Four members of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions have died within weeks as investigations into old regime officials mount up
Before jumping, Mykhailo Chechetov wrote a note. He said he had “no moral strength” to live, and thanked people for their support. Then he stepped out of the window of his 17th-floor apartment, leaving his slippers behind for his wife to find later.
Chechetov was once a senior member of Ukraine’s Party of Regions, which had a strong grip on power until the revolution a year ago. His death on 28 February was the second in a string of apparent suicides by top members of the party which until last year had dominated Ukrainian politics. Four such officials died within several weeks. All of them were under criminal investigation by the incumbent authorities.
The leader of the Party of Regions, the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, fled the nation at the height of the Maidan revolution, leaving his allies stunned and struggling to accept a new reality. The party started disintegrating rapidly. Many of its members ended up facing trials for corruption, extortion, abuse of office and even murder.
The rampant corruption and venality of the ruling elite under Yanukovych spurred the revolution in February last year, and those in the new government say the old guard are simply receiving just desserts for previous misdeeds. However, some in the former elite claim the process is a politically-motivated witch-hunt. Either way, the spate of apparent suicides shows the psychological toll the process is having on those who ruled Ukraine before the revolution.
Chechetov was accused of fixing the result of a vote in parliament last January for a set of “dictatorship laws” aimed at curbing the civil freedoms of protesters at the height of the revolution. Other cases against him were being lined up, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister, whose agency handles parts of the investigations.
Chechetov’s funeral in Kiev was accompanied by saxophone music and whispers about continuing probes. Serhiy Larin, a member of the Opposition Bloc, a political heir to the Party of Regions in parliament, says that more than 20 cases involving former party members are currently being investigated.
He said: “Hundreds of people in provinces are called in daily for questioning by investigators. We’re also seeing the general prosecutor turning into a punitive organ. This is how democracy is being destroyed.”
Yet Gerashchenko brushes aside all accusations. He says the Party of Regions for years ruled like there was no tomorrow, never expecting to be punished for its crimes. He said: “These people used to be in power and used to solve all their problems through corruption, but now they understand the inevitability of punishment.” Now they are “cracking up”, he adds.
Serhiy Valter, the mayor of Melitopol in the south-east of Ukraine, was found hanged in his home on 25 February. “Prosecutors asked for 14 years in prison for him. He was extorting from business, and was likely to get a guilty verdict,” Gerashchenko said.
Stanislav Melnyk, a former MP and the top manager of a brewery, shot himself in his home in a suburb of Kiev on 9 March. Just three days later, Oleksandr Peklushenko, a former governor of Zaporizhya in south-east Ukraine, was also found shot in his home.
Gerashchenko explained: “He shot himself the moment he realised that he might get a guilty verdict in court for hiring thugs to break up a protest.
“Just imagine what people in England would do if one party hired thugs to kill another party.”
Separately, Yanukovych’s younger son, also named Viktor, died at the weekend when the van he was driving fell through the ice on Lake Baikal in Siberia. Yanukovych Jr was a Party of Regions MP before the revolution.
There is no evidence to back theories that there may be foul play involved in the spate of suicides, but opposition MPs say the trend points to a wave of intimidation at the very least.
Members of the party who remain in Ukraine are feeling scared and reluctant to talk about the cases against them in public. “Everyone’s afraid. They don’t want to have to jump from windows, shoot themselves – or be helped,” said one former Party of Regions member who has moved to the Opposition Bloc.
Another member of the Opposition Bloc said: “This is pressure with cases that have no bases, and cases are being fabricated like it’s 1937. This is why the weaker ones break up.”
Larin, who believes the authorities are acting selectively and illegally, said: “Endless questioning, pressure from investigators, direct threats – the aim is not the rule of law, but political expediency. This is justice to order.”
On 12 March, the general prosecutor’s office put four Party of Regions members on a national wanted list for the same crime as Chechetov, as well as a Communist party member. The prosecutor said those five failed to show up for questioning in his office.
The party hit back, saying the prosecutor was conducting a “show trial, trying to divert attention of the society from a catastrophic situation in the economy and the social sphere” in recession-battered, war-stricken Ukraine.
Moreover, it said that one man on the wanted list, a former parliament member, Volodymyr Demydko, has been in coma for weeks after prosecutors’ questioning caused a stroke. The party said the government released “deliberate lies” about Demydko when he was accused of failure to testify.
Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was shot in the back during a run last April. He survived, but is now under investigation for kidnapping and torturing political opponents during the revolution. Viktor Shokin, the general prosecutor, said last month that the case is almost ready to go to court. Kernes, however, has insisted it is political.
Ukraine has a history of political prosecutions. Yanukovych jailed his former opponents Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko soon after being elected in 2010. The European court of human rights said both cases were politically motivated.
Gerashchenko said the difference is that the charges against Tymoshenko and Lutsenko were trumped up, and they did not feel any guilt.