Whether the Ukrainian president actually ordered the murder of a political nemesis will probably never be proved to anyone's satisfaction. But judging from the demonstrations that have jolted Kiev, the court of public opinion has already declared Leonid Kuchma guilty, though he has denied it vigorously. Last week about 5,000 demonstrators converged on the city center to push for a "Ukraine without Kuchma" in the largest antigovernment rally since Ukraine gained independence 10 years ago--and organizers promised there were bigger ones to come.
Such anti-Kuchma fervor would have been unthinkable a few months ago. In November 1999 Kuchma was re-elected with 56 percent of the vote. He was expecting to cruise through an uneventful five-year term. But that was before journalist Georgy Gongadze, editor of an Internet news site known for its anti-Kuchma muckraking, disappeared last September under mysterious circumstances. Two months later a headless corpse turned up not far from Kiev. Family members tentatively identified the body as Gongadze's. The police quickly spirited it away and subsequently have refused to let independent investigators examine it.
If that was not enough to feed the conspiracy theorists, members of the opposition published a series of tapes in November that allegedly reveal Kuchma and some of his aides discussing how to get Gongadze out of the way. In profanity-laden conversations, the speakers complain about Gongadze's publications ("He's simply gone too far already") and muse about "how to get rid of him." Until recently government officials had denied the authenticity of the tapes, and threatened legal action against the former secret-service officer who said he made them. But last week, for the first time, government prosecutors admitted that the tapes were indeed made in Kuchma's office--while insisting that they were essentially fakes, a montage of random words and phrases from the president and his cohorts.
Most local observers believe Kuchma can survive the scandal. The president is not under investigation--and his political foes don't seem able to capitalize on his woes. "There is a real alternative [to Kuchma] under one condition: that national democratic forces unite," says political activist Andriy Stetsky. That's exactly what the anti-Kuchma forces have never managed to do.
The opposition was encouraged last week when the European Union called on the government to ensure a transparent investigation into Gongadze's disappearance and to protect press freedom. But most Ukrainians don't expect either. "I just want to leave Ukraine after what happened to my friend," says photographer Serhiy Smirnov. "If I get the slightest chance, I'll leave. Because things can only get worse now." After last week's protests, Kuchma must be hoping they don't.