- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

A leading Ukrainian politician yesterday predicted that embattled President Leonid Kuchma will be driven from office within months, a victim of the gravest political scandal the country has faced since gaining independence.

"The crisis will be over by the end of May or early June," Oleksandr Moroz, chairman of Ukraine's Socialist Party, said at the start of a Washington visit yesterday.

Mr. Kuchma, a onetime Communist Party functionary who has been president since 1994, is battling to hold on to power in the face of charges that he ordered the killing last fall of investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose headless corpse was discovered in November at a site outside Kiev.

Mr. Moroz, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Kuchma in the 1998 presidential elections, has played a central role in the scandal. It was the Socialist lawmaker who first made public secret tapes of the president and his associates. They were made by a Kuchma military bodyguard who has since fled the country, apparently implicating Mr. Kuchma in the Gongadze killing.

Mr. Kuchma repeatedly has denied any role in the affair or in other instances of corruption detailed in the tapes, blaming the scandal on political opponents at home bolstered by unspecified "shadow money" from abroad.

"It is not by chance that my main accusers are precisely the same people who have blocked Ukraine's transformation to a free-market economy," Mr. Kuchma said in a letter published in yesterday's Financial Times.

Ukrainian prosecutors yesterday announced they were initiating a murder investigation in the death of Mr. Gongadze, whose body was positively identified by investigators Monday.

Both the United States and the European Union have criticized the Kuchma government's handling of the Gongadze case. The journalist's disappearance was featured in critical passages on Ukraine in the new State Department global human rights report released Monday.

"In any civilized country, President Kuchma would have resigned or been forced out by now," Mr. Moroz told a gathering at the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty yesterday. "But it is not that simple."

Mr. Moroz conceded that, while the president does not have majority support in the country, the opposition also lacks a majority in the drive to oust him.

Opposition parties, uniting under the umbrella group "Ukraine Without Kuchma," have organized street protests in Kiev and staged "people's tribunals" throughout the country to urge the president's ouster. But the gatherings have been relatively small and public opinion polls find that very few Ukrainians say they are willing to participate in anti-Kuchma rallies.

But Mr. Moroz said the expanding scandal would soon produce a drive to impeach Mr. Kuchma in parliament or a popular referendum to drive the president from office.

Maj. Mykola Melnychenko, the bodyguard who claims to have bugged Mr. Kuchma's office, told the New York Times in an interview published Monday that he has some 300 additional hours of taped conversations involving criminal activity by Mr. Kuchma dating back to 1998, which he would soon release.

"My goal is to ensure that … thieves will never come to power again in Ukraine," Mr. Melnychenko told the newspaper, speaking from an undisclosed location somewhere in central Europe.

Mr. Moroz said he planned meetings with State Department officials here to discuss the situation in Ukraine. He also will travel to New York before returning home.

Ukraine, the most populous of the new states to break away from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a major recipient of U.S. and multilateral aid during the 1990s. But the country's transition to capitalism has proven slow and frustrating, with Ukrainian oligarchs still controlling many key sectors of the economy.

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