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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Whistle-Blower Seeks to Root Out Graft

The security officer who released secret recordings from the office of the president of Ukraine says he is on a one-man quest "to stop all the corruption and all the nastiness'' that have followed the Soviet collapse.

In his first meeting with a journalist since he went into hiding three months ago, Mykola Melnichenko, whose recordings have stoked protests against the government of President Leonid Kuchma, said that when he is finished transcribing hundreds of hours of tapes spirited out of Ukraine last fall, he will be able to trace virtually all high-level corruption, repression and even some acts of violence back to Kuchma.

"My goal is to totally expose the level of corruption in Ukraine as an independent Don Quixote and ensure that thieves will never come to power again in Ukraine,'' Melnichenko said.

On Saturday, the 34-year-old Ukrainian arrived at a clandestine rendezvous in a Central European country wearing a pageboy wig and a heavy winter coat to disguise his identity. Six hours later, he left the same way, asking his guests to wait five minutes before departing the small inn 375 kilometers outside the capital of the country, which he asked not to be identified.

In a long interview, Melnichenko charged that Kuchma had pocketed at least $1 billion for personal or political use and said that the full transcript of recordings made since at least 1998 in Kuchma's office would establish that "there is no greater criminal in Ukraine than Kuchma.''

Kuchma at first denied that his voice was heard on Melnichenko's tapes, whose contents have prompted thousands to protest in Ukraine, the recipient of $2 billion of U.S. aid since Kuchma, the former director of a missile factory, was elected to the presidency in 1994.

Ukraine's prosecutor general later acknowledged that the voice heard was that of the president, but the prosecutor general said Melnichenko had tampered with the recordings to distort their content.

Melnichenko praised the United States for its support of Ukraine and said U.S. intelligence services had helped support and protect democracy there and investigate corruption. But he said most of that evidence simply had been presented to Kuchma, who then took steps to cover up and protect the circle of oligarchs who finance his rule.

"All of these people are working on Kuchma's orders,'' Melnichenko said. "They laundered money on Kuchma's orders, and they divided it up.''

Melnichenko said Kuchma had established a krisha, or roof, that protected oligarchs and regional businessmen who, he said, kicked back millions of dollars in cash to accounts controlled by Kuchma through his banker and confidante, Oleksandr Volkov, a powerful member of parliament.

"What I find personally disgusting is that businesses that could have been successful and provided the people with jobs, Kuchma closed down for personal political reasons,'' Melnichenko said. "One of the greatest evils that Kuchma has done has been to turn the whole country into his private little racket.''

In one case, he said the recordings showed that Kuchma was involved in discussions of how to orchestrate a grenade attack by government agents on Natalya Vitrenko, a former Socialist who left that political party to establish her own and who ran for president in 1999.

Melnichenko said he had "before and after'' recordings of Kuchma discussing the attack on Oct. 2, which wounded Vitrenko and 33 others during a political rally in the industrial city of Krivy Rih.

Melnichenko said Kuchma hoped to blame the attack on Oleksandr Moroz, the Socialist Party leader who ran for president in 1999 and who some may have considered a threat to Kuchma's election chances.

Melnichenko refused to discuss whether other security officers collaborated in making the recordings, but he described an atmosphere of cynicism and treachery in Kuchma's inner circle, where Kuchma's intelligence chiefs wiretapped one another and provided Kuchma with evidence that others were engaged in corruption.

While in hiding, Melnichenko said he is listening to and transcribing the audio tapes he made, but said he would not release more tapes until the recordings are judged authentic by independent experts.

A panel assembled by the International Press Institute in Vienna, and supported by Freedom House in New York, is reviewing scores of recorded conversations that Melnichenko provided last month.

When he left Ukraine, Melnichenko said, he took only about $2,000 in savings, thinking that he would be gone only a few weeks. He said he assumed that his initial disclosures about Kuchma, including what the tape recordings indicate was Kuchma's role in ordering the kidnapping of journalist Georgy Gongadze, would have been enough to drive the president from office.

Melnichenko said he passed a cassette to Moroz, a former parliament speaker who leads the Socialist Party. For his colleagues, Melnichenko said he devised a cover story about resigning for a security job in the private sector and going to London for training; he left the country just before Nov. 28, when Moroz played in parliament the first recordings purportedly to be Kuchma's demands to remove Gongadze.

"I really believe that when some of these things were made public, Kuchma would go,'' Melnichenko said, "I can't believe he is still around.''