KIEV — The two men most likely to face off in Ukraine’s critical presidential elections this fall made a rare public appearance last weekend, setting the stage for what promises to be a fierce battle for the country’s highest office.
Rarely looking at each other, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Victor Yushchenko sat side by side during the opening session of a conference last Saturday, which brought together 200 leading policy-makers from the United States and Europe to discuss Ukraine’s role in the world.
It was the first such high-level meeting of policy experts since Ukraine became independent in 1991.
Mr. Yanukovych blamed the opposition for blocking constitutional reforms that would transfer power from the president to parliament in 2006.
Mr. Yanukovych said the changes are necessary for Ukraine’s political system to function more effectively.
“We will fight for a system of government in which the people will know who is in power,” Mr. Yanukovych said.
Many politicians complain President Leonid Kuchma has too much power under the current constitution, which often puts him at loggerheads with lawmakers. That system, they said, also has allowed government corruption to flourish.
Mr. Yushchenko welcomed the prime minister’s presence at the conference, saying it was the first time the government was willing to sit down with the opposition to discuss differences.
Mr. Yushchenko, however, said the constitutional changes the government is proposing are merely a ruse to allow Mr. Kuchma and his supporters to keep their hold on power.
“[The government’s] end goal is authoritarianism,” Mr. Yushchenko said. “The authorities have taken the road of conserving the government. We want to disrupt this show.”
Opposition leaders have conceded some changes to Ukraine’s constitution are necessary. They maintain, however, that changes should not be carried out nine months before the Oct. 31 vote or at the current hurried pace.
Despite their divergent political views, Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Yushchenko don’t harbor the same animosity toward each other as they do toward Victor Medvedchuk, Mr. Kuchma’s chief of staff.
Mr. Yushchenko has accused Mr. Medvedchuk of waging war on businessmen and media outlets sympathetic to the opposition by using tax inspections and other unseemly tactics. Politicians and observers here say Mr. Kuchma has virtually ceded much of his power to Mr. Medvedchuk, whose brother now holds a powerful post in Ukraine’s tax authority.
Other conference participants warned the presidential elections must be free and fair, and media restrictions and tactics used against the opposition must stop if Ukraine is to integrate into Europe and world structures.
“If Kuchma were smart, then he would decide that his best legacy is to allow free and fair elections,” former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who was guest of honor at the conference, said in an interview.
“I think he should realize this is his last chance to really have a dignified exit.”
With just over two months left before the European Union accepts new member states, several conference participants called on the West for a more proactive policy toward Ukraine. Borys Tarasyk, who heads the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on European integration, said a new “Friends of Ukraine” group composed of American and European statesmen would be established to continue the dialogue with Ukrainians.