`Out, out ...'

March 08, 2005

ONE OF THE occupational hazards for good journalists in the former Soviet Union is murder. Just last week, an independent Azerbaijani editor named Elmar Huseinov was gunned down. But an older case is grabbing the headlines right now - a persistent stain of sorts that the years could not wash out.

In 2000, the headless body of a reporter named Heorhiy Gongadze was found in a forest outside Kiev, and Ukrainians have believed ever since that the man who was president at the time - Leonid D. Kuchma - was behind the crime. Despite tape recordings that seemed to lend considerable credence to that belief, Mr. Kuchma's top law-enforcement officials insisted on his innocence, and he stuck it out in office until finally stepping down at the expiration of his term this January.

But the handling of the case was one of the grievances that fueled the "Orange Revolution" in December, and now, with a new government, Mr. Gongadze is on the front page again. Under the new reformist president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, the investigation has been reopened. The man who made the tape recordings - a former Kuchma bodyguard who fled to America - has been in talks with prosecutors to make them available, and to return, himself, to Kiev.

More strikingly, one of Mr. Kuchma's chief interlocutors on the tapes, during discussions about what might be done with Mr. Gongadze, was his interior minister, Yuriy Kravchenko. Mr. Kravchenko comes across as ready to do whatever his boss wants. He may, in fact, have tried to be accommodating right up to the end - last week, on the day he was supposed to meet with prosecutors, he killed himself, thus removing one potential witness against the former president.

Mr. Kuchma says his conscience is clear, but the point is that something unseemly that was at the heart of Ukrainian life is unraveling. What does a president have to fear from a pesky journalist - especially a dead pesky journalist? Mr. Kuchma may soon find out.

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