Untimely Deaths in Ukraine

Strange suicides and car crashes among foes of the former regime bring calls for investigations.

By all official accounts, Yuri Kravchenko died by his own hand.

The former Ukrainian interior minister, scheduled to meet in just a few hours with prosecutors to give testimony in a high-profile case of political murder, aimed a gun at his chin and fired, sending a bullet ripping through his cheek and out his upper jaw. Then he aimed it at his temple and fired again.

Suicide, government investigators ruled.

Exactly 13.1% of Ukrainians who responded to a Kiev Post Internet poll believed it was suicide. More than 80% thought Kravchenko was slain this month to prevent him from testifying, possibly implicating former President Leonid D. Kuchma in the decapitation of journalist Georgi Gongadze and other crimes. Many are sure that even if Kravchenko pulled the trigger, he was driven to it by his powerful former friends.

It was also ruled suicide when Transportation Minister Hryhoriy Kirpa, believed to be privy to evidence of large-scale vote-rigging in the fall presidential election, was found shot to death Dec. 27 in his bathhouse.

And when banker Yuriy Lyakh, a business associate of Kuchma's powerful chief of staff, was found dead in his office Dec. 3, stabbed through the neck with a letter opener from his desk, that was a suicide too.

High-profile Ukrainians have come to untimely ends in recent years by hanging themselves from refrigerator doors by their sweaters, swallowing poison and swerving suddenly into oncoming trucks — in fact, more than half a dozen outspoken critics of the Kuchma regime have died in unexplained car crashes. President Viktor Yushchenko nearly died from dioxin poisoning during the election campaign.

Now, with the popular revolution that swept the pro-West Yushchenko into power this year, there are growing demands in parliament to open the files on Ukraine's violent past and determine the fate of dozens of opponents of the former regime whose deaths were dismissed as accidents, suicides or unsolved killings.

Equally strong are demands that Kuchma, the tough-talking post-Soviet leader who accumulated vast power before Ukraine's Orange Revolution swept him and his associates from office, be investigated and tried for what happened during his turbulent reign.

"If Ukraine is to become the 'European' country Yushchenko says it is, it must stop being one … in which skeletons are allowed to rattle eternally in official closets," the Kiev Post editorialized last month. "How can Ukraine move forward if it's weighted down with corpses?"

"Kuchma has committed hideous crimes against the people of Ukraine," said Petro Symonenko, first secretary of the Communist Party. "But I would like to inform you that Kuchma is not going to be held criminally liable. Not a single crime will ever be resolved, for one simple reason: The investigation of these crimes will be a trial of not just Kuchma, but the entire system in this country."

Many are convinced that Yushchenko, whose face is scarred from the poisoning, made a secret pact in the waning hours of the election campaign to allow Kuchma to quietly retire — either to set a precedent for peaceful democratic transition in Ukraine or to protect allies who may have skeletons of their own in Kuchma's closet.

But Ukraine's new leaders insist they are determined to get to the bottom of crimes such as the Gongadze killing and will follow the evidence wherever it leads. There are no deals, Justice Minister Roman Zvarych said in an interview.

"I can respond to this question with absolute certainty. I was Mr. Yushchenko's legal advisor throughout the campaign, and I think I would certainly have been aware … of any assurances, even half-assurances, half-guarantees, nuances or hints that Mr. Yushchenko would have made to Mr. Kuchma. I can tell you that it is impossible."

On Feb. 2, a parliamentary commission presented the country's prosecutor-general with a 26-page report containing what lawmakers claim is evidence that Kuchma and his associates were responsible not only for Gongadze's death but illegal surveillance of political opponents, journalists and nongovernmental organizations, and bribe taking, money laundering and misappropriation that may have reached $10 billion.

Yushchenko made it clear from the beginning that he was going to demand answers for Ukraine's disturbing past, including the 1999 death of popular opposition leader Vyacheslav Chornovil, who was killed when his car crashed into a Kamaz truck blocking the road, not long before his planned run against Kuchma in the presidential campaign.

Ukraine's roads in recent years have also claimed the lives of Valery Malev, Ukraine's former arms export chief, whose car abruptly swerved into a truck in 2002, a few days after tapes secretly recorded by one of Kuchma's bodyguards revealed that he had discussed the export of air defense missiles to Iraq with the president; Anatoly Yermak, a member of the parliamentary committee investigating organized crime and corruption, whose car plummeted off a road in 2003; and opposition politician Oleksander Yemets, who died in 2001 when his car swerved into a ditch.

Who would go to the trouble of staging a car crash? "I asked the very same question to many people," said Chornovil's son, Taras. "The answer was the same: Different security services have different traditions they follow. Here, they have honed their skills of organizing car crashes to such perfection that they prefer this method … even if easier and more obvious methods are available."

Lt. Gen. Oleksander Skipalsky, a former deputy director of the federal security service, or SBU, did not rule out that slayings could have been disguised as traffic accidents. "Of course it's possible," he said in an interview. "As a secret service professional, I can tell you that the most important thing is to formulate the task. And 99% of the time, it will be accomplished."

Kuchma has expressed his sympathy and respect for Vyacheslav Chornovil, and often dismisses as ridiculous the notion that the authorities would resort to violence against political opponents. Before being questioned by the prosecutor-general's office for three hours this month in the Gongadze case, Kuchma said he was ready to answer any questions.

"What motives could I as president possibly have for any actions against Gongadze?" he told reporters. "I did not know him and only saw him once. I didn't even know that he opposed the president. There were lots of other journalists, and you know better than me who kept pestering me."

Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun said Kuchma would be questioned again in the case and insisted that he had reached no secret agreement to protect the former president from prosecution.

For much of the last two weeks, the country has been gripped anew with the 5-year-old Gongadze case, starting with Piskun's move this month to arrest three senior police officers, now charged with the investigative reporter's murder.

That was followed within days by the death of Kravchenko, who is heard on the Kuchma bodyguard's tapes being ordered by Kuchma to "throw out" Gongadze and "give him to the Chechens." His cryptic suicide note raised as many questions as it answered.

"My dear ones, I'm not guilty of anything," he wrote. "Please excuse me. I fell victim to political intrigues of President Leonid Kuchma and his associates. I am departing from you with a clear conscience. Farewell."

The newly appointed SBU chief, Oleksander Turchynov, told reporters that the first bullet from Kravchenko's 9-millimeter Beretta went through his mouth and out his upper jaw, and was "far from being fatal." The second went through his right temple.

Zvarych, the justice minister, has expressed doubt that the former interior minister could have recovered sufficiently from the shock of the first wound to have delivered the second.

"I have certain doubts personally speaking about whether someone can pull the trigger twice in order to commit suicide," he said. "There's this threshold of pain, I think, that one would need to be able to cross in order to be able to do that, something called a 'pain syndrome,' that I think is very difficult to overcome.

"But whether it was suicide or murder, this pattern [of deaths] has begun to emerge as a result of the psychological aftershock that these people [of the former regime] must be dealing with at this point."

Because of the widespread doubts over the announcement that Kravchenko's death was a suicide, Piskun said Friday he was pursuing the investigation as if it were a homicide to make sure any possibility of foul play could be ruled out.

The apparent suicide of Kirpa has also aroused questions and doubts, not least because of the former transport minister's reputation of being a man accustomed to fighting and winning.

According to several journalists and politicians who knew him, Kirpa had a habit of laying a handgun down prominently on his desk when beginning a meeting with an opponent or subordinate. "It's money and fear that rule this world," he would say. "The money is mine. And the fear is yours."

If he died by his own hand, many want to know, what was he afraid of? And how many others are also afraid?

Reviewing the large number of tapes that apparently rest in the hands of Kuchma's bodyguard, now negotiating his return to Ukraine with senior administration officials, could open a Pandora's box, many analysts say.

The current speaker of the parliament, for example, can be heard on the tapes. Symonenko, the Communist Party chief, has publicly wondered whether the tapes might also include conversations between Kuchma and Yushchenko, who was Kuchma's prime minister in 1999.

Viktor Shyshkin, a former judge and prosecutor-general who served on the commission that investigated Gongadze's death, said the public would hold Yushchenko to account for assuring that the Orange Revolution achieves a moral victory, not merely a change of power.

"In a lot of cases, people go out into the streets for economic reasons, when their stomach gets less than it had before. In our case, the locomotive force was our trampled dignity," he said. "So the betrayal of these spiritual values will by no means be forgiven to Yushchenko."

Part of what Yushchenko owes the revolution is holding Kuchma to account, Shyshkin said.

"We're not bloodthirsty. But what is important is to have the Kuchma regime and what it did condemned in court. This is not vengeance. This is justice."

By Kim Murphy Times Staff Writer March 13, 2005 KIEV, Ukraine

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