Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 45

Kyiv has resorted to force against its peaceful antipresidential demonstrators. On March 1, some 1,500 police and special troops demolished the Ukraine Without Kuchma tent camp on Kyiv’s main avenue, Khreshchatyk. On February 25, the camp was the epicenter of what was probably the largest antipresidential rally since independence, when 20,000-30,000 people participated in a mock trial of Kuchma. The protesters, who represented several right-wing parties and the leftist Socialists, had set up the camp in early December, demanding the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma. Forty-four of the demonstrators were arrested, but later fined and released. It is worth noting that on February 28, the day before the camp was destroyed, U.S. President George W. Bush, in a letter to Kuchma, expressed concern over the state of democracy in Ukraine. Kuchma is accused of murdering the journalist Georgy Gongadze, corruption and violation of democratic principles (see the Monitor, December 13, 2000, February 12).

The police explained their actions in enforcing the February 22 Kyiv district court verdict, which ruled to remove the tents or relocate them to an area in a quiet Kyiv park. The opposition is arguing that the camp demolition was illegal. The law, it pointed out, allows ten days for an appeal; the authorities, in enforcing the verdict before March 4, therefore violated the law.

State television eulogized the demolition as a show of democracy. On March 1 Kuchma called it an “absolutely correct decision.” But Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who was on a visit to Britain at the time, called the use of force “premature and unacceptable.” Yushchenko apparently finds it more and more difficult to reconcile his democratic convictions with his loyalty to Kuchma. International reaction to the incident was prompt and unequivocal. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Carlos Pascual on March 1 expressed the U.S. administration’s “regret” over the use of force in Khreshchatyk. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher warned Kyiv that Washington might stop financial assistance to Ukraine if Kyiv does not abide by its commitment to the rule of law. The Council of Europe also expressed concerns over the state of democracy in Ukraine. On March 2, the National Salvation Forum and the public committee For Ukraine Without Kuchma appealed on foreign governments and parliaments to increase pressure on the president to prevent “the emergence of savage totalitarianism in the center of Europe.”

Kyiv has reacted rather weakly to international concerns over its political crisis. On February 28, Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko insinuated a conspiracy by Western special services against Kyiv in “organizing” the audiotape scandal. On March 2, in an editorial response to U.S. philanthropist George Soros’ call on Kuchma to resign, published in London’s Financial Times, Ukrainian state television accused Soros of destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine.

Despite international pressure, however, anti-Kuchma protests are apparently losing momentum. There has been no popular outcry about the demolition of the Khreshchatyk camp, and the regions remain largely indifferent toward the events in the capital. Meanwhile, the protesters have announced that they will not return to Khreshchatyk, but will set up a protest camp near Kyiv State University instead. But the removal of the demonstrators from Kyiv’s main avenue will further decrease public interest in the protest. It is worth noting, though, that even before the camp was destroyed, less than 1 percent of Ukrainians were ready for active protests, according to a poll conducted across Ukraine in December-January by Socis and Democratic Initiatives Foundation. Kuchma has been weakened by the political crisis, but seems to be in control of the situation and apparently has no intention of yielding to the opposition. Kuchma’s spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko, announced on March 2 that Kuchma would not leave office until the expiration of his second presidential term in 2004 (Vlada i polityka, February 23; New Channel TV, February 28; Korrespondent.net, UNIAN, March 1; ICTV, UT-1, UNIAN, March 2; RFERL, March 3).