KIEV, Ukraine -- The gruesome murder of Georgi Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist who was abducted by the police, beheaded and dumped in woods outside Kiev 11 years ago, seemed more a demonstrative punishment than a plan to silence a critical journalist.
It was treated as a political symbol, not just a crime. Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s president at the time, lost first his reputation and ultimately his job over the murder. He was allegedly implicated in tapes secretly made by his bodyguard, although he insists they were doctored.
The murder inspired a popular movement against Mr Kuchma in 2000 that became a precursor to the “orange revolution” of 2004. Viktor Yushchenko, who was swept to power then, pledged to bring the people behind Mr Gongadze’s murder to justice.
But, like so many of his pledges, this one disappeared. Things got more mysterious in 2005 when a former interior minister, suspected of ordering the murder, shot himself in the head — twice!
On March 24th Ukrainian prosecutors charged Mr Kuchma with involvement in the murder. Few Ukrainians, apparently including Mr Gongadze’s relatives, believe that Mr Kuchma actually ordered the killing.
But he did create an atmosphere in which a murder could take place and not be properly investigated. Ukrainians are divided over whether he will ever come to trial. But they agree that this case is not about justice so much as Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s current president.
Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the main opposition party, argues that Mr Kuchma’s arrest is no more than a PR stunt designed to distract people from their economic woes and to prop up Mr Yanukovich’s sagging popularity.
“In a month the whole thing will turn into smoke. The question is whether there are enough former presidents [to bring charges against] to cover up for his own failures,” she says. Ms Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is herself under investigation for alleged abuses of office.
The charges against Mr Kuchma may be designed to show that the law has not been applied selectively. Or Mr Yanukovich could be driven by the desire for revenge on Mr Kuchma, who has often humiliated him and who refused to use force to stop the orange uprising in 2004.
Mr Yanukovich’s “display of justice” could also be aimed at winning credit from the West, which has criticised him for usurping power and squeezing out democracy.
Mr Kuchma has hired Alan Dershowitz, a prominent American lawyer and Harvard professor, to argue his case not so much in the Ukrainian courts but in the eyes of Western governments. Mr Dershowitz says that “cases which are brought to show off the system will always bring unjust results.”
Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, a weekly, compares Mr Yanukovich’s government to a hot-air balloon that is starting to lose heat. “He needs to get rid of extra weight, and is starting to throw some extraneous people overboard.” Mr Kuchma may be only the first of several high-profile sacrifices.
None of this will affect the corruption and redistribution of assets going on in Ukraine, or break the nexus between political power and business. Nor will it improve the living standards of ordinary citizens.
What it may do is empower the security services and prosecutors, giving Mr Yanukovich and his henchmen even more reason to stay in power as long as they possibly can.