March 28, 2001 -- The mystery surrounding a headless body found in the woods outside Kiev has created a dark cloud over the Ukrainian head of state.
President Leonid Kuchma has been caught up in the storm around the body, believed to be that of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, ever since a former presidential security officer now in hiding in Europe announced he had tape recordings of the president talking about getting rid of the reporter.
But more than four months after the body was found, it has not been conclusively identified, and the integrity of the tapes has been questioned — though Kuchma has admitted the voices on them are his and those of some of his top staff members. He contends the tapes have been doctored to make it seem he was ordering Gongadze's murder.
Gongadze, the editor of an opposition news Web site, Ukrainska Pravda (www.pravda.com.ua), disappeared in September. In November, a headless body was found near Kiev. It was so disfigured and decomposed, neither Gongadze's wife or mother could identify him.
DNA tests indicated it could be Gongadze, and an autopsy determined that one of the last things the man ate was watermelon, which Gongadze's mother said she and her son had eaten just before he disappeared.
But Ukrainian coroners have not even been able to determine the cause of death. Their most recent statement, late last week, was that the man was killed but it hadn't been determined whether he was shot, strangled or beaten to death.
A vocal though disorganized opposition movement has formed, "Ukraine Without Kuchma." Though most demonstrations have been small, a protest on March 9 at a public ceremony attended by Kuchma began with a crowd of fewer than 3,000 but swelled to more than 10,000 when the protesters marched across the city from Shevchenko Park to the government building.
That rally ended with a violent clash with police, who finally broke it up with tear gas, but only after dozens of people on both sides were injured.
Calls for Help
With so many questions left unanswered the public is questioning Kuchma's involvement and calling for his resignation. Ukrainian leaders and politicians have begun to look beyond the border — and beyond government agencies — for help finding answers.
Kuchma recently asked the FBI to perform DNA analysis on the body, but tests on one sample, carried out earlier this month, were inconclusive and FBI experts told Ukrainian officials they needed another DNA sample from the body to make a definitive determination on whether it was Gongadze, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said. The FBI has yet to receive a response or any new request from Kuchma, the spokesman said.
In the last week, two private detective agencies — the New York-based Kroll agency, and a Russian firm, Azure — have taken on the case, both invited by leading Ukrainian politicians who are also Kuchma supporters.
Kroll, which is known primarily for its corporate work, was contacted by Serhiy Tyhypko, the leader of the Labor Ukraine party. Michael Cherkasky, president and CEO of Kroll, said he expects to have an answer to the question of what happened to Gongadze in three months.
"What we've been assured by Labor Ukraine and by President Kuchma is that we will be able to conduct an independent investigation, and they will be as cooperative as they can be under Ukrainian law," Cherkasky said. "It's very classically a murder case. There are people who will be cooperative and people who won't want to be."
Valeriy Pustovoitenko, a former prime minister, announced Monday that the Russian firm would be tackling the case.
Andrei Konstantinov, the president of Azure, said that from a preliminary examination of the case he is inclined to believe that Gongadze's murder was politically motivated, but he also said that for the investigation to be successful, it could not involve politics.
Though Kuchma has repeatedly denied the scandal was having any effect on him, on Monday he fired Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and replaced him with Kiev police chief Yuriy Smirnov.
Opposition leaders have long demanded that Kuchma dump Kravchenko, who plays a prominent role on the tapes, but Smirnov is considered responsible for the violent crackdown on a "Ukraine Without Kuchma" tent city in Kiev's central Independence Square, and on the March 9 demonstration.
The scandal has managed to bring together much of Ukraine's fragmented opposition, with ultra-nationalists, socialists and human rights advocates finding common ground in the desire to see Kuchma out.
But the Communist Party, the largest single party in the country, has not joined the movement, though the party leader, Petro Symonenko, who lost to Kuchma in a runoff in the 1999 presidential race, reportedly has been quietly pressuring Kuchma to resign.
‘Get Him Out of Here’
In late November, the tapes surfaced. The most damning minutes appear to be Kuchma talking to former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and chief of staff Volodymyr Lytvyn, trying to decide to whom to give a secret order to deal with Gongadze.
"I'm, we're working on him," Kravchenko says in one section.
"I'm telling you, drive him out, throw [him] out," Kuchma replies. "Give him to the Chechens ... and then a ransom."
"We'll think it through," Kravchenko says. "We'll do it."
"Get him out of here," Kuchma says. "Strip him, [expletive] leave him without his pants, let him sit there. I'd do it simply [expletive]."
"Today they reported to me. We're working on it a little, we need to learn a little more. We'll do it," Kravchenko says. "I have right now a fighting team, such eagles, who do everything that you want. That's the situation at present."
In another section Kravchenko appears to be describing a plan to kill member of parliament Serhiy Holovatiy, a former justice minister who has been Kuchma's most outspoken critic among Ukraine's democratic politicians. The plan seems to call for using a prostitute to lure Holovatiy into a situation where he can be murdered.
"I want to khlopnut [kill, murder] him," Kravchenko says. "I want to pop him straight and simple."
In another, Kuchma complains to Lytvyn about the Georgian ambassador to Ukraine, who apparently had been raising questions about the fate of Gongadze, an ethnic Georgian. Kuchma apparently says he will call Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze "to remove him the hell out of here."
In two phone conversations the voice believed to be Kuchma's tells Security Service Chief Leonid Derkach to bring pressure on local politicians to shut down a newspaper in Poltava that printed cartoons of the president, and in another conversation Kravechenko seems to relate how a man who was distributing anti-government leaflets was tortured and had his house burned down. Kuchma and Kravchenko are recorded laughing about it.
The dialogues on the tapes are full of obscenities and crude language, which Kuchma said was because they record private conversations that were not intended to be heard outside of that room.
Reporters from Sans Frontieres, an international journalist defense group that has long criticized Kuchma as an enemy of the free press, reported numerous incidents of alleged government harassment of media attempting to cover developments in the case.