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Corruption "A Function of the State" in Kuchma's Ukraine, Expert Says

(Washington, DC--April 29, 2005) During its short term in office, the new pro-reform government of Ukraine has moved quickly and aggressively to root out widespread corruption in the country, according to an expert on Ukraine. Roman Kupchinsky, Coordinator of Corruption Studies for RFE/RL, told a recent briefing audience that the large number of high-level cases reveals the staggering range and scale of corruption in Ukraine. The criminal prosecutions demonstrate, Kupchinsky said, that "corruption was the function of the state."

When discussing corruption during his campaign for the presidency last winter, current Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko vowed to "lock up the criminals." Kupchinsky noted, however, that the government's ability to meet this promise may be more difficult than anticipated, because many of the criminal activities "may be linked to leadership in Russia." Since Russia does not extradite its citizens for trial, Ukrainian prosecutors and courts may ultimately be stymied. Nonetheless, Kupchinsky thinks that the prosecutions will proceed. "The Ukrainian street wants blood," he said, "It believes that the root of corruption was [former President Leonid] Kuchma," and other officials within his regime.

"Everything exploded with the departure of the Kuchma regime," Kupchinsky said, when reviewing the criminal cases brought within the last two months. One example noted by Kupchinsky was the Georgiy Gongadze case, which has galvanized the opposition to Kuchma since the young journalist's decapitated body was found in fall 2000. The case to prosecute his kidnappers and murderers in part revolves around secret recordings made by Mykola Melnychenko, the former head of former President Kuchma's bodyguard detail. Kupchinsky said that, "if accepted as genuine by the Ukrainian courts, these recordings will open a huge Pandora's box" that could provide evidence to charge Kuchma, at the least, "as an accessory to kidnapping in the Gongadze murder." The case has already seen the death of a key witness, former Minister of Interior Yuriy Kravchenko, of an apparent suicide on the day he was to be interrogated by the prosecutor in the Gongadze case, Kupchinsky said.

Other cases brought by Ukraine's Prosecutor General include the arrest on extortion charges of Boris Kolesnikov, the head of the county council of the Donetsk region and a political ally of the defeated presidential candidate former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Kupchinsky said that Kolesnikov's arrest "might destroy the chances of the [new] opposition in the 2006 parliamentary elections," which Kolesnikov had hoped to lead and would have far-reaching effects for other corruption cases. The investigation into the poisoning of then-candidate Yushchenko now includes named suspects who belong to the Russian Club in Kyiv and have links to neighboring Russia, Kupchinsky said.

Prosecutors have also announced indictments in cases of large scale money laundering, fraud, the misappropriation of international loans and government subsidies, as well as illegal privatizations conducted without public tenders or rigged tenders during the Kuchma era. Kupchinsky said there will also be "blowback" from the investigation of various "[natural] gas schemes" that made available over $600 million dollars for influence peddling and illegal campaign slush funds.

The proliferation of criminal cases opened by Ukraine's Prosecutor General has convinced Kupchinsky that his own earlier research on the extent of corruption in Ukraine "far underestimated the reality of what is being discovered today." Even so, he believes enough progress will be made rooting out corruption that the critical 2006 parliamentary elections will be difficult to undermine or "falsify." The "overall climate in Ukraine is changing for the better," Kupchinsky said.