- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

KIEV, Ukraine — President Leonid Kuchma said yesterday he would not seek a third term in office, although some political forces here have urged him to use a loophole in the country's new constitution to do so.
"I ran for president again because I saw there was nobody else to lead the nation," Mr. Kuchma said during an hourlong interview with The Washington Times. "I will retire at the end of my term," which ends in 2004.
Mr. Kuchma, who has been accused of economic mismanagement, corruption and political manipulation since taking office seven years ago, also has been pressured by opposition forces to resign after he was accused of involvement in the death of an Internet journalist, Georgy Gongadze.
The headless corpse of Mr. Gongadze, a Kuchma critic, was found outside Kiev nearly a year ago, sparking the country's worst political crisis in 10 years of independence, which will be celebrated Friday.
Secretly recorded tapes emerged of the president telling aides to get rid of Mr. Gongadze. Since then, Mr. Kuchma has walked a political tightrope at home and abroad.
The United States has made it clear that the deaths of Mr. Gongadze and another investigative reporter, Ihor Oleksandrov, must be convincingly resolved for the relationship between the two countries to remain on track.
Although he appeared tired of fighting Ukraine's internal political battles — his approval rating hovers at between 6 percent and 14 percent — Mr. Kuchma indicated yesterday that he would serve out his term in office and said he was not afraid of facing his critics head on.
The president conceded to opening a Pandora's box when he again raised the Gongadze issue at a weekend congress of Ukrainian expatriates in Kiev, where he denied any involvement.
"I did this on purpose," Mr. Kuchma said. "What should I be afraid of? If I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have said, 'Such an important question, and you ignored it.' Isn't that so?"
Although he predicted that the deaths of both journalists would be solved, Mr. Kuchma maintained that the Gongadze murder was part of a campaign to defeat him orchestrated by nongovernment right- and left-wing forces,both at home and abroad.
Speaking of himself in the third person, he said his opponents had believed "that the president's nerves wouldn't hold out, that he would write a letter of resignation and that another, more acceptable candidate would become president of Ukraine."
"This person is known to everyone," he added.
Mr. Kuchma was speaking of Victor Yushchenko, the former prime minister who is credited with saving Ukraine's economy and is widely admired in the West.
The two have been on a collision course since Mr. Yushchenko was ousted in April by a no-confidence vote in parliament, prompting pro-democracy forces to criticize Mr. Kuchma for not doing more to defend his prime minister.
Mr. Kuchma said yesterday he had tried to bridge the gap by arranging a meeting between Mr. Yushchenko and the heads of parliamentary factions the night before the no-confidence vote.
"He left the meeting," Mr. Kuchma said. "He said he had a telephone conversation with the prime minister of Switzerland."
Mr. Kuchma maintained that he would like to see centrist forces come to power after the country's next parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2002. "I don't want to see the extreme left or the extreme right," he said.
The president said he will not support any specific individuals for parliament, nor did he indicate his choice of a successor.
Whether pro-Russian forces will come to power after the parliamentary elections is another question.
During his speech on the weekend, Mr. Kuchma stressed that his country must have balanced economic and political relations with Russia, equivalent to those enjoyed between the United States and Canada.
Although many in the audience appeared wary of a strengthened relationship between Moscow and Kiev, Mr. Kuchma said he is not willing to tell people only what they want to hear.
Given historic political, economic and cultural ties, a relationship with Russia is a Ukrainian reality. Because it receives so much energy from Russia, Europe also has recognized Russia as an important power, Mr. Kuchma said.
After all, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first foreign leader to visit Moscow after Vladimir Putin's presidential victory, Mr. Kuchma noted. "Why make Ukraine an [anti-Russian] enclave?"
The president believes his country's ultimate place is in Europe and said he will not deviate from that course as long as he is president. But he said Ukraine is not ready for membership in the European Union because many European laws make it too hard for Ukrainian goods to compete.
"We need to get there step by step," he said.
He called for the West to do more to integrate Ukraine into the world community by recognizing its importance on the world stage.
Kiev was pleased when President Bush, on a visit to Poland, said more must be done to help Ukraine integrate into the West, he said. "Now Ukraine needs concrete actions."


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