CONFUSION SURROUNDS UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER'S DISMISSAL. A spokesman for Pavlo Lazarenko on 20 June denied reports that the prime minister will resign. He said that Lazarenko has been diagnosed with "physical exhaustion." The previous day, President Leonid Kuchma announced he was temporarily stripping Lazarenko of his duties and passing them on to Deputy Prime Minister Vasyl Durdinets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 1997). Many observers saw that move as permanent and predicted Lazarenko's resignation would soon follow. Lazarenko is considered responsible for Ukraine's continuing economic troubles and for not stopping corruption. Several parliamentary factions have called for his resignation.

G-7 OFFERS $300 MILLION TO REBUILD CHORNOBYL SARCOPHAGUS. At the Denver summit from 21-22 June, the Group of Seven leading industrial nations promised to grant Ukraine $300 million to help rebuild the concrete shell around the Chornobyl nuclear reactor, Reuters reported. A G-7 statement said the Chornobyl reactor, scene of the world's worst nuclear accident in 1986, should be closed completely by the year 2000. The G-7 has been urging Ukraine for years to close the station. Ukraine says it can do so only when new reactors have been built at other plants. It wants $780 million to help build a new sarcophagus. G-7 ministers also expressed concern about the slow pace of economic reform in Ukraine. It urged Ukraine to step up the pace of reform and encourage foreign investors.

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH TRANSDNIESTRIAN LEADER. Kuchma met with Igor Smirnov on 20 June in Kyiv and discussed the deployment of Ukrainian peace-keeping troops in the security zone of the breakaway region, ITAR-TASS reported. They also discussed economic cooperation. Under the terms of the 8 May memorandum signed by Chisinau and Tiraspol, the Transdniester can develop independent economic ties. Ukraine is one of the guarantors of the memorandum, alongside Russia and the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe.

UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER TO UNDERGO SURGERY. A spokesman for Pavlo Lazarenko told journalists on 23 June that Lazarenko will undergo surgery in the next few days. The spokesman said Lazarenko needs an operation for thrombophlebitis, which signifies the formation of a blood clot in a blood vessel accompanied by inflammation. President Leonid Kuchma temporarily relieved Lazarenko of his duties for health reasons on 19 June. Deputy Prime Minister Vasyl Durdinets was appointed acting premier. Meanwhile, the chief doctor of Kyiv's Feofania clinic told Interfax-Ukraine on 23 June that Lazarenko will undergo surgery for chronic phlebitis and varicose veins before the end of the week. The physician said the decision is not final.

BULGARIAN ROUNDUP. Two miners are missing and nine injured following a coal mine blast at Bobovdol, southwestern Bulgaria, AFP reported on 23 June. Four of the injured are in serious condition. The explosion was caused by a buildup of methane gas. In other news, a naval exercise named "Cooperative Partner '97" began on 22 June along Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. The exercise is being held within the Partnership for Peace program and will last two weeks. Participants include Greece, France, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine.

On 19 June, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma issued a decree naming First Deputy Prime Minister Vasyl Durdynets acting premier owing to Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko's illness. The same day, Lazarenko was taken to Kyiv's Feofania clinic, where he was placed under strict observation. The first diagnosis was that Lazarenko was suffering from extreme exhaustion.

The previous day, the Council for National Security and Defense, chaired by Volodymyr Horbulin, recommended to President Kuchma that Lazarenko be removed from his post. Horbulin commented publicly later that day that "the prime minister has to take responsibility for the promises he did not keep."

Appeals to remove Lazarenko had begun to intensify earlier this month. A congress of the National Democratic Party of Ukraine (NDPU)--whose leadership consists of many high-ranking members of Kuchma's administration as well as a number of influential businessmen--issued an appeal to the president to dismiss the Cabinet of Ministers and, above all, the prime minister. On 17 June, NDPU member and parliamentary deputy Oleksander Karpov said that members of the NDPU who had called for Lazarenko's removal were receiving threatening phone calls. The same day, Karpov repeated charges that the prime minister had illegally privatized his government-owned dacha in Pushcha Vodytsia--one of many corruption charges leveled against Lazarenko this year.

Kuchma appointed Lazarenko premier in May 1996 to replace Evhen Marchuk, a former chief of the Ukrainian Intelligence Service. Before his appointment, Lazarenko had been the presidential representative in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and the head of both the oblast legislature and the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast state administration. During the communist era, he was the head of a collective farm and held various positions at the raion and oblast levels. His association with Kuchma dates back to when Kuchma was director of the Yuhmaz missile factory, in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Lazarenko was faced with growing discontent from coal miners in the Donetsk region who had not been paid wages for several months. On 16 July 1996, while traveling by car to Donetsk to mediate the crisis, he was the target of an assassination attempt. A bomb placed by the side of the road exploded as Lazarenko's car passed by, leaving a 10-foot crater. Lazarenko, however, escaped injury. Kuchma subsequently removed Volodymyr Shcherban as presidential representative in Donetsk. At the time, there were numerous rumors that powerful business clans in Donetsk, with whom Shcherban allegedly had links, were behind the attempt on Lazarenko's life.

This year, charges of widespread corruption in the Ukrainian government began to proliferate. The U.S. telecommunications company Motorola announced in March that it was pulling out of the Ukrainian market because of "officials constantly changing the rules of the game." The press began to link Lazarenko to the Motorola pullout, pointing out he owns a significant portion of Kyiv Star, a newly formed telecommunications company that was awarded a tender by the government to install a mobile phone network in the country. Motorola had believed it had the rights to that project. Lazarenko responded to those and similar accusations in a letter to "The New York Times," but the charges only increased.

With crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for 1998, Kuchma decided in May to bring in a new, "clean" deputy prime minister. Serhiy Tyhipko, the 34-year-old director of Dnipropetrovsk's Privatbank, is seen by many in Kyiv as a future replacement for Lazarenko. By early June 1997, charges that the president and the prime minister were cooperating in illegal deals had begun to surface. Lazarenko had clearly become a liability to Kuchma. He was removed on his return from an official visit to Canada to discuss greater economic cooperation between Ottawa and Kyiv.

The "temporary" removal of Lazarenko is regarded by many in Kyiv as permanent. Kuchma has to show the West that he is cleaning up the government, and the proof of the pudding was getting rid of Lazarenko. Without him, Kuchma stands a far better chance of convincing Western financial institutions that he is sincere about both the anti-corruption drive and the reform program, which Lazarenko supported only half-heartedly.

The author is director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

RESEARCHER DIES FROM RADIATION EXPOSURE. Physicist Aleksandr Zakharov died on 20 June from a high dose of radiation he received three days earlier at the Arzamas-16 Nuclear Research Center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 1997), Russian news agencies reported. Doctors said it was the first death from an accident at a Russian nuclear facility since the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.