- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

KIEV, Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, while still Ukraine's most powerful politician, has emerged from a recent parliamentary crisis as a weakened leader who is battling growing demands for political and economic reform.

The imminent demise of the pro-Kuchma bloc in Ukraine's parliament makes a new bid to revive impeachment proceedings against Mr. Kuchma increasingly likely.

"The president has a very narrow channel for maneuvering now," said Danylo Yanevsky, director of the nongovernmental Institute of Political Modeling in Kiev. "He is pulling out his last reserves."

With his political future uncertain, Mr. Kuchma announced late Wednesday the appointment of a leading politician with his own presidential ambitions as the new chief of staff.

The appointment of Victor Medvedchuk was widely interpreted as Mr. Kuchma anointing his successor.

In the past 18 months, Mr. Kuchma has been accused of involvement in illegal arms sales to Iraq and the death of a journalist investigating suspected corruption in his administration. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said yesterday it received a letter from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the international body had no evidence supporting charges of weapons sales.

Washington thus far has made no official comment. A British Broadcasting Corp. film reiterating the charges will be shown in the Senate next week. The widow of slain journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose death remains unsolved, is expected to be present along with congressional officials.

Should Mr. Medvedchuk win the presidency in 2004, Mr. Kuchma would be able to retire quietly, several politicians said on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Medvedchuk's appointment was also seen by many analysts as an attempt to weaken pro-reform forces that won the popular vote in the March 31 parliamentary elections.

Former Prime Minister Victor Yushchenko, a leading reformist who heads the Our Ukraine political bloc, remains an early favorite in the 2004 contest. His party has 111 seats in the 450-seat parliament.

Mr. Yushchenko backs Western-oriented reforms such as free market capitalism and rule-of-law democracy and wants elections for local officials, many of whom are now appointed by the president.

Mr. Yushchenko yesterday termed Mr. Medvedchuk's appointment as the Kuchma administration's attempt to support political forces "that became outsiders during the parliamentary elections and to revise the results of these elections," according the Ukrainian news agency, UNIAN.

Mr. Medvedchuk heads the Social Democratic Party, which just edged over the 4 percent barrier necessary in the popular vote to win a place in parliament. The party has 31 seats.

The president's chief of staff has the right to appoint some officials, which could give Mr. Medvedchuk far-reaching powers and allow him to lay the groundwork for a 2004 presidential bid.

A highly skilled attorney and strong manager, Mr. Medvedchuk is also one of the country's leading businessmen. He is a founder of several enterprises, including a bank, financial groups and one of the country's leading soccer clubs.

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