Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 29

The political crisis in Ukraine, which erupted after the disappearance of the political journalist Georgy Gongadze last fall, is gaining momentum and seriously threatening Leonid Kuchma’s presidency. Mass protests were staged in Kyiv last week. The protestors’ demands are simple but sweeping: dismissal of the power ministers, Kuchma’s resignation and a parliamentary republic (see the Monitor, December 5, 13, 2000).

On February 6, some 5,000-6,000 people marched on the presidential palace and parliament calling for Kuchma’s resignation. The protest–the largest mass protest since Ukraine gained its independence–was organized and advertised through opposition mass media. Participants represented several parties, from the far-right Social Nationalists to the leftist Communists. Organizers promised to continue the protests if Kuchma does not hold talks with them. The police did not interfere. In response, speaking on February 9, Kuchma said that he had no intention of resigning, and compared the protest to the 1923 Nazi coup in Germany. Demonstrations resumed on February 11, when some 4,000 people marched along Kyiv streets, chanting anti-Kuchma slogans.

Representatives of the parties behind the protest set up National Salvation Forum (NSF) on February 9, proclaiming “a velvet revolution” as their aim. The forum elected a coordination council of fifteen members, including former Soviet dissidents, prominent nationalists and moderate right-wing politicians. The left wing is represented by Communist writer Borys Oliynyk and Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz, who on November 28 was the first to publicize the scandalous audiotapes which implicated Kuchma and other top officials in Gongadze’s disappearance and other crimes. Ironically, Yulia Tymoshenko, the recently fired deputy premier, reportedly also plays a leading role. The forum represents individuals rather than political parties–a sign that, at least for the time being, many prefer to wait for further developments before committing themselves one way or the other. The right-wing element, numerically stronger and better organized than the leftists in both the protests and the forum, wants to replace Kuchma with the pro-Western Premier Viktor Yushchenko. But the ostentatiously apolitical Yushchenko also prefers to sit the fence. Yushchenko needs to move cautiously: If he supports the protestors, he risks his post.

Despite the weaknesses in the opposition, Kuchma’s administration is showing signs of stress. On February 5, the oligarchs, once loyal and helpful, showed only nominal support for the president in calling an assembly of political organizations under their control in Kyiv. The same day Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko unexpectedly took a vacation and left Kyiv. On February 10, the Security Council held a closed meeting to discuss a possible state of emergency. During this session, Kuchma fired State Security chief Leonid Derkach. Kuchma has the support of both the army and the police, and there are indications that, if the protests grow violent, he may indeed resort to a state of emergency. The power of most of Ukraine’s oligarchs is on the line, having been drained by Yushchenko’s economic reforms and international criticism. They could conceivably benefit from a parliamentary republic by taking control of the legislature in next year’s parliamentary elections.

If Kuchma cedes to the opposition’s demands to fire Kravchenko and Potebenko, he could find himself in a weak position vis-a-vis NSF. The forum would most likely then take the initiative and muster the support of those parties now sitting the fence. The Communists and the nationalist Rukh, which remains a strong moral authority in spite of its numerous splits, are among them.

The outcome depends largely on public opinion. At the moment, and for the most part, it is apathetic–viewing the events in Kyiv as squabbles within the elite. The two forces which can sway public opinion, however, are Yushchenko and the mass media. Yushchenko is very popular, especially in the politically active West of the country. The media, most of which are controlled by the reluctant oligarchs, remain largely neutral (Studio 1+1 TV, February 5, 11;, February 6; Ukrainska pravda, February 6, 9; UNIAN, February 8; New Channel, February 8, 10).