The Georgiy Gongadze Assassination
The Georgiy Gongadze Assassination
President Richard Nixon lived a long and interesting life. But he has gone down in American history primarily as the evil genius behind the Watergate affair, which precipitated his resignation. The Girl in Kherson. President Leonid Kuchma did not resign, though his entire second term was overshadowed by the Georgiy Gongadze murder case.
Journalist and media owner Georgiy Gongadze disappeared late in the evening of September 16, 2000. After preparing the latest issue of internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth). Gongadze disappeared on his way home. Nobody saw him again. Much later it transpired that the journalist had been killed on September 17. His decapitated body was found on November 2 in the Taraschansky woods about 100 kilometers from Kyiv.
Gongadze was born on May 1, 1969, in Tbilisi to the family of Georgian dissident and filmmaker Ruslan Gongadze and Ukrainian Lesya Gongadze (Korchak). Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, he was drafted into the army and served in Afghanistan. Following his father’s example, Gongadze joined the opposition movement, heading the information center of the Georgian Popular Front. In 1989, he moved to Ukraine to his mother’s hometown of Lviv (near Poland). After his father’s death, Georgi joined the rebel army in Abkhazia, made several documentaries about the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, was seriously wounded, and soon returned to Ukraine.
After graduating from the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the Lviv National University, Gongadze became an anchor of TV programs on Lviv television.23 In 2000, he founded Ukrayinska Pravda in which he and editor-in-chief Alyona Pritula sharply criticized the regime of Leonid Kuchma and published sensational materials about the President and his inner circle. The police constantly watched and harassed him and, before his disappearance on July 14, 2000, Gongadze had sent an open letter to Kuchma’s Attorney General Mykhailo Potebenko complaining of being haunded by state officials.
While this was going on, Major Melnychenko was wiretapping the conversations of President Kuchma and his visitors for General Marchuk. Part of the more than 600 hours of recordings was Kuchma’s discussion of the Gongadze case. We know this because Melnychenko left Ukraine and revealed his involvement and that the tapes were in his possession.
On November 28, 2000, Oleksandr Moroz, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada read out excerpts from the “Kuchma tapes” from the rostrum of Ukraine’s parliament. Moroz was the leader of the Socialist party founded by members of Ukraine’s Communist Party after it was banned in 1991 (this “Socialist” party would itself be banned in 2022, after Russia’s invasion).
Moroz accused the President of involvement in the disappearance of the journalist, “We must stop society sliding further into a dark morass of criminality and gangsterism. Therefore, having sufficient grounds to do so, I am forced to make public that the President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma ordered journalist Georgiy Gongadze’s disappearance, someone who systematically criticized him. Kuchma’s Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn was aware of the preparations from the very beginning. The one who executed the order and organized it was Yuriy Kravchenko, the Interior Minister”.
At the press conference that followed, Yuriy Lutsenko, a member of Moroz’s Socialist Party, read out a transcript in which the President asked Minister Kravchenko to “deal with” the journalist.
Yuri Felshtinsky (co-author of this book) was able to obtain the full transcriptions of the Kuchma tapes recorded by Melnychenko, including those that relate to the murder of Gongadze.
Leonid Kuchma and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Head of the Parliamentary Committee on the Freedom of Speech and Press, May 13, 2000
Kuchma: [On the phone] Oh, listen, I’ve been f**king fighting with Zayts for an hour and a half instead of 30 minutes, for f**k’s sake!
Zinchenko: [Enters] May I?
Kuchma: Yes, you f**king saved me, I didn’t know how [to end that call with Zavts], I said: “Let Zinchenko enter.” [Both laugh loudly.]
Zinchenko: Leonid, thank you. Well, if I may, I’ll be very brief. There are a few problems that have cropped up, and a couple of more serious ones which, if you have the time, we will discuss later. As to the run ups, there are two dates: June 6 is Journalists’ Day, and I would make a suggestion to try to initiate, you know, the problem of freedom of speech, journalists and so on. […]
Kuchma: How “freedom of “ gathers together the most, the most opposition journalists – scum. F**k. I’m sorry, there are talented journalists there too. […] And that Georgian is there.
Kuchma: Georgadze, for f**k’s sake.
Recording of Kuchma’s conversation with TV host Vyacheslav Pikhovshek, June 12, 2000
Pikhovshek: I wanted to ask – I don’t know if you saw it – about that story on ORT that Kuchma was elected with the help of criminal elements. I don’t know who is behind it, but if any further information comes out, the press will start reprinting it, bringing up these allegations and so on: there was a meeting of criminal bosses in Kharkiv, and they agreed to support Kuchma in the elections.
Kuchma: Well, you know, it’s absolutely, so to speak…
Pikhovshek: No, I understand, but you have to respond.
Kuchma: Now they will sort it out, so to say. Gongadze is behind those articles in Nezavisimaya Gazeta [A Moscow newspaper].
Pikhovshek: He’s nuts.
Kuchma: But he is being financed. I don’t want to deal with [it] now, they’re double-checking it.
Recording of Kuchma’s conversation with Leonid Derkach, Head of the SBU, June 12, 2000
Derkach: So, Leonid, I’ll leave it to you, right?
Kuchma: Leave it to me.
Derkach: And one more thing. Why don’t you read this for a few minutes. Read it. This is the man who is behind the article that the next Ukrainian Putin is Derkach. The whole thing, it’s Gongadze.
Derkach: Yes, yes.
Kuchma: So you can trace him,… to this very piece?
Derkach: He’ll be f**ked. I’m going to f**k him up till the end. [Rada deputy Mykhailo] Brodsky gave him the f**king money.
Derkach: Brodsky gave him the money […] So, the fact is that he wrote this article. F**k it, it’s all bullshit, we don’t need this. But here’s the thing [Derkach quickly flips through documents, speaks a few words inaudibly] here he wrote such libel against you, that it’s like you and I are on each other [one word unintelligible]. Well, don’t read it, it’s stupid shit. His internet newspaper is behind it. We’re going to make him pay for it this time. […]
Kuchma: Gongadze! All right, I’ll read it. Well, properly deal with him, he’s total scum.
Derkach: Let’s put Gongadze in his place.
Recording of Kuchma’s conversation with the Head of the SBU Derkach, June 22, 2000.
Kuchma: Okay. So you are definitely sure that Georgadze, this Georgian, Georgadze is f**king financed by Brodsky, right?
Derkach: Well, that is our information. I say, we nailed him, but something, completely…
Kuchma: Should I tell Medvedchuk [First Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada and chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDPU), and a close friend of Vladimir Putin]: “Why the f**k are you allowing Brodsky to help Georgadze.”
Recording of a conference call between Kuchma and his Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn and an unknown person, July 3, 2000
Kuchma: Good day.
Lytvyn: Good afternoon.
Kuchma: Give me that one, from Ukrayinska Pravda. When you decide what to do with him let me know. He has completely lost it.
Lytvyn: I need a case.
Lytvyn: I need a case.
Kuchma: Okay. […]
[Two people enter the office, ostensibly, Lytvyn and the unknown.]
Unidentified man [with a Georgian/Chechen accent]: May I, please?
[Kuchma goes through papers.]
Kuchma: Ukrayinska Pravda – they are a f**king nightmare, of course, I looked him up. F**king bastard. He is Georgian, this Georgian.
Lytvyn: Gongadze or what’s his name?
Kuchma: Gongadze. Well, who is financing him?
Lytvyn: Well, he actively cooperates with Moroz […]
Kuchma: Let’s haul him before a judge, let the lawyers deal with him… Yes, sue? That’s what our Attorney General’s office should do, right?
Lytvyn: I think we should order [Interior Minister] Kravchenko to use alternative methods.
Unknown: No, tell Kravchenko to talk to me. […]
Kuchma: Well, are there any f**king measures taken against him, this f**king c***t.
Lytvyn: He should now…
Kuchma: Deport him, deport him to f**king Georgia and throw him the f**k out. Take him to Georgia and get rid of him there.
Lytvyn: I have already discussed this with someone.
Kuchma: Chechens have to kidnap him and demand a ransom…
Unknown: Precisely, that’s what we should do.
A recording of Kuchma’s conversation with Interior Minister Kravchenko, July 3, 2000
Kuchma: Before I forget. There is Gongadze.
Kravchenko: I remember that name.
Kuchma: Well, he’s a f**king scumbag of the highest order.
Kravchenko: Gongadze? He’s already on our radar.
Kuchma: So, he writes all the time for Ukrayinska Pravda – and he fills the internet. Do you understand?
Kuchma: Well, who exactly finances him?
Kravchenko: Danilovych [Kuchma], well, I know what to do…
Kuchma: And the main thing is that he, I say, well not me, but Volodya [Lytvyn] says, we need the Chechens to kidnap him and smuggle him to Chechnya. What the f**k. And have them ask for a ransom.
Kravchenko: Well, we have him somewhere… I’ll tell you: we have great people who will sort it out, still no – does he not go anywhere…
Kuchma: Well, should he be deported to Georgia and left there?
Kravchenko: Yes I will figure it out, I will figure it out.
Kuchma: […] And Gongadze, apart from the fact that he cooperates with Moroz, he writes for Moroz in his Hrania newspaper… They all… finance him… Brodsky…
Kravchenko: Well, he’s such a sh*t media whore that could well be the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has connections with socialists as well, that’s what… Danilovych, well we’ll deal with him here, I think it’s…
Kuchma: And Brodsky is Medvedchuk’s and Surkis’ [nicknamed ‘Kyiv’s Surkis and Co’ after two oligarch brothers], more Surkis’ really.
Kravchenko: Well, it is 100 percent certain that they are connected.
Kuchma: No, so now they… I remember the fight for ownership of the Kyiv newspaper. Surkis – I was on to that f**king Jew… I just read some of their conversations.
Recorded conversation between Leonid Kuchma and Head of the SBU Derkach, July 3, 2000
Kuchma: Hello to you! How did you find out? I just read it, so Ukrayinska Pravda…
Derkach: Ah! It’s that son of a bitch… We are listening to him on all channels, we identified all his connections and he went to Moroz just now.
Kuchma: I also heard that he was with Moroz.
Recording of Kuchma’s conversation with Interior Minister Kravchenko, July 10, 2000
Kuchma: Let’s not forget about this Georgian…
Kravchenko: Yes, we are working on it. I mean…
Kuchma: I say: get rid of him, kidnap him, give him to the Chechens, let them demand ransom.
Kravchenko: We will think it over. We will deal with it in the best way possible.
Kuchma: Or take him there, take his clothes off, leave him without his f**king pants, and let him sit there, asshole.
Kravchenko: We will do…
Kuchma: He’s just a f**king asshole…
Kravchenko: My team reported to me today, we’re setting up surveillance of him. We shadow where he goes, how he travels. We have to study him a little bit, a little bit, and then we’ll do it. I’ve got a special ops team ready, they will do anything you want, Danylovych, so there. […]
Recording of Leonid Kuchma’s conversation with Interior Minister Kravchenko, August 30, 2000
Kravchenko: For three days I have been feeling like death. My elbow also hurts. I must have something with my joints. Leonid, what’s new. So…
Kuchma: Is Gongadze f**king dealt with?
Kravchenko: The day after tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. We got [one word unintelligible] there today.
Kuchma: Are they watching [Rada deputy Sergey] Golovaty?
Kravchenko: Yes, they are! They found out about two or three of his associates. I want to punch him on the… So they found two dachas, where they… Two guys are watching him. I just want to confront him, head-on, that’s the best way, and then… All the things they’ve been instructed to do, it’s getting results. Well, I think that Gongadze’s… Well, we’ll see how it pans out. I looked at his materials on the internet. That’s him.
Recording of the conversation between Kuchma and Interior Minister Kravchenko, September 11, 2000
Kuchma: How are you? Please. So that I don’t forget. Gongadze just keeps carrying on.
Kravchenko: Yes, I am aware of it. We made a mistake there.
Kuchma: There’s a team, headed by – he told me his name…
Kravchenko: So [Gongadze] complained to the Attorney General. But I think…
Kravchenko: He did. I messed up a little here. But I am just seeing how it spun out of control. I blame it on the Deputy Chief of the Kyiv police, Opanasenko. Well, that Opanasenko… Well I have a group there – in prison, right? Opanasenko started trying to find out through his own people what kind of cars they use, and he wrote to [Attorney General] Potebenko.
Kuchma: Who? Opanasenko?
Kravchenko: No, no – Gongadze. Well he published number plates that were already withdrawn a year ago. I am changing my tactics a little, because I just want, that’s why I want to remove this Opanasenko. I had my doubts when I was told over there, in Kyrgyzstan, that Opanasenko was interested in these number plates. So I said: “Don’t do anything.” When I got there, they said there was a complaint. I will fix it, Leonid. I’ll fix it! I just don’t want it to go wrong… But it will be done. He writes that it “may be retaliation for his writing”. He’s such a…
Kuchma: But he writes such shit in the Russian media…
Kravchenko: On the internet?
Kuchma: Not to the internet, but yesterday in Russia… […]
Kravchenko: I’m not letting Gongadze off the hook, because for me this issue is already too… There are contacts in his team. I’ve also set up outside surveillance on him now. I want to look into his contacts, what it is…
Kuchma: And Gongadze has a team, thirty or so, penning this shit.
Kravchenko: No, three people. I know who they are. I have all of their names. But I want to start with him. Well, I’ll still see how the Attorney General responds. They’re getting jittery, so I don’t know.
Kuchma: Well, does the Attorney General have to do that for every c***t?
Kravchenko: Well, it’s a legal complaint.
Kuchma: So what – it is just a complaint.
Kravchenko: Well, I’ll see how they will react.
Kuchma: Why does every shithead write to the Attorney General?
For all the accusations against President Kuchma made in the Verkhovna Rada by Moroz, it should be pointed out that the tapes themselves do not unambiguously prove that President Kuchma gave the order to kill Georgiy Gongadze. It is impossible to conclude with certainty from the recordings that Kuchma was involved in the actual murder. Almost all the recordings in the office of the Ukrainian President were of extremely poor quality and had to be deciphered by specialists, and despite the efforts made, many texts could not be transcribed. The incompleteness of phrases and not always clear meaning is not due to mistranslation from Ukrainian or “surzhyk” (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian), the language used in Kuchma’s office, but is, unfortunately, evidence of the poor level of the original recording.
Undoubtedly, however, Kuchma hated Gongadze and he did order his Interior Minister to harass the journalist. His inflammatory remarks might also have been perceived by subordinates as an unspoken instruction to punish or even kill the dissident.24
But, with hindsight of the KGB’s attempt to capture the Ukraine Presidency at the same time as the Russian Presidency, another point needs to be considered. General Marchuk told Melnychenko to wiretap Kuchma, but also told him to stop shortly after the body was found. In other words, Kuchma was being recorded exactly until enough compromising material had been gathered. After Gongadze’s murder, the people who controlled the recordings considered their work complete: Kuchma was tainted. One high-profile murder was sufficient for their ends and so in October 2000, wiretapping of the Ukrainian President’s office was no longer needed.
The last recorded conversations concerning Gongadze belonged to the period when the journalist had already been kidnapped and murdered. The people who discussed Gongadze in Kuchma’s office, including Kuchma himself, Derkach, Kravchenko and others, did not appear to know that Gongadze was dead already. There is no suggestion of this in the recordings made after September 16, 2000.25
Having been fed Gongadze’s articles, Kuchma obliged, however, by raging on tape about the journalist. The simultaneous disappearance (and murder) of Gongadze and publication of the tapes before the elections, created the perfect plank for ousting him through blackmail.
As we know, it didn’t work. Kuchma had no intention of yielding power to the KGB and Marchuk. But when Gongadze’s body was found in November 2000, the country was ready to explode. Public opinion firmly believed that the order to kidnap and brutally murder Gongadze came from Kuchma.
Gongadze’s name was constantly in newspapers or on television programs. Tens of thousands of articles were written. In December mass protests began, initiated by public figures in Ukraine who were outraged by the lawlessness of its government, demanding the resignation of the President, the Interior Minister, the Attorney General, and the Head of the SBU, as well as an independent expert examination of the Gongadze case. The protesters advocated “changing the system of social, economic and political relations in Ukraine,” including the elimination of the system of “Presidential authoritarianism” and the transition to a parliamentary republic. The protest was supported by some 24 political parties, public organizations and movements across the political divides.26 “Kuchmagate” managed to unite into one bloc those who would otherwise be sworn enemies.
Gaining further momentum, on January 30, 2001, the opposition began a second wave of anti-Kuchma demonstrations. A tent city sprang up in Kyiv on Khreshchatyk Avenue – city authorities had started repair works on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) for the anniversary of Ukraine’s independence and where the original tent city had been set up. On February 6, the opening day of the new parliamentary session, the opposition organized a demonstration in the center of Kyiv under the slogan “Ukraine without Kuchma”.
In response, Kuchma’s government went on the offensive. The tent city was attacked by the police; Yulia Tymoshenko was arrested on February 13; and on the same day a “three-way letter” was published – signed President Kuchma, Verkhovna Rada Chairman Ivan Plyusch and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yushchenko – in which they condemned the protesters’ actions and branded them fascists. Yushchenko, of course, had no idea that sometime later he himself, along with some of these “fascists,” would have to lead the opposition movement and overthrow the Kuchma regime. At the end of February, under public pressure, the Attorney General’s Office was forced to recognise Gongadze’s death and open a criminal case investigating “premeditated murder”.
Kuchma said on February 19 that he was ready to swear on the Bible and the Constitution of Ukraine that he did not give an order to kill Gongadze. At the beginning of March, the tent camp on Khreshchatyk Avenue was demolished by the police. On March 6, 2001, the Trudova Ukraina (Labor Ukraine) party, led by Serhiy Tihipko, a close associate of the Kuchma family and Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk, hired US firm Kroll Advisory to conduct an “objective” investigation into the murder and the allegations that Gongadze was killed by order of the Ukrainian President and that he was in some way involved in the murder. Kroll’s experts (as expected) concluded that there were no grounds for the allegations.27
On March 9, there were renewed clashes with the police near the Presidential palace, more than 200 people were arrested, and about fifty28 were convicted of organizing mass disturbances. In spite of this, however, new tent cities were set up in at least 15 regions, which became the focus of protests against the existing regime. In many cities, governors and mayors organized retaliatory rallies in support of Kuchma, but this did not deflate the general anti-Kuchma spirit of the protest movement.
In parallel, the official investigation into Gongadze’s murder continued. Kuchma announced that he was placing the Gongadze case under his personal supervision. At the same time, the Attorney General’s Office tried to mislead the public by claiming that the murder had been committed “out of hooliganism” by two criminals who had died in December 2000. No one believed this, however. Information emerged about the involvement of Interior Ministry officers that, interchangeably, either confirmed or disproved by the investigation.
Finally, on October 22, 2003, Attorney General Svyatoslav Piskun signed an arrest warrant for General Olexiy Pukach, the Head of Surveillance of the Interior Ministry, whose officers had been tracking Gongadze. However, Kuchma did not like this show of “independence” by the Attorney General. On October 28, he decided to dismiss Piskun, and on November 18, the Attorney General was fired together with his deputy. The investigative team in charge of the Gongadze case was re-organized, and the arrested General Pukach was released on November 5 (he would be re-arrested on March 1, 2005).
In June 2004, the British newspaper The Independent published the materials of the investigation, which contained the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Igor Goncharov, deputy head of the Department for Combating Organized Crime of the Kyiv region, arrested in May 2003 on charges of murdering eleven people. He died either from poisoning or from a blow to the head in custody on August 1, 2003. Goncharov claimed that Gongadze’s abduction and murder were carried out by gang members on the orders of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, that is, on the orders of Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, acting on behalf of President Kuchma. Goncharov called his colleague, police officer Yuri Nesterov, a direct participant in the murder. For his part, Nesterov suggested that Gongadze’s murder was a conspiracy by the Russian secret services and that Lieutenant Colonel Goncharov himself took part in this Russian conspiracy aimed at “killing Gongadze and laying the blame for it on Ukrainian President Kuchma”.
On May 22, 2005, Nesterov gave an interview in the program “Closed Zone” with host Vladimir Aryev where he claimed without providing evidence that Goncharov was in fact an FSB agent and that he cooperated with General Marchuk. He also claimed without evidence that Goncharov had Melnychenko’s tapes in his possession even before they were made public by Moroz on November 28, 2000.
On March 1, 2005, the new President, Viktor Yushchenko, who came to power thanks to the Orange Revolution that broke out in part because of the Gongadze murder, announced that the journalist’s killers had been identified. The next day, Svyatoslav Piskun, who had been reinstated as Attorney General, presented the public with all the available information about Gongadze’s murder. He said that four police officers took part in the murder, two of whom had already been arrested, one was in hiding and one was a witness. Piskun said that he knew the names of those who ordered the killing but could not name them yet.
It also became public knowledge that one of the suspects summoned to the Attorney General’s Office was former Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko. His interrogation was scheduled for 10 a.m. on March 4. It never took place. Three hours earlier Kravchenko was found dead with two bullet shots to the head. According to Deputy Attorney General Viktor Shokin it was suicide, despite the fact that there were two shots. He left, however, a suicide note: “My dearly beloved. I am not guilty of anything. Forgive me. I became a victim of the political intrigues of President Kuchma and his entourage. I leave with a clear conscience. Farewell.” Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, nevertheless believed that his successor had been assassinated.