For example, on 16 February, President Viktor Yushchenko awarded former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Mykhailo Potebenko the Order of (Kyivan) Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Yaroslav introduced the first book of laws in what was then Kyivan Rus’ during the 11th century and is credited with expanding both the principality’s territory and culture. The medal was created in 1996 for “distinguished service to the state and people of Ukraine,” and it recognizes, among other things, “wisdom” and “honor.” (1)
According to President Yushchenko’s decree, Potebenko was awarded the medal “for his great personal contribution to the creation of a law abiding state, the strengthening of legality and law and order, and his long-term work on the occasion of his 70th birthday.” (2)
The decree probably would have been missed by most Ukraine-watchers in the West were it not for long-time Ukraine analyst Taras Kuzio, who found the three-line decree and publicized it on his blog. (3) This is fortunate, since the small decree speaks volumes about President Viktor Yushchenko.
Kuzio termed the awarding of this medal to Potebenko “shameful,” and it is possible that others may find this an understatement.
Potebenko became well-known internationally in 2001 when he led two major high-profile investigations as Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General – the examination of the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze and the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Prosecutor-General’s “investigation” of the Gongadze case was roundly criticized by just about every international organization looking into the matter, leading eventually to calls from the Council of Europe, Reporters Without Borders and then US Ambassador Carlos Pasqual for him to resign. Potebenko was accused of stymieing the investigation in order to protect state officials, including President Leonid Kuchma, who appeared to be implicated in Gongadze’s death.
In 2005, after months of evidence collection, the European Court of Human Rights satisfied a number of complaints from Georgiy’s widow, Myroslava Gongadze, including her charge of a “failure to investigate the case.” The court found that the prosecutor’s office had ignored repeated requests for assistance from Georgiy Gongadze in the weeks before his death, when he reported being followed by state law enforcement officials. “The response of the GPO was not only formalistic,” the court wrote, “but also blatantly negligent.”
Moreover, following the recovery of Gongadze’s headless body, the court said, “The State authorities were more preoccupied with proving the lack of involvement of high-level State officials in the case than discovering the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and death of the applicant’s husband.” (4)
Mikhailo Potebenko was the Prosecutor General during these events. Not only did he apparently conduct little investigation, but he denied that the body recovered was Gongadze’s in spite of numerous DNA tests to the contrary and then refused to accept as evidence secretly recorded tapes of President Kuchma implicating him at least in Gongadze’s disappearance, and probably his murder.
The European Court of Human Rights wrote, “The fact that the alleged offenders, two of them active police officers, were identified and charged with the kidnap and murder of the journalist just a few days after the change in the country’s leadership, raised serious doubts as to the genuine wish of the authorities under the previous government to investigate the case thoroughly.” (5)
As Potebenko and Kuchma were being criticized internationally, and facing increasing protests domestically, the Prosecutor-General announced that he was investigating then Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for a variety of offenses, including embezzlement during her time as head of the gas intermediary Unified Energy Systems. Although Tymoshenko sat in government, her refusal to drop a number of anti-corruption measures that affected the president’s supporters had led to considerable tension between the two.
Eventually, she was fired, arrested, and held in prison for 40 days before being released by a court for lack of probable cause. Yushchenko, who was prime minister at the time, called the arrest “political persecution.” (6) Persecution, then, by the same Potebenko recently awarded a medal by Yushchenko.
Despite years of attempts, Potebenko (and his successors) were never able to prove in court any of their charges against Tymoshenko, who then perhaps had the best revenge by being named the first prime minister after the Orange Revolution.
At the very least, Potebenko’s work on Tymoshenko’s case was shoddy and unprofessional. At the worst, it was designed to do nothing more than to persecute an opponent of the president. Or perhaps it was designed simply to take the attention away from the Gongadze case, which was creating such problems for him, Kuchma and the country.
This is the man, then, to whom President Yushchenko last week awarded a medal for “service to the country,” “wisdom,” and “honor.”
In 2004, during his presidential campaign and the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko vowed to prosecute those who had ordered the murder of Gongadze. It was, he said, “a matter of honor.” (7) The organizers have not been arrested or prosecuted, however, and at this point—seven years after the murder and over two years after Yushchenko took office—it is unlikely that they ever will be.
In fact, many observers and politicians have suggested that Yushchenko struck a deal with Kuchma during the revolution – Yushchenko would ensure Kuchma’s freedom and Kuchma would not stand in the way of the rerun presidential election that brought Yushchenko to power. While no one can ever truly know why the organizers of the Gongadze murder have not been arrested, the possibility of a compromise agreement fits well with Yushchenko’s nature of deliberation and conciliation.
Repeatedly throughout his political career, Yushchenko has chosen compromise over confrontation. In the last year, Yushchenko blessed the return of his defeated presidential opponent Viktor Yanukovych to the premiership, and then gave in to Yanukovych’s pressure to replace Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk instead of fighting for his longtime ally.
And now, the President has done his best to rehabilitate the career of Mykhailo Potebenko, a man Yushchenko himself once condemned, and a man who remains disgraced internationally.
One wonders what Yaroslav the Wise would have thought.
(1) The website of The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine via http://www.mil.gov.ua.
(2) Decree of the President of Ukraine No. 116/2007, 16 Feb 07 via http://www.president.gov.ua/documents/5745.html (in Ukrainian, not available in English).
(3) “A Shameful Decision,” Taras Kuzio Official Blog, 19 Feb 07, 04:04 PM EST via http://blog.taraskuzio.net/. Originally published in Ukrainian at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ukrainian/forum/.
(4) “European Court of Human Rights judgment,” Institute of Mass Information, 9 Nov 05 via http://eng.imi.org.ua/index.php?id=read&n=190&cy=2005&m=thm.
(6) Eastern Economist Daily, 17 Apr 01 and ITAR-TASS, 20 Apr 01 via Lexis-Nexis.
(7) UNIAN news agency, 1130 GMT, 23 Feb 05 via Lexis-Nexis.
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