- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Ukraine is facing its greatest turmoil since its independence in 1991, with thousands of people pouring into the streets to support opposition claims that President Leonid Kuchma was involved in the murder of one of his harshest critics, Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze.
Mr. Kuchma, who got 16 million votes in the 1999 presidential elections, now has support of only 6 percent to 12 percent of Ukraines 50 million people, Olena Pritula, chief editor of the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, said in an interview.
Welcoming the prospect that Mr. Kuchma could be forced to resign, she said, "Ukraine has a chance now to build a new society."
The pressure on Mr. Kuchma has only grown since the Council of Europe — a 41-nation governmental human rights organization — recommended on April 6 that the former Soviet state be suspended from the club of democracies.
The Council of Europe said in a draft resolution that it "considers that the president, the government and the parliament of Ukraine have failed to honor the commitments and obligations of Ukraine as a member state."
The strongest evidence against Mr. Kuchma is contained in taped conversations in which he is heard ordering his interior minister to "drive" Mr. Gongadze "out."
"Give him to the Chechens. Undress him. Leave him without his pants," said a voice on the tape that Mr. Kuchma admits to be his own.
Former security officer Mykola Melnichenko, who says he made the tapes in Mr. Kuchmas office, handed them over to the leader of Ukraines Socialist Party, Oleksander Moroz.
Mr. Melnichenko and his wife were granted political asylum in the United States this month, as was the widow of the murdered journalist, Myroslava Gongadze.
Initial demands for the resignation of Mr. Kuchma — whose term expires in 2004 — had come from an opposition coalition made up mainly of students and other young people, and the National Salvation Forum, spearheaded by former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In addition to calling for Mr. Kuchma to step down, the opposition is seeking constitutional changes that would reduce the presidents authority.
"Part of the power should be passed over to (Prime Minister Viktor) Yushchenko. This will decrease the significance of oligarchs," Ms. Pritula said.
However, Mr. Yushchenko faces a no-confidence motion in parliament this week, possibly as early as today. Mr. Yushchenkos foes, led by hard-line communists and powerful business interests, oppose his market-oriented reforms.
Mr. Yushchenko, who was named to lead the government in 1999, is credited with achieving the first signs of economic progress in the former Soviet republic since independence. Polls show him to be Ukraines most trusted politician and a potential rival for the president.
But despite his personal popularity, Mr. Yushchenko may very well lose the vote, analysts say.
Ukrainian society is sharply divided between those who have grown wealthy since the collapse of communism called oligarchs and the poor, whose average salary is less than $50 a month.
Roman Kupchinsky, director of Ukrainian Broadcast Service of Radio Liberty, charged at an April 9 news conference in Washington that leading figures in the Ukrainian parliament and public sector are little better than gangsters.
Igor Bakaj, the former head of the energy company Naftogaz, is believed to have illicitly acquired between $200 million and $300 million and recently purchased a $5 million house in Naples, Fla., Mr. Kupchinsky said.
Oleksander Volkov, leader of the Regional Revival parliamentary faction, has been accused by Belgian authorities of having laundered millions of dollars. And a parliamentary commission on combating corruption accused former Prime Minister Valery Pustovojtenko of having stolen $50 million.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington refused to comment on any of the charges.
Ms. Pritula said the wave of public anger over the death of Mr. Gongadze had emboldened Mr. Kuchmas critics.
"Before the disappearance of Gongadze, it was impossible to hear the words 'Ukraine without Kuchma on TV," she said. "Now it is a little better. Georgy once said: "'I am ready to die for this country if this will help it."

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