reportedly involved in murky gas deals with Russia, fully controlled by Putin and Mogilevich as Gazprom’s shadow owners. We can hardly obtain proof of these speculations but we are likely to see the results of this and many more "special operations” carried out by the “Moscow Orchestra” (rather than a humble “quartet”).

The Kuchma murder case will not end in the foreseeable future, but will rather be used to compromise (and probably to blackmail) the entire “elite,” including Yanukovych himself. This might be well a part of the strategy of “directed chaos” that includes also the creation of fake “nationalist” and “extremist” groups, planting bombs (the explosions at apartment blocks in Russia in 1999 that preceded Putin’s election provide a fitting precedent) and many more. Back in 2004, the Moscow “political technologists” tried to implement such a strategy in Ukraine to promote the candidacy of Leonid Kuchma for a third presidential term. The “directed chaos,” however, veered out of their control and resulted in an authentic mass uprising, i.e. the Orange Revolution. Remarkably, one of the leading Moscow “technologists” of that time, Igor Shuvalov, serves today as an “adviser” to Serhy Liovochkin and, at the same time, to the leading Ukrainian TV channel “Inter” owned—inevitably—by SBU chief Valery Khoroshkovsky.

Besides the clear political goal—to strengthen the authoritarian power of a rogue president completely dependent on Moscow—the team may pursue a more practical and palpable goal: to eliminate as many political-cum-economic players as possible from the forthcoming privatization of Ukraine’s last asset, its arable land (the protracted moratorium on its sale is expected to be lifted at the appropriate moment).

In a recent interview (in Ukrainian), Leonid Kravchuk, a former communist apparatchik and perhaps the smartest of all Ukrainian presidents, suggested that: “the system has already gnawed away Yanukovych’s legs and is approaching his belly.” So, he must “either destroy the system or concentrate all power in his hands and become a totalitarian leader”. The latter, Kravchuk believes, is unlikely because Ukrainians would not accept it. He may be right but the problem is that Yanukovych is listening not to Ukraine’s first president, but rather to the Moscow Orchestra.

This article first appeared on David Marples' blog on contemporary Ukrainian politics, here

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