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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 04:12 GMT 05:12 UK
The journalist who changed Ukraine
Street protests
Mr Gongadze's disappearance still fuels protests
It has been two years since Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze went missing, but the country is still rocking from the political crisis triggered on 16 September 2000.

Mr Gongadze, the founder of the crusading web site Ukrayinska Pravda, attacked what he saw as an incompetent and corrupt administration.

His beheaded and acid-laced body was found a few weeks after he disappeared, when the story had long faded from the front pages.

Allegations which emerged soon afterwards that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was implicated in the murder catapulted the story back into the headlines.

It has stayed there ever since, fuelling street protests, reshaping the country's politics and ravaging Ukraine's reputation abroad.

Two years on, the outrage at the murder has dulled, but the resentment of the government it sparked off still endures.

The opposition is marking the anniversary with a nationwide protest campaign calling for the president to be removed.

The investigation

New allegations are still emerging from secret tape recordings made in President Kuchma's office.

The president's former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, says Mr Kuchma's order to "throw Gongadze to the Chechens" is just one of the hundreds of recordings he made secretly over several years.

After months of stonewalling, the government eventually acknowledged that it was Mr Kuchma's voice on the tapes.

It insists, however, that the recordings were doctored in such a way as to put words into the president's mouth.

Georgy Gongadze
Mr Gongadze's death is still a mystery

Few in Ukraine believe that the bungled official investigation will ever move beyond pledges to find the killers.

After almost two years of inquiries managed little except drawing brickbats from the West and Ukraine's opposition, a new team of detectives was appointed.

The new investigators accused their predecessors of incompetence, but they have so far done little to restore public confidence in the inquiry.

After scores of conflicting previous tests a new examination has concluded that the mutilated body belongs to the journalist.

But Mr Gongadze's mother says she is still not sure whose body she will be given to bury.

New authenticity tests on the scandalous recordings have been ordered in an unnamed foreign country.

Critics say, however, that the tests already held in the US by a former FBI expert leave no room for doubt that the records are original.

After repeatedly rejecting Western assistance, the prosecution has asked Washington to question Mr Melnychenko, who was granted asylum in the US shortly after the scandal broke out.

But the opposition says the prosecutors are just trying to whitewash the president's reputation and salvage what remains of his standing abroad.

The implications

While the truth about Mr Gongadze's death has yet to be revealed, the scandal's repercussions are immense.

The normally phlegmatic Ukrainians took to the streets in the biggest display of public anger since independence in 1991.

The opposition - once fractious but now united by anti-Kuchma sentiment - expects tens of thousands to turn out for the new wave of protests across the country.

Mr Kuchma's reputation is in tatters, his ratings wallow in single digits, and any thoughts of a third term in office have been all but laid to rest.

Leonid Kuchma
Mr Kuchma has come increasingly under fire

His supporters made a dismal showing in last spring's general election campaign, with less than 12% of the votes cast for the main pro-government bloc.

Feeling threatened and vulnerable, the administration hardened its grip on the media, leaving few outlets for the opposition to make its voice heard.

And in foreign policy, Mr Kuchma, berated by human rights groups and shunned by the West, veered sharply towards Russia, prompting accusations of trading Ukraine's interests for the Kremlin's unquestioning support.

Pandora's box

Meanwhile Mykola Melnychenko, the former bodyguard, says Mr Gongadze's murder was the last straw and is determined to keep the pressure on the embattled administration.

In one of the new recordings he has released, a voice similar to Mr Kuchma's gives a green light to the sale to Saddam Hussein of Ukrainian radar capable of detecting Stealth planes.

US officials refuse to comment on the evidence Mr Melnychenko has given them while in exile.

But with the campaign against Iraq gaining momentum, the tapes, if found to be authentic, could win the Ukrainian opposition powerful new allies in the West.

If that happens, the Ukrainian administration, which has so far weathered the storm, may yet find that the disappearance of a campaigning journalist two years ago is the least of its problems.

See also:

20 Apr 02 | Europe
29 Nov 00 | Media reports
19 Feb 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
12 Feb 01 | Europe
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