- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2002

KIEV About 50,000 people converged on the Ukrainian capital yesterday demanding the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma in the largest display yet of public opposition to his rule.

Their calls were supported by four leading opposition leaders, including Victor Yushchenko, a popular reformist, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a former oil and gas baroness who has become the president's leading critic.

The protests came two years to the day after the mysterious death of Internet journalist Georgiy Gongadze. His headless corpse was found in a forest some 90 miles outside Kiev shortly after a voice, reported to be that of Mr. Kuchma, was heard on secretly recorded tapes telling aides to get rid of the journalist.

Organizers say they expected twice the number of protesters, but that the government took extreme measures to block the arrival of participants.

Militiamen were stopping busloads of passengers bound for Kiev. In the western city of Lviv, only 10 buses out of ones carrying nearly 10,000 people were able to make it to the capital, said Taras Chornovil, a lawmaker representing the region.

Rukh, the pro-democracy movement, reported that an estimated 10,000 people demonstrated in Mr. Kuchma's hometown, the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. Russian television reported some 20,000 people at a rally in Lviv, where Mr. Gongadze lived, called for the president's resignation as well as those of regional leaders.

There was a coverage blackout until an hour before the protests, which began at 3 p.m. All of the country's national television stations underwent unscheduled "profilaktyka," or technical inspections.

Yesterday's action puts Mr. Kuchma, who was away from Kiev at an economic forum in Salzburg, Austria, in a delicate situation.

On Aug. 24, the president announced that Ukraine needed significant reforms. He proposed constitutional changes that would transform the country to a parliamentary-presidential republic, where the president's role would be weakened.

But opposition forces, led by Mrs. Tymoshenko, said they will settle for nothing less that the president's resignation.

They contend that Mr. Kuchma has corrupted government, is driving Ukrainians to the brink of poverty and lacks the moral authority to rule.

"We want honest politics," she told demonstrators through a loudspeaker in the pouring rain. It is not clear if Mr. Kuchma, who arrives from Austria today, will meet with opposition leaders who pledged to wait overnight outside his office.

The conflict is also awkward for Mr. Yushchenko, who is considered a presidential front-runner. Although he signed the appeal calling for the Mr. Kuchma's resignation, he has sought a more moderate approach to the leadership crisis.

Over the weekend, Mr. Yushchenko sponsored a forum of democratic forces that concluded with an agreement with some pro-presidential political groups that would open the door to a coalition government.

Mr. Yushchenko's political grouping, called Our Ukraine, has given Mr. Kuchma until Sept. 29 to decide whether he will concede to a coalition government. Otherwise, parties aligned with Mr. Yushchenko said they will again take to the streets demanding reforms.

"Ukraine is without a government," Mr. Yushchenko told protesters yesterday. "But we know how to get out of this situation … and what road to take."

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