- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

KIEV After two years of scandals and accusations of government corruption, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the country he leads have entered what many here say is the most critical period in Ukraine's 11-year post-Soviet history.
At stake is whether Ukraine evolves into a full-fledged democracy that successfully integrates into Europe or moves toward authoritarian rule.
"Ukraine doesn't have a healthy political model," said Victor Yushchenko, the reformist former prime minister who is the country's most popular politician. "We have a crisis of authority that has turned into a parliamentary crisis. The government can't understand it is the people who choose the government. This is extraordinarily dangerous, and leads to an oligarchic and clannish form of government."
In the past two years, Mr. Kuchma, who was elected in 1994, has been plagued by charges that he approved the sale of a high-tech radar system to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions, called for the death of an Internet journalist on secretly recorded tapes and allowed government corruption to flourish.
"The first condition of finding a way out of the crisis is that all political forces should sit down and begin a political discussion," said Mr. Yushchenko, who leads Ukraine's largest political grouping in parliament and is the leading contender for the 2004 presidential elections. "What Ukraine needs are systemic changes," he added. "Everything else is details."
When Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union, its future looked bright. With a strong industrial and agricultural base, the country was expected to shift from communism to democracy and integrate into Europe.
Unlike those of many of its neighbors, though, Ukraine's leaders made the mistake of not introducing systemic changes that would allow democracy to flourish. So though the economy has continued to grow, an independent press and fair elections have not taken root, allowing government, as Mr. Yushchenko put it, "to work under the carpet."
This situation has given rise to a parliamentary stalemate, calls for Mr. Kuchma's resignation, and Ukraine's further isolation from the West.
The president's most immediate challenge is to disprove that he gave the go-ahead for the sale to Iraq of the early-warning Kolchuga radar system. On recordings secretly made by a former bodyguard who was given political asylum in the United States, Mr. Kuchma is said to be heard approving a $100 million sale of four radar systems through a Jordanian intermediary.
The Kolchuga system silently tracks aircraft and ground vehicles by detecting and triangulating their radio signals. Western officials worry it could threaten aircraft in the event of military action against Iraq.
The 90-second recording, purported to have been made July 10, 2000, also disclosed a method of shipment: hiding the radar equipment in crates typically used to export Ukrainian trucks.
Mr. Kuchma has repeatedly denied that he authorized any such sale. Ukrainian officials say the tape is a fake. The FBI has certified the conversation as genuine. Washington recently suspended $54 million in direct government aid until the Kolchuga question is resolved.
Seeking to prove his innocence, Mr. Kuchma opened Ukraine to a team of 13 inspectors from the United States and Britain who visited the sites where components of the Kolchuga system are produced. Their report, issued two weeks ago, was inconclusive.
Investigators could neither prove nor disprove that the system was in Iraq but indicated that Ukraine had not been as forthcoming during the investigation as had been promised.
Washington and London have requested more information about the system and want to question several more people.
Mr. Kuchma said he was willing to accept officials from other countries, such as Russia and Austria, for further investigation. "Anyone else is welcome," Mr. Kuchma said. "Ukraine wants a 'period' put on this problem."
Appealing to the presumption of innocence, Victor Medvedchuk, the president's chief of staff, who is also a lawyer, told parliament last week that Ukraine did not have to prove it is not guilty. Ukraine has asked the United Nations to widen the scope of the inquiry; the U.N. has refused for now.
A growing number of politicians here have become frustrated by Washington's stance toward Kiev, saying the Americans have been quick to accuse Ukraine of illicit sales without having enough supporting evidence. Mr. Kuchma's national security adviser, Yevhen Marchuk, said part of the brouhaha over the Kolchuga system could be attributed to the West's not wanting to let Ukraine into the lucrative weapons market.
"This is a highly competitive market," Mr. Marchuk, a former KGB chief, told reporters. "The entry of Ukraine with its serious potential hasn't been greeted with applause. Competitors will use all methods" to ensure Kiev is kept out of international arms market, he said.
Even Mr. Kuchma's critics worry that U.S. policy is only pushing Ukraine further from the West and dangerously personalizing politics.
"In this situation, Ukraine needs the support of the West," said Andriy Shkil, leader of an opposition nationalist party, who has called for Mr. Kuchma's resignation.
"In this case, the West needs to understand we're not just dealing with the question of Iraq. The mentality of Ukrainians is absolutely close to the West. We don't need to go anywhere. We are in Europe. Ukrainians aren't anti-Western."
Even Mr. Yushchenko, who has tried to compromise with Mr. Kuchma on several political issues, indicated in an interview that if the radar sale is proven, the West should seek a "political" solution rather than imposing direct sanctions against Kiev.
Ukraine, however, is already feeling the negative effects of the Kolchuga scandal. Even before the U.S. and British team submitted its report, Western leaders uninvited Mr. Kuchma from next week's NATO summit in Prague, where the alliance will offer membership to several former Soviet bloc countries, including Romania and Bulgaria.
The summit was supposed to celebrate a closer relationship between Ukraine and the West. A timeline for Kiev to begin submitting a plan for entry into the military alliance was to be on the agenda.
A Ukraine-NATO meeting is still expected to occur but at the foreign minister level. Mr. Kuchma, however, has asked his security council to determine whether it would be appropriate for the foreign minister or anyone else to attend.
Mr. Kuchma had indicated he would go to Prague as a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, a NATO-affiliated group that will meet during the summit.
The danger of personalizing the relationship between Washington and Kiev, politicians here say, is that as international pressure on him grows, Mr. Kuchma is feeling increasingly cornered. Consequently, the president is turning more often to Moscow for diplomatic support.
"There is a tendency in American foreign policy to overemphasize the personal dimension at a cost to the strategic dimension," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under former President Carter.
Although there have been problems in the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship in the past, Mr. Brzezinski said, they shouldn't be personalized to the detriment of long-term strategic relations.
Many Ukrainian politicians fear that a warmer relationship between Moscow and Kiev would pave the way for closer economic and political ties, undermining Ukraine's independence.
"Ukraine has found itself in the shadow of Russia," said Borys Tarasyuk, a former foreign minister who leads the parliamentary committee for European integration. "It is finding itself pushed away to the margin of European policy."
Russian companies already have a significant stake in Ukraine's economy, including the important energy sector. Kiev and Moscow have established a consortium to transport Russian energy sources across Ukrainian territory into Western Europe. Germany was to be part of the deal but has been reluctant since recent elections.
So much secrecy has surrounded the deal that political insiders said even high-ranking officials don't know its details. Opposition figures worry that Kiev will give up its last economic trump: its transportation corridor.
"The West has no economic leverage by isolating Kuchma," said Myron Wasylyk, vice president of the PBN Co., a U.S.-based public relations firm with offices in the former Soviet bloc. "An isolationist policy will allow Russia a free hand in furthering its economic interests in Ukraine."
Rep. Bob Schaffer, Colorado Republican who recently wrote President Bush asking him keep Mr. Kuchma from the Prague summit, said he thinks U.S. assistance should focus on helping Ukraine's people and institutions.
"At this point, as I have suggested in my letters to President Bush, America should increase and concentrate its foreign-aid efforts on nongovernment programs to promote education, public health, a free press, democracy and economic expansion," he said.
What has worried many observers in Ukraine is how the tapes secretly recorded by the former bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, are being used.
The tapes were made public two years ago, after the headless body of an Internet journalist, Georgy Gongadze, was found in a forest 90 miles outside Kiev. Mr. Gongadze had written stories accusing the government of corruption. Mr. Kuchma is reportedly heard telling aides "to get rid" of Mr. Gongadze.
Their disclosure at the time caused Ukraine's worst political crisis since independence.
Mr. Melnychenko said last year that he recorded Mr. Kuchma because he could no longer stand the corruption in the Kuchma administration. He also said he worked alone in taping the conversations.
Most observers here said they find that assertion dubious. Given the tight security within the presidential quarters, no one could have recorded Mr. Kuchma without help.
They also wonder about the timing of public releases of segments from the tapes. For instance, although Washington knew of the purported conversation about the Kolchuga sale when it was made public in Ukraine in May, the Bush administration only announced its belief in its validity on the eve of September street demonstrations planned by Kuchma foes in Kiev.
U.S. officials have maintained that they wanted to be certain the tapes were real. Many Ukrainian insiders suspect more sinister motives.
The latest accusations of wrongdoing by the president, however, have only raised political tensions. Since its election in March, Ukraine's parliament has been paralyzed by the split between pro-Kuchma and opposition forces. Mr. Yushchenko's bloc, which won the popular vote and has the largest faction in parliament, has effectively been shut out of decision-making.
Pro-Kuchma factions recently put together a parliamentary majority, which is expected to vote in a new government as early as this week.
Mr. Yushchenko said that although he believes the present parliament is more democratic than its predecessors, it is becoming a political vehicle to fulfill the will of the Kuchma administration, steered by Mr. Medvedchuk, the president's chief of staff. Mr. Medvedchuk's political party, the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United), placed last among the six parties voted into parliament.
Many politicians, including those who initially supported Mr. Medvedchuk, say they have become disillusioned with him. They say he has sharply curtailed access to the president, and is promoting his own political agenda and business interests.
Lawmakers, political observers and business people said many of the current political problems stem from the time when Mr. Medvedchuk was appointed Mr. Kuchma's chief of staff in June.
"Prior to Medvedchuk, the doors were open to all various political parties," said Mr. Wasylyk of PBN, the American public-relations firm. "The president needs to hear different points of view. Right now, Medvedchuk has cut that off."
Businessmen with the wrong political orientation say they are beginning to feel pressure from the government, including tax inspectors.
"Today the country is divided into two camps," said Yevhen Chervonenko, founder and honorary president of Orlan, one of Ukraine's largest soft-drink and transport companies. "This is our Boston Tea Party."
Orlan is embroiled in a tax problem the company said was initiated by Mr. Medvedchuk's brother, who leads the tax authority in the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
"In one camp is the old 'nomenklatura' [Soviet-era big shots] like oligarch Medvedchuk. They have nothing to show Arthur Andersen," said Mr. Chervonenko, who was a minister in Mr. Yushchenko's government. "We want equal rights for everyone."
Mr. Medvedchuk's office declined repeated requests for an interview.


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