In one of the few events in Ukraine to make news in the Western world during that decade, Yevhen Shcherban, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament from the Donetsk Oblast, president of ATON corporation, and an influential member of the coalition opposed to then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko was shot dead with his wife in November 1996 on the ramp at Donetsk Airport. At the time, speculation ran between blaming Lazarenko and his ally Yulia Tymoshenko, to a power-play for control over Ukraine’s natural gas market, to an unrelated assassination. With the arrest and trial of some of those involved, the issue faded from the headlines.
Now, a wanted fugitive who allegedly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations between then-President Leonid Kuchma and then then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General [Mykhailo] Potebenko, claims that he has proof that Lazarenko ordered the assassination, and Tymoshenko financed it.
Mykola Melnychenko, a former Ukranian State Guard Department Major, has been on a press tour in Washington and on Facebook, where he has lived since gaining political asylum last decade. “I learned of the circumstances of the investigation into this crime from the conversations that I heard in Kuchma’s office. Kuchma had conversations with Ukrainian Prosecutor General [Mykhailo] Potebenko, [Mykola] Obykhod, and others. I have the recordings of these conversations,” Melnychenko said, according to a statement carried by Interfax.
Melnychenko is an odd fellow. His prior fame came exclusively from what are apparently other tapes in the series, which he claims he created by leaving a crude digital Dictaphone under Kuchma’s office couch for days on end. The act, which has raised several logistical questions, apparently came after he became convinced that Kuchma was irretrievably corrupt.
That part, at least, was apparently true.
Melnychenko’s release of many of the other recordings created what Ukrainians call, in their own inimitable way, the Cassette Scandal. (No cassettes were harmed in the making of that scandal; the recordings were released on CDs.) Some of those recordings purported to show Kuchma’s involvement in the abduction and murder of journalist and Kuchma critic Georgiy Gongadze.
The recordings’ authenticity has been in some dispute, though at least one forensic expert claims that they are not altered. Kuchma was charged with Gongadze’s murder in 2011 in part on the strength of those tapes, but a Ukrainian court ruled the recordings inadmissible and cleared Kuchma of the charges.
Kuchma’s indictment was part of current President Viktor Yanukovych’s attempts to introduce at least some semblance of the rule of law into the Ukrainian political class, a demand that the West has made for years, and on which it collectively turned its back after Ukraine convicted former Prime Minister Tymoshenko of abuse of office. Kuchma’s prosecution was also decried as politically motivated and proof of a corrupt court system, then memory-holed when the court acquitted him.
Melnychenko faced criminal prosecution for the release of those tapes early in the last decade, but under the Tymoshenko government that took power in the wake of the Orange Revolution, the case was closed. Yanukovych’s administration re-opened the case, and Melnychenko now faces an outstanding arrest warrant for obstruction of justice and evading arrest.
This makes his offer to turn over the tapes, repeated on Facebook and in his press conference, somewhat surprising. Ukraine has reiterated that his arrest warrant stands.
As this is Ukraine, everything involving Tymoshenko is turned into an attack on Yanukovych by Tymoshenko and her allies. The Batkivshchyna Party, loosely Tymoshenko’s bloc of parties, claims that Yanukovych ordered Melnychenko to forge the tapes. A certain percentage of Ukrainians and Westerners will reflexively believe this, despite the fact that it is Yanukovych’s administration that re-opened the case against Melnychenko after Tymoshenko’s government ordered it closed.
Ukrainian police opened an investigation into Tymoshenko’s and Lazarenko’s involvement, if any, in Shcherban’s murder, spurred in part by Ruslan Shcherban, the dead couple’s son, turning over what he claims is incriminating evidence against Tymoshenko and Lazarenko.
Lazarenko was then Prime Minister of Ukraine and an ally of Tymoshenko’s. Lazarenko is finishing a prison sentence in the United States for money laundering, with an expected release date in November 2012 and an expected, subsequent extradition to Ukraine for other charges immediately thereafter. Although they subsequently fell out, in 1996 they were close allies, and a former U.S. Attorney has identified Tymoshenko as one of the unindicted co-conspirators in Lazarenko’s schemes.
For his part, Melnychenko claims that Oleksandr Tymoshenko, on behalf of the Tymoshenko family, met him in the Czech Republic and attempted to convince him to claim that Yanukovych ordered Shcherban’s execution, and to falsify evidence to that effect. Oleksander Tymoshenko has lived in the Czech Republic since fleeing there last year.
Attempts to contact Melnychenko for this article were unsuccessful, as his phone number has been set not to receive calls, apparently as a result of the publicity he has received over the last several days.
At the time of Shcherban’s execution, Yanukovych was one of his closest allies, and has never been considered a suspect in his murder.