Separating fact from fiction is rarely easy in the countries of the former Soviet Union. But all the elements of a fast-paced political thriller are now emerging in Ukraine, where the disappearance of a local maverick journalist is turning into President Leonid Kuchma's own version of Watergate.
Mr. Kuchma's handling of the most serious crisis since Ukraine's independence in 1991 is seen by analysts as a test that will determine the nation's future course: A path toward democratic accountability, or one toward deeper authoritarian rule, similar to several other ex-Soviet states.
Georgiy Gongadze, the muckraking editor of an online newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, went missing in mid-September. The president promised then to take personal control of the investigation.
Then in mid-November, a decapitated body was discovered on the outskirts of the capital, Kiev. Family members and friends identified the remains as Mr. Gongadze's. Over the years, several Ukrainian journalists investigating corruption have died mysteriously. But no other case has turned into such a political bombshell.
The reason? On Nov. 28, the opposition Socialist Party leader and respected politician Oleksander Moroz made public an audio tape of secretly recorded conversations in the president's office that appear to link Kuchma to the killing.
"The executive has been put in the hot seat like never before," says Lidia Wolanskyj, publisher of Kiev's Eastern Economist magazine. "If they can get out of this one - and do anything that resembles due process and transparency - it will be a big step forward for Ukraine. If not, it could be the end of Kuchma's career."
Critics say the scandal is only the latest chapter in an atmosphere of fading press freedoms in Ukraine, one that is evident in many ex-Soviet states from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, as leaders fall back on familiar methods to consolidate power.
But just as the Watergate scandal of the early '70s brought down US President Nixon - and secret tape recordings revealed the unvarnished inner workings of the office of America's chief executive - Ukraine's version has riveted this nation.
The "nature of the allegations," says a Western official in Kiev, has been revealed in such a "sensational way, like out of a novel, that it has electrified people."
The result, adds a senior Western official, is that the controversial tape has "added a new disbalance in the political system ... [and] triggered a whole new round of political intrigue."
Warning of an orchestrated smear campaign, Kuchma made clear the significance of the case in an unscheduled television address last Wednesday. "Ukraine is being pushed to the edge of chaos, anarchy, and the disorganization of social life," he said, visibly uncomfortable. "No blackmail ... is able to provoke me to take authoritarian measures, to change political course. I have acted and will act within the law."
The fallout could stretch further, however. Ukraine has had "an enhanced relationship" with NATO since 1997, and would like to be closer to the European Union. In the past year, Kiev has made progress on budget reform, a new banking law, and economic growth. And after years of pressure from the West, the Chernobyl nuclear plant - site of the worst nuclear accident in history in 1986 - is due to be shut down for good on Friday.
But the scandal has raised concerns about Ukraine's commitment to a free press, respect for the law and human rights. Already, journalists have been calling Western embassies to ask whether a new crackdown is under way. "Integration of Ukraine in Europe depends not on foreign policy, but on domestic policy," says the senior official. "Are they seen as being open with the media? If they draw a wall around them, it's going to hurt."
The test, he adds, "will be a real sign of maturity of this country, as a democracy, if it allows dissenting views to be published."
But observers worry that Ukraine could be drifting in the other direction. Kuchma was reelected last year, and in April organized a referendum that gave him more power over parliament.
"In the past year, Kuchma and his people have imposed very tough restrictions on the press," says Gennadiy Potchtar, head of ProMedia, an organization with some US-government funding that helps train local journalists. "You write positive stuff on the president, or you don't write. They wanted to eliminate such criticism. Even small papers were shut down."
Still, the scandal has impact. Dutch experts analyzing the audio recordings confirm that the tapes are not montage fabrications, according to the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper. But poor sound quality precluded confirmation that one of the voices was Kuchma's.
Transcripts of several conversations are alleged to be between Kuchma, his interior minister, and his chief of staff, and are peppered with expletives. The voice attributed to Kuchma discusses ways of getting rid of the "insolent" Gongadze - including handing him over to Chechen kidnap gangs, who have killed in the past.
"I'm telling you, drive him out, throw [him] out. Give him to the Chechens," Kuchma is alleged to have said. The legal authority of the general prosecutor's office is dismissed, and the president apparently asks why journalists don't fear the intimidation tactics of the security services.
"That Gongadze ... goodbye, good riddance," a voice says.
In the unfolding drama, Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn has sued the opposition leader, Moroz, for "humiliating his dignity." Meanwhile, Kuchma was questioned last Friday by Ukraine's top prosecutor.
But English-language publications in Ukraine have not shied from the story - or come under the same pressures as Ukrainian-language news organizations.
In a letter to Kuchma titled "Stop the Lies," the Kyiv Post on Friday criticized the delay in identifying the body with a DNA test. "Despite your efforts to the contrary, the people are going to find out about the tape," it said. "If you continue to hide the truth - our trust in you and the public's trust in you will sink lower and lower."
"Given the gravity of the accusations," the paper warns, "a freeze on all foreign aid to the country is the next logical step." The West has given, by one count, more than $2 billion in aid for energy reforms.
While the scandal may "open the door to due process" in Ukraine, Ms. Wolanskyj says, the result of Kiev's Watergate so far has been compounded by a long-standing, secretive, authoritarian political culture.
"It is very Soviet, and you are talking about people coming out of a psychological nightmare," she says. "The Russian system has been in place since Ivan the Terrible - the Communists were just the last to exercise it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society