Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is apparently bowing under the pressure of a growing opposition to his rule in the wake of the audiotape scandal (see the Monitor, December 13, 2000, February 12). He seems to have grown accustomed to the inevitability of talks with the right- and left-wing forces, whose demands range from transition to a parliamentary republic to his unconditional resignation. Even the political center, consisting mostly of oligarchic clans and career apparatchiks loyal to Kuchma, wants negotiations: The political uncertainties and the growing popularity of the anti-Kuchma movement have made them apprehensive. According to various polls, nearly half of Ukraine’s population supports antipresidential protests, and over half does not trust Kuchma. Under these circumstances, Kuchma is bound to prefer appeasement to intimidation.
On March 26, Kuchma met one the opposition’s main demands and dismissed Internal Affairs Minister Yury Kravchenko. The protesters had alleged that it was Kravchenko who engineered the disappearance of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze, missing since last September, and then dragged his feet over the investigation. They also accused Kravchenko of indiscriminate arrests of young people in Kyiv after the anti-Kuchma protest of March 9 (see the Monitor, March 14). Yet Kuchma praised Kravchenko for a job well done and replaced him with his former subordinate, Yury Smirnov, the chief of the Kyiv police. Smirnov was behind the maltreatment of the March 9 protestors. This replacement was not what the opposition had had in mind.
On March 27, one of the leaders of the National Salvation Forum (NSF)–the leading opposition force, former Deputy Premier for Fuel and Energy Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from custody. A district court in Kyiv ruled that the Prosecutor General’s Office had not had sufficient legal grounds to arrest her on February 13 (see the Monitor, February 15). Tymoshenko is suspected of forgery, smuggling and bribery, but by cleverly positioning herself as “a prisoner of conscience,” ruthlessly criticizing Kuchma and his corrupt entourage, Tymoshenko is emerging as a Ukrainian Joanne d’Arc, as opposition media have already dubbed her. Kuchma, in announcing her release, was ostentatiously neutral: He said that he had no right to interfere with the courts.
Tymoshenko was apparently released to appease not only the opposition, but also the Council of Europe observer, Hanne Severinsen, who arrived in Kyiv to monitor the human rights situation. Severinsen met with Tymoshenko in the hospital, where she had been admitted for a stomach ulcer upon her release from prison. While in the hospital, Tymoshenko called on the NSF to talk with the authorities, but only on the subjects of Kuchma’s resignation and early elections. This was too radical a step to let slide. Late in the evening on March 30, just a few hours after Severinsen left Ukraine, Kyiv city court overruled the district court verdict and reconfirmed Tymoshenko’s arrest warrant. Such promptness once again cast doubt on the independence of Ukrainian courts. It was also a strategic mistake. While the repeat arrest will only add to Tymoshenko’s popularity, her extreme position would have scared off the moderate opposition. As it is, now that she has been silenced once again by force, she will prove a valuable rallying point for the many across Ukraine who are unhappy with the current state of political affairs.
Addressing a forum of entrepreneurs on March 29, Kuchma announced, for the first time, his readiness for a dialogue with the opposition. He proposed four candidacies for mediation in such talks: National Security Council secretary Yevhen Marchuk; former Premier Valery Pustovoytenko; the League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs chairman Anatoly Kinakh; and former deputy parliament speaker Viktor Musiaka. But the NSF rejected all the four candidates. Instead, on March 30, it offered its preliminary conditions for talks with Kuchma: (1) releasing political prisoners; (2) dismissing Marchuk, Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko, Tax Administration chief Mykola Azarov, president of the national TV company Vadym Dolhanov, and head of the presidential office Volodymyr Lytvyn; (3) recognizing the NSF as the democratic opposition; (4) negotiating directly with Kuchma; and (5) airtime on state-controlled TV channels. It also proposed Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as a mediator for the talks. The opposition believes that Kwasniewski would be an ideal mediator: He has special relations with Kuchma and is the leader of a country with similar experience (in its peaceful talks between the Communist authorities and the democratic opposition in the late 1980s).
But Kuchma is not receptive to comparisons and will hardly embrace the NSF conditions. At the same time, he does not reject the idea of negotiations altogether. On March 31, Lytvyn called the NSF demands unrealistic, but admitted that the mediators Kuchma proposed were unacceptable because they were so closely connected to Kuchma. The authorities thus are ready for a dialogue, but the format of this exchange is not clear.
Much will depend on the position of liberal Premier Viktor Yushchenko, who refuses to openly back Kuchma and who is trusted by the opposition. He does not openly sympathize with the NSF either, but this may be only a matter of time. Speaking on March 30, Yushchenko rejected the opposition suggestion that he should replace Kuchma, describing it as “not constructive”. On March 31, Yushchenko reacted harshly to Tymoshenko’s re-arrest, saying that it would be detrimental for the negotiations. Then, yesterday, April 2, Ukraine’s Supreme Court overruled the Kyiv city court’s decision, effectively releasing Tymoshenko for the second time (UT-1, March 26, 29; Ukrainska pravda, March 27-30; UNIAN, March 27, 30; Studio 1+1 TV, March 30- 31).
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