Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cars Are Weapon of Choice in Ukraine

KIEV — Brutus knifed Caesar. Stalin's agents killed Leon Trotsky with an ice pick. An anarchist's pistol, draped in a handkerchief, did in U.S. President William McKinley.

Then there are Ukrainian assassins. People here say they prefer to wield a Kamaz truck, a Volga sedan or even a subcompact Zhiguli.

Ukraine's leading politicians are dying, or cheating death, in car crashes — one last year, two so far this year — and always, it seems, in a political crisis or showdown.

Each collision is fueling public suspicion that the crashes are the work of a government death squad out to muffle those who threaten the political status quo.

Speculation that "auto accident" is a Ukrainian oxymoron blossomed after a crash in January that injured one of Ukraine's fiercest opposition politicians, Yulia Tymoshenko. It approached conventional wisdom in March, after another collision killed Valery Malev, head of the Ukrspetsexport state arms export company.

There is precedent: Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, opened an inconclusive inquiry after Vyacheslav Chornovyl, a one-time dissident, died in a crash in 1999 during a campaign for the presidency. Indeed, since 1997, a secret-police chief, another weapons chief, an American nuclear expert and others have similarly died or been injured.

Skeptics say these accident victims shared one trait: Each posed a potential threat to the administration of President Leonid Kuchma, which denies that there is any plot.

Kuchma insisted last year that he "would never have ordered to kill a man under any circumstances."

Aides and prosecutors have dismissed the Malev accident as "an ordinary car crash" and Tymoshenko's mishap as a publicity stunt.

"Nobody can say for sure that all these cases are murder or attempted murder," said Alyona Pritula, the editor of Ukrainska Pravda Internet newsletter (www.pravda.com.ua). "But at the same time, nobody would say that they are all accidents. The only explanation I can find is that the special services are using what they know best."

Or, perhaps, that Ukrainians will believe nearly anything bad about Kuchma's scandal-saddled government. As Pritula and others acknowledge, barely a scrap of evidence supports a plot. Indeed, much suggests that many accidents are, well, accidental.

To counter that conclusion, some contend, there are the conversations clandestinely taped in Kuchma's office two years ago indicating that the security services maintained a squad nicknamed "Eagles" to hector and even eliminate enemies. One of those include Kuchma's infamous taped denunciation of journalist Georgy Gongadze ("Drive him out," Kuchma is reported to have fulminated. "Throw him out. Give him to the Chechens.") Gongadze's beheaded body was later found outside Kiev. Kuchma says he was framed by a doctored tape.

As with any conspiracy theory, there is a tantalizing chain of circumstance, coincidence and dark supposition.

Consider Malev, the government's arms-export director: He was driving to his Kiev apartment with a heating repairman last month when his Audi abruptly swerved into the rear wheels of an oncoming Kamaz tanker truck, killing him instantly. The repairman, who survived, told journalists he was at a loss to explain the crash. The police speculated that Malev had dozed off — at 10 a.m.

But a parliamentary critic, Oleksandr Zhir, has another theory: Four days earlier, he said in an interview, he had informed Kuchma of a new tape recording in which Kuchma and Malev supposedly discussed smuggling air-defense missiles to Iraq, violating a United Nations embargo. Kuchma has rejected the charge in vividly scatological terms. But Zhir has since begun an investigation.

"Circumstances lead me to assert that it most probably was not an accident," he said. But beyond saying that "certain people were interested in preventing the spread of information about illegal arms trading," he refused to comment.

Or take Tymoshenko, a former executive in the energy industry and briefly a deputy prime minister who was fired. One of Kuchma's most acid critics, Tymoshenko was jailed on what other opponents called politically inspired charges, then barred from leaving Kiev to participate in a parliamentary campaign for her party, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, in last month's elections.

As Tymoshenko was en route to court to challenge that restriction, her chauffeured, armored Mercedes was stopped at an intersection by a traffic policeman, then smacked hard by a Zhiguli. Tymoshenko, hospitalized with a concussion and other injuries, contends that she lost weeks of campaigning time and considerable voter support.

In an interview, she contended that aides found the Zhiguli filled with heavy metal plates — other accounts say they were crates of produce — and the driver swaddled in two thick coats as if to cushion an impact.

That is but her word. "The car disappeared, the driver disappeared, and we had no access to anything," she said. "I think that all these accidents are not accidental."

There is an equally credible explanation, though: driving a car in Ukraine is life-threatening and getting more so as new drivers throng to poorly maintained roads. The traffic police say the 5,508 accidents and 806 deaths in March were roughly double the toll in March 2001.

Moreover, members of the parliament, usually boasting German cars and immune from arrest, are anything but Sunday drivers: They drive at 180 kilometers an hour, said Pritula, the Ukrainska Pravda editor. "And they violate the traffic laws because their drivers can't be punished."

Pritula has ample reason to doubt the government — Gongadze, whose beheaded corpse was found, preceded her as editor. But she acknowledged that people may be imposing their own bleak view of politics over the auto-accident facts. The Soviet habit of automatically disbelieving the official word has grown, not diminished, since independence, she said.

All of which might be perversely comforting, if the actions of officials did not speak louder than words. "They prefer to sit in the back seat these days," Pritula said. "It's safer there."