Yevhen Glebovisky is a journalist who currently reports for Ukraine's Channel 5. He was a close personal friend of Georgy Gongadze. In the days after Gongadze's disappearance, Glebovisky took to the streets in protests aimed at keeping up public pressure on the government to investigate Gongadze's murder. As a reporter for one of the more independent television channels, Glebovisky also played a leading role in keeping the story of Georgy Gongadze on television, where it could not be swept aside with other cases of political violence. In the years after Gongadze's death, Glebovisky pushed the limits of press freedom under a regime that had little tolerance for independent media. Here Glebovisky talks with reporter/producer Brian Knappenberger about what it is like to be a journalist in Ukraine today and how the Orange Revolution is evolving as the first anniversary approaches.
Can you describe the climate for reporters in Ukraine at the time of Gongadze's disappearance?
When Georgy first disappeared, Myroslava [Gongadze's wife] was on one of her numerous visits to the general prosecutor's office, and our cameras were outside waiting for her. When she came out she was crying and commenting on the case, and we filmed it and aired it. The next day, the bosses came out and said [there was to be] no more Myroslava on the air, that her tears are too persuasive and the government doesn't like it. We were like, "What? Get the hell out of here." The next day we didn't have any follow-up on the case, but we made up a cause which allowed us to do a continuation on the previous day's story just to show the management that we would not let it go.
So you rebelled against your bosses at the TV station?
Yes, and it turned out to be one of the first small victories that led to freedom of speech in Ukraine. It was one of the small bricks that built up the whole building of freedom of speech.
But Gongadze's case has come to mean something to the entire country, not just to journalists and those who knew him.
For those of us who knew him personally, it is just a painful and personal story and one of those cases where the pain is just endless. We miss him. We do understand that this is the price we pay for major improvements in Ukrainian democracy and freedom of speech; nevertheless, we would like to see the case resolved. My heart would like to see those who did it carrying fair punishment. My mind tells me that that is something that will never happen.
Why? Tell me about the state of the Gongadze case today.
The case is stalled, and there is very little hope that it will be resolved. It reminds me of many of the other famous cases in Ukraine, where you might speculate what actually happened, but you never know for sure. But politically, the case has been very influential. It has changed the country, it has changed the way the government treats journalists, it has changed the way journalists unite to defend their professional rights, it has affected Ukraine's freedom of speech issues -- enough to be in all the history textbooks.
People have said that this case is a sort of litmus test for change in Ukraine. If it is really a litmus test, what does it mean if it isn't solved?
There are two issues. One is the political implications of the case, and they are vivid. The government is afraid to touch journalists or to go against journalists, and that influence has been felt. Georgy Gongadze died to let us all work. On the other hand, it shows the immaturity of the judicial system and the immaturity of the Ukrainian political elite, who are afraid of the results of the Gongadze case because many of those still in power would have to carry a responsibility that they obviously do not want to carry. Long term, the case has influenced the country greatly. But to those who were friends of Georgy, his relatives and those who loved him, it is one of those pains that you can never really deal with.
Three people are now in custody for carrying out the murder, but it is widely thought that these people were acting under orders. Is it likely that the people who ordered the crime will ever be brought to justice?
Now we have the investigation of only a small fraction of the case, of the murder itself, but those who organized the murder are standing way behind the case. The investigation does not even seem to go that way. The politicians are manipulating words, notions, and they are manipulating their public appearances. They are saying they are investigating the Gongadze case, but which Gongadze case? There is more than one Gongadze case now. They have the murder, and then they have the case into who organized the murder. So then, which Gongadze case are they investigating? They aren't saying that. This allows the general prosecutor's office and the politicians to just fiddle with it. It definitely does not bring us closer to knowing what happened.
Do you think the criminal case against these low-level officials will be the end of it?
All we want is a fair trial for those who are in custody. If they are guilty, then they have to carry responsibility. If they are not guilty, they have to be released. This should be simple for the general prosecutor's office. The problem is, the folks in custody are just like anyone on the street -- they don't have high political cover-ups, they don't have big money and big politics standing behind them. They were used. The problem is with those who were on the Melnichenko audiotapes, the problem is with [former President] Kuchma, Volodymyr Lytvyn and other folks that were behind the case. Regardless if they were guilty or not, they are involved in the case. We can say that for sure. Definitely.
[In October of this year, a parliamentary commission lead by Hryhoriy Omelchenko was finally allowed to present to Ukraine's parliament a long-awaited report on the Gongadze case. The report accused current speaker of the parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn of playing a significant role in the slaying of Georgy Gongadze. Lytvyn has strongly denied involvement in the murder.]
There have been several serious mistakes made in the prosecuting of this crime. Tell us about them.
Yes, there have been many strange things happening with this case. The general prosecutor [Svanislav Piskun] has behaved either unprofessionally or was purposely intruding in the case. His first mistake was inviting the key witness, former interior minister Yuri Kravchenko to testify, publicly, on TV. The next day he was dead. [Although the authorities ruled the death a suicide, Kravchenko's death has been the subject of intense questions.] Then there is General Pukach. [Pukach is the man largely thought to have committed the actual killing of Gongadze by strangling him.]Apparently, it looks like the investigators were able to [determine the location of] Pukach, wherever he is, but then they release it into the press. Why? The guy escapes. These are the mistakes of the general prosecutor and his deputy. Are they really after those who organized the Gongadze murder? Are they really trying to investigate the case? Yushchenko comes out into the public and says that the Gongadze case is very close to being investigated. Well, the clock is ticking. It's not.
With all of this, why is Prosecutor General Piskun still on this case?
Piskun is a typical Kuchma-time politician, who was operating his office as a tool, not to implement the judicial system but for political interests. This is pretty much obvious by now. There is enough evidence to suggest that Piskun could have been a part of the agreement between Kuchma and Yushchenko for the peaceful transition of power as someone who would guarantee that Kuchma would not be tried for his crimes. Piskun has had no success with election fraud or cases prosecuting the allegations against former governors or former government officials. He doesn't have any success stories, and that means there is something wrong.
What will happen to Piskun?
At some point Piskun as a stabilizer of relations between Kuchma and Yushchenko will no longer be needed, and then he will be ousted. I think that will happen in the foreseeable future, possibly before the parliamentary election. Then there will be a new general rosecutor.
[In October of this year, Yushchenko fired General Prosecutor Svanislav Piskun for what many considered to be his slow investigation of the Gongadze case. When asked for a reason for the firing, Oleg Rybachuk, head of the presidential secretariat, said, "There were more than enough."]
Does the case get harder to solve as time passes?
Yes, any police officer will tell you that the easiest way to investigate a crime is right after it happens. Every day brings us further away from resolution and makes it more difficult to investigate the case. Witnesses are dying or committing suicide, and people are starting to forget things. The biggest problem is that many people involved in the Gongadze case are still in power, just in different configurations. Before these people leave politics, which might be many, many years to come, there might not be enough political will to investigate the case to its full extent. Right after the victory in the elections, political will was the only critical thing needed to investigate the case, and now every day it becomes harder and harder. Yushchenko is losing his political influence; other political partners are not interested in the case. The judicial system is weak, doesn't function properly and is politically influenced. So the Gongadze case is becoming another battlefield for different political parties, not just a criminal case that has to be investigated.
The Orange Revolution allowed Myroslava to come back to find out the answers. Why hasn't anything happened?
The Orange Revolution, for those of us who cared about Ukrainian politics, was something that we treated very emotionally. The expectations were very often way too high. The Orange Revolution did change the country. There is definitely no way to go back to authoritarian regime, no way to go back to massive abuse of freedoms or abuse of power. On the other hand, look around -- the same folks are still in power, it's just a different configuration. The same people who were involved in the Gongadze case are still running the country. Before they leave government, very little will change in the Gongadze case.
As a citizen I was never fond of Yushchenko and his team much. I did go to the Maiden [Independence Square] during the Orange Revolution and would do it again. I stood up for the values, for my rights. I stood up for the democratic development of my country. But it is going to take time. That's something that brought a lot of disappointment to a lot of Ukrainians. All these politicians who won and lost and remain in their positions, they are grown-ups, and grown-ups don't change like that. My heart would tell me that I will like to see the country change quickly, but my mind tells me it won't happen overnight. There has been a declaration of democracy, with respect to rights, to a market economy. But all of the politicians are from that time, that country, that Soviet period. The people who are running the country are inheritors of their own Soviet past. Yushchenko was a member of the Communist Party, back at the time when everyone who wanted a successful career was a part of the Communist Party. My country of birth is U.S.S.R. -- I may hate it, but that's part of my heritage.
Can you explain what happened recently with the firing of the government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko?
Yushchenko had very different people behind him that formed a rather broad coalition of different political figures. There were different tensions inside the government, which eventually brought a decrease in the effectiveness. This resulted in what we call in Ukraine a total resignation, where all of the sides were dismissed. But this is how democracy works. This is how government works. What was remarkable was that it was quite public. For the first time in Ukrainian history, we saw all the press conferences, you could see how it happens, you could see how they don't like each other. It was incredible, a perfect reality show, like Big Brother. It was a very good lesson of democracy. You might like or dislike the policies that the government was doing, you might like or dislike the policies that the president is providing, but it gave a chance for the Ukrainian citizens to see how their political elite behaves and to make conclusions in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
So is this a positive development in Ukraine?
If you treat the Orange Revolution as the ultimate good, then it is falling apart. If you are emotionally devoted to the Orange Revolution, then, yes, it is a personal tragedy. But our country is changing and developing. This is like the illnesses that little kids have, they have to live through them because it will make their immune system work more effectively. You might like that or not, you might like the government or not, but crisis is something that sweeps the whole political area and lets new people come. Crisis is healing in a sense. It's like being in love but finding out that your loved one voted for someone you don't like. That's what happened. It split Maiden into those who liked Y more and those who liked T more, and there's a new part that dislikes both of them. But if not for the Orange Revolution, this country would not see it live on the air.
What is it like to work as a journalist in Ukraine now?
The difference between working under Kuchma and working under the Yushchenko administration is that under Kuchma if you disobey the official line, you were taking personal risks. Under Yushchenko you can dislike him and put up critical articles and nothing happens to you -- which is good, which is a great achievement. Just a year ago, we had people saying what you can and can't write.
But the system that will protect freedom of speech and basic human rights is not yet installed. This is the freedom that is not brought by big institutions but by possibilities brought on by revolution. It is a very hard transition, after a revolution with high expectations, emotional euphoria, to move into evolution, where the institutions should function and negotiations occur and the pace of development will be much slower and much less interesting. It is very hard to switch emotionally, because many Ukrainians would like to wake up in a different country, forgetting that you have to first change yourself in order to wake up in a different country.