President Leonid Kuchma faces a growing political crisis that could force him from office. Crowds estimated at 5,000-6,000 people marched in Kyiv on February 6 and again on February 11, calling on him to step down. The protesters have established a National Salvation Front that reaches from the political left (communist writer Boris Oliynyk, socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz) to the right (Yulia Tymoshenko, recently fired energy minister). Their stated goal is a “velvet revolution.”

Behind the turmoil is the revelation of audio tapes apparently of the president with his top security aides discussing the disappearance–that is, murder–of gadfly journalist Georgy Gongadze, who has not been seen since last September. The tapes are said to be the product of a bug planted in the president’s offices by a fugitive former security officer, Mykhaylo Melnychenko.

The country’s top law enforcement officer, Prosecutor General Mykhaylo Potebenko, is charged with investigating both the tapes and the fate of Georgy Gongadze. The parliament is eager to hear his report, but he may not be eager to give it. He has gone on leave of absence and may resign. His deputy admitted to the BBC that Kuchma’s offices were bugged, but says that parts of the tape in question may have been faked, cobbled together from separate words and sounds.

Kuchma insists he will not resign, and his advisors have discussed a declaration of a state of emergency. The crisis in the end may turn on the pro-Western Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who so far has tried to avoid a position. If Yushchenko goes with the protestors, Kuchma may fire him and the rest of the cabinet. If he backs the president, he risks his credibility with the parliament, where the pro-presidential coalition has collapsed. But Yushchenko has his own base of political support, especially in the western region of the country. He may have the power to move public opinion, which outside of the elite still seems indifferent to events, in a decisive direction.