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Editorial   Kyiv Post   24Jun99   Is Kuchma as corrupt as Volkov?
What role does the president play in all of this?  While Kuchma likes to make much of his battle against the "evil" Lazarenko, he can hardly disguise the fact that Lazarenko, when he allegedly committed many of his wrongdoings, was serving as prime minister in Kuchma's government.
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Kuchma can no longer back out of the war on corruption

Editorial

24 June 1999

One mansion.  Five swimming pools. Sixteen acres of sprawling Marin County real estate overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  All paid for in cash. $6.75 million in cash.

Those, according to reports flying out of San Francisco, are the stunning particulars on the mansion owned by Ukraine's most famous fugitive, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko.

Let's be honest: We never doubted that Lazarenko stole a few million dollars from the country.  We never doubted that he had a few cronies who were getting rich at the same time.  And we never doubted that a legion of other government bandits had attained similarly gross levels of opulence by systematically raping their country of the proceeds from any natural asset worth a damn.

But when it's just numbers substantial numbers though they may be being laid before us by the always-suspect Ukrainian government, it's difficult to understand the extent of that theft.  When it's concrete, undeniable documentation of the trappings of that theft being laid before us by entirely respectable American crime fighters and media outlets, it's a different matter.  That theft becomes real.  It becomes palpable.  It becomes ... criminal.

Such undeniable documentation has arrived in the form of FBI affidavits and a series of San Francisco Chronicle reports describing the mansions owned by Lazarenko and his newly demonized sidekick, Petro Kyrychenko.  According to a June 19 Chronicle report, Kyrychenko, when arrested, was led away from the "multimillion-dollar, Mediterranean-style home he built at the tip of the Tiburon peninsula," one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the world!

Lazarenko continues to insist that he made his riches legally, although he has demonstrated a stubborn refusal to explain how.  The reports coming out of the United States and Switzerland make his claims of innocence look even more ludicrous.  For one thing, until recently Lazarenko denied his extreme wealth.  On his 1997 tax return.  His total declared income in 1996 was Hr 9,397.  Lazarenko clearly lied about his wealth before.  It follows that he has no moral qualms about lying about how he attained that wealth now.

Lazarenko's party, Hromada, also does a disservice to its leader's credibility by accusing the U.S. and Swiss authorities of going after Lazarenko on trumped-up charges.  They brush off the Chronicle reports about the mansions as "sensationalism."  On the contrary, the reports coming out of the West are the first documented, trustworthy proof at all that Lazarenko was engaged in nefarious acts.

That brings us to the overriding issue surrounding the arrest of Lazarenko and the subsequent arrest of Kyrychenko: What role does the president play in all of this?  While Kuchma likes to make much of his battle against the "evil" Lazarenko, he can hardly disguise the fact that Lazarenko, when he allegedly committed many of his wrongdoings, was serving as prime minister in Kuchma's government.

Lazarenko may be the first former or current high-level Ukrainian government official to see his opulent private home built on embezzled public funds publicly exposed.  But he will clearly not be the last.  According to several sources in parliament, corruption cases are developing both in Ukraine and abroad against several other Ukrainian government officials, including parliament deputy and close presidential adviser Oleksandr Volkov, current Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko and another deputy with close ties to the president, wealthy businessman Hryhory Surkis.

Each new corruption charge seems to get closer and closer to the president.  Kuchma has in the past sought to distance himself from close associates once they become publicly tarnished.  Soon after rumblings about Lazarenko's wrongdoings began surfacing in 1997, Kuchma ousted the prime minister from his post, touching off a bitter row.

Kuchma cannot continue to distance himself from his close associates the minute their criminal behavior comes to light.  If Volkov goes down Belgian authorities have reportedly frozen Volkov's multimillion-dollar bank accounts in that country pending a money-laundering investigation the public will have more have reasonable grounds to assume what many of them assume already: that the president is just as corrupt as Volkov, and for that matter, Lazarenko.

Rather than distancing himself from his tarnished ex-cronies and launching diatribes about the need to stem the plague of corruption in the country, Kuchma must come out with a plan to address the problem.  He should work with parliament to develop a mechanism to appoint a truly independent counsel to look into corruption allegations against high officials.  Such a system would leave the president as vulnerable to an unbiased investigation as his political opponents currently are.  The president's support for such a system would be a tacit statement that he has nothing to fear.

The more Kuchma delays in coming up with such a plan to fight corruption, the more it will look like he is as much a part of the problem as people such as Lazarenko.


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