More antipresidential violence broke out in Kyiv on March 9, the anniversary of the birth of the nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. While recent protests, which include the mass demonstrations of late February, are hardly a revolution in the making, the aggressive mood of the opposition has put the government on nervous alert. President Leonid Kuchma is accused both of corruption and undemocratic practices and of responsibility for the disappearance of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze last autumn (see the Monitor, February 12, 15).
Each year the president lays flowers at the base of a monument to Shevchenko, who is regarded nationally as a symbol of resistance to oppression. Early on the morning of March 9, anti-Kuchma protestors–who had warned the authorities of their intention to disrupt the ceremony–were confronted by several thousand riot policemen. As Kuchma quietly laid the flowers, demonstrators attempted to break through the police cordon, snatching shields and truncheons from the policemen. In the ensuing violence, Socialist MP Valentyna Semenyuk was beaten by the police. Several protesters were then detained and taken to a district police department. The crowd, which numbered some 7,000-10,000, followed–to “liberate” them. The detainees were released. Meanwhile, a smaller crowd of protesters approached the now-abandoned Shevchenko monument. Chanting antipresidential slogans and several of Shevchenko’s poems, these demonstrators tore down and trampled the wreaths Kuchma had laid. They then moved on to the presidential office. There, however, the organizers of the demonstrations, for the most part moderates, failed to prevent violence. Members of the far right Ukrainian National Assembly–the Ukrainian National Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO)–attacked the police, who retaliated with truncheons and tear gas. Over sixty people were injured. Some 200 protestors were arrested, among them, UNA-UNSO leader Andry Shkil and several opposition MPs aides. Reportedly, the police later vandalized the offices of UNA-UNSO and the Ukrainian Conservative Republican parties. Comparing the protestors to Nazis, Kuchma condemned them and lashed out at independent domestic and foreign media for reporting “blatant lies” about the day’s events. Once again he said he would not resign his post. The following day, he left for vacation in the Crimea.
Kuchma’s control of the situation seems, on the one hand, increasingly tenuous. Recently he has demonstrated both signs of unease and heightened suspicions abut those around him. On March 6 he called on state officials and his ministers to either publicly condemn the opposition or resign. Having surrounded himself with fierce loyalists, his request was apparently pointed at an individual, the liberal-minded Premier Viktor Yushchenko. While Yushchenko refuses to support the opposition, he has also shown an increasing reluctance to condemn them. In an interview with RFERL on February 26, Yushchenko said that the protesters went to the streets “to get answers to questions which should be answered.” He responded to Kuchma’s March 6 ultimatum, though, assuring the president that no single minister in the government was an oppositionist. At the same time, he did not condemn the opposition.
Meanwhile, though the anti-Kuchma protesters are for the most part allied by common emotions, they are not united on issues. The Socialists want to make Ukraine a parliamentary republic. The UNA-UNSO calls for a “national revolution,” the goals of which they do not clearly define. The Communists, once the most significant opposition, did not take part in the March 9 events. And while Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz recently visited the United States in the hopes of enlisting support against Kuchma, Communist leader Petro Symonenko called a recent threat by the U.S. Department of State to withdraw financial assistance from Kyiv if democracy is not maintained in Ukraine “imprudent” (see the Monitor, March 6).
Kuchma’s control of the situation thus, on the other hand, seems sound enough, if only because the opposition has so far been unable to unite its forces in any meaningful way. On March 10, the police arrested over half the participants of the founding congress of the Public Committee for Resistance “For the Truth,” in which the protesters attempted to unite representatives of several non-Communist parties and public organizations. The committee had announced as its goals, first, increasing the parliament powers at the expense of the presidential authority and, second, “stopping the Russian expansion and the anti-Western hysteria” (Studio 1+1 TV, March 3, 7; Ukrainska pravda, March 6, 10; UNIAN, New Channel TV, Korrespondent.net, March 9-11).
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