- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

KIEV Sitting in his opulent office in Ukraine's parliament building, Victor Medvedchuk was adamant.
"I am not an oligarch," said Mr. Medvedchuk, the 47-year-old leader of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), one of country's prominent political parties.
"Oligarchs have media outlets, have business dealings. I have neither. I am a statesman."
In the murky world of Ukrainian politics, analysts and politicians are at odds about what makes an oligarch.
Some say extensive wealth is the dominant criterion, while others say political influence is key.
Most agree, however, that Ukraine is increasingly being run by three powerful men, each with strong followings from different regions with competing interests. They control much of what goes on inside the nation.
At no time have the stakes been higher for these groups than as Ukraine moves toward parliamentary elections next month, analysts said.
[A U.S. official visiting Kiev expressed concern Wednesday over media access and other issues in connection with the voting set for March 31.
[Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs, held talks with Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh and President Leonid Kuchma, and was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying afterward: "What is important here is that these violations need to be pursued, need to be addressed."
[AFP said a conservative coalition headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko is leading in opinion polls with 16 percent to 17 percent of voting intentions, ahead of the Communists, favored by 13 to percent 17 percent.]
The group that gains a the most seats in the next parliament has the best chance of winning the presidency in 2004, when Mr. Kuchma's term as president expires, thus allowing them to shape the country's direction for the next decade.
Although he admits to being a millionaire, Mr. Medvedchuk is considered the public face of the so-called Kiev group, and a presidential hopeful.
The two other groups are based in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk.
Individuals or groups that control a country's destiny are not a new phenomenon in the former Soviet Union.
Unlike in Russia, where the power of both oligarchs has diminished, Ukraine's oligarchs look like they will be part of the political establishment for some time.
"When you look at the influence of oligarchs in Ukraine and Russia, they have a different nature," said Kostya Bondarenko, an analyst who has written extensively on the subject.
"[Russian President] Vladimir Putin made a step in curtailing the influence of Russia's oligarchs. Mr. Kuchma hasn't taken that step. The oligarchs have wide reign in Ukraine," Mr. Bondarenko said.
One reason stems from last year's "cassette scandal," when Mr. Kuchma was said to have been heard telling aides to get rid of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose headless body was found shortly after the recordings were made public.
In its aftermath, Mr. Kuchma had to rely on old political allies like Grigoriy Surkis, the wealthy and flamboyant president of the Dynamo Kiev soccer club, to help weather the crisis.
Mr. Kuchma had begun to edge away from Mr. Surkis before the scandal because of political disagreements, said Inna Bohoslovska, a lawmaker who is putting together a reform coalition for the March elections.
Mr. Surkis's steadfast support of the president, however, has again gained him favor. He is considered the money behind the Kiev group, which also numbers among its members former President Leonid Kravchuk and Yevhen Marchuk, once head of Ukraine's internal police.
Another reason oligarchs have a strong hold is that, despite public condemnation, Ukraine's politicians are apparently satisfied with the status quo.
The oligarchs have money, which politicians need if they are to run effective political campaigns.
Yulia Tymoshenko, considered one of Ukraine's wealthiest individuals, for insmtance, heads a political grouping named after her.
It has brought together a surprising mix of bedfellows, including former political dissidents Levko Lukianenko and Stepan Khmara, as well as political centrists.


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