- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

KIEV — Opposition leader Victor Yushchenko’s eyes suddenly sadden when he is asked about billboards depicting him as a Nazi, which recently appeared in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

“This for me was a shock,” said Mr. Yushchenko, whose father was a Red Army soldier and survived several Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz.

“On this theme, you would think one would be holy. At the beginning of the third millennium, to talk about the [German] SS or fascism, in the whole civilized world, it isn’t accepted. … There are too many elements of political advertisement here.”

With less than a year before critical presidential elections, Ukraine has found itself at its most defining crossroad since winning independence from the Soviet Union 12 years ago.

This nation almost the size of Texas has been at important junctures in the past. But the stakes rarely have been higher for a country whose leadership is still not sure whether its fate lies with a more democratic Europe or a more autocratic Russia.

Kiev’s leaders have consistently stressed Ukraine’s future lies with Europe. Yet even after several recent high-profile trips to Washington by the prime minister and parliament speaker, events here have raised troubling questions about the current leadership’s commitment to democratic change.

Some opposition leaders say the recent resignation of Georgia leader Eduard Shevardnadze, amid massive opposition protests over rigged elections, has buoyed their hopes for political change here.

But opposition lawmaker Yuriy Pavlenko said at a recent demonstration outside parliament, called to protest a decrease in the mininum wage, that the Georgia scenario was not likely in Ukraine.

“It’s a different situation here,” Mr. Pavlenko said. “Ours will be a different route.”

Mr. Yushchenko, who has remained the presidential front-runner in opinion polls for nearly two years, has been harassed in meetings with constituents around Ukraine.

The country’s prosecutor-general was sacked by President Leonid Kuchma only days after implicating former high-ranking officials in Ukraine’s Interior Ministry in the death of journalist Georgy Gongadze, who investigated government corruption.

The country’s parliament has been pressing for constitutional reforms that would weaken the president’s authority and allow lawmakers to pick the head of state, rather than electing him or her in a popular vote, as is the case today.

“This is all tied together,” said Danylo Yanevsky, director of the nongovernmental Institute of Political Modeling in Kiev.

“All these political dances are around one theme — the presidential elections of October 31, 2004.”

A particularly troubling incident for pro-democracy forces occurred last month, when Mr. Yushchenko and some 5,000 delegates from various political parties that belong to his parliamentary faction were prevented from holding a summit in Donetsk, considered a conservative stronghold with a large ethnic-Russian population.

The building where the summit was to have taken place was filled with students several hours before the gathering. Young people were provided with free beer and vodka by unknown sources, according to opposition leaders. Anti-Yushchenko demonstrations were held in the city center.

The summit was canceled, but even some parliament members from Donetsk said the demonstrations were the closest Ukraine has come to a “civil war.”

“A dress rehearsal for civil war happened in Donetsk today,” Serhei Harmash, a representative from Donetsk, told Ukrainian media. “If the drunk crowd just yelled ‘Yushchenko, go away,’ that would be political opposition.

“But when anti-Yushchenko sentiments are agitated under interethnic and interregional symbols and appeals, this is a kindling of interethnic animosity. These are dress rehearsals for a civil war.”

The anti-Yushchenko protests drew staunch criticism from Western diplomats based in Kiev, including U.S. Ambassador John Herbst.

The events in Donetsk, however, haven’t stopped some pro-presidential lawmakers from calling Mr. Yushchenko’s pro-democracy ideal, “Nashism.”

The word plays on the Ukrainian name of the opposition leader’s bloc, “Nasha Ukraina,” or Our Ukraine.

The country’s political crisis has also virtually stalled further investigation into the death of Mr. Gongadze, whose headless body was found in a forest outside Kiev more than three years ago. He was an ardent critic of Mr. Kuchma.

The journalist’s death remains the Pandora’s box of Ukrainian politics. A voice purported to be that of Mr. Kuchma was heard on tapes — secretly recorded by a former presidential bodyguard, who now has asylum in the United States — telling aides to get rid of Mr. Gongadze.

Only days after Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Sviatoslav Piskun, implicated former high-ranking officials in Ukraine’s Interior Ministry in the journalist’s killing, Mr. Kuchma sacked him. Mr. Piskun indicated he was on the verge of taking the case to court when he was dismissed.

“We now have the operation of camouflaging the situation and burying it,” Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz, who three years ago made public the secretly recorded tapes, said of Mr. Piskun’s ouster. “They needed to do something. [Piskun] hit the nerve.”

Mr. Kuchma said at a news conference recently that the prosecutor-general was removed for professional, not political, reasons.

The president has denied any involvement in the killing.

It is not clear whether the new prosecutor-general will continue with the investigation into Mr. Gongadze’s death, or how quickly.

Resolving Mr. Gongadze’s killing has become a key component to better relations among Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.

Troubling for many citizens have been efforts to have the nation’s legislature, rather than the people, to elect the president in 2006, only two years after the 2004 vote.

Ukraine’s Supreme Court recently ruled the election of the president by parliament would not violate the constitution.

Because Mr. Kuchma ran for his second term under a constitution that was passed in 1996, some analysts have suggested Mr. Kuchma could theoretically run again, which he repeatedly has said he would not do.

The president cannot hold office for more than two terms under the current constitution.

Polls suggest up to 89 percent of those questioned want to directly pick the president. Mr. Kuchma told journalists he also favors a public vote.

Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president, said parliament should pick the president because the nation is not ready to choose its leader. That is particularly true of older people who are used to the old-style Soviet system, when choices were made for them, he suggested.

“We still don’t have democratic life in Ukraine,” Mr. Kravchuk said. “There is no freedom of the press. We have to grow into that.”

Mr. Kravchuk, who lost to Mr. Kuchma after calling for early presidential elections, also said he didn’t want to see another president with the same wide-sweeping powers enjoyed by the incumbent.

For his part, Mr. Kuchma has asked the Supreme Court to determine under what conditions he can dismiss parliament, which for weeks has been in a logjam.

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