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BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PLANS PROTESTS FOR SPRING. Young Belarusian opposition politicians, who organized the 15,000- strong "Freedom March" last October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 1999), intend to hold a "Freedom March II" on 15 March to mark Constitution Day, Belapan reported on 18 January. Another rally on 25 March will commemorate the creation of the non-Bolshevik Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918. According to the organizers, the main goal of the planned actions is to defend Belarus's independence that is threatened by the merger with Russia and to urge talks between the authorities and the opposition. The organizers said they will invite observers from the OSCE along with parliamentary deputies from Russia, Ukraine, and Poland in an attempt to guard the protest against violence by the police. JM

UKRAINIAN SPEAKER BLASTS CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM DECREE. Oleksandr Tkachenko on 18 January harshly criticized President Leonid Kuchma's decree to hold a constitutional referendum on 16 April, which may lead to the dissolution of the current parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2000), Interfax reported. The referendum pursues "no other goals than installing an unlimited presidential authority, destroying the parliament, and limiting the rights and freedoms of all Ukrainian citizens," Tkachenko said. According to him, the referendum is Kuchma's attempt to avoid responsibility for the disastrous economic situation in Ukraine. "The people of Ukraine should be aware that they are pushed onto the path of an irresponsible adventure that may put an end to democracy in the country," Tkachenko noted. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENTARY SESSION PARALYZED. Eleven parliamentary caucuses and groups that had formerly declared the creation of a center-right, pro-government majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2000) blocked further debates on 18 January by leaving the session hall and stripping the session of a quorum, Interfax reported. The walkout occurred after the parliament failed to approve a motion to put on the agenda a proposal to introduce changes in the parliament's regulations regarding voting procedures. The motion was supported by a sufficient amount of 226 votes, but speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko said the voting was rigged because some deputies voted also for their absent colleagues. JM

Profile Of New Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko

Installed as prime minister just before the new year, Viktor Yushchenko is being hailed as a new type of leader for Ukraine. At age 45, he is younger than most of the country's politicians, and he enjoys a rare reputation for honesty and intelligence. His marriage to an American adds to his proWestern image.

From 1993 till last month, Yushchenko was the chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine. In that role, he impressed foreign financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF with his skill and integrity. Major achievements during his term include curbing Ukraine's runaway inflation and keeping the new currency, the hryvna, stable.

His early remarks as prime minister indicate that Yushchenko wants to steer clear of the corruption and cronyism that have characterized Ukrainian politics since independence. Most Ukrainians believe that their political leaders are merely intent on lining their own pockets.

Yushchenko told RFE/RL's Ukraine Service earlier this month that he wants to bring in younger people whose outlook has not been shaped by the Communist system.

"In the first place, these people should be dedicated to Ukraine's interests in every sphere. This pan-Ukrainianism should become the bedrock upon which we build our nationhood. And it goes without saying that these should be people with clean hands and they must have strong personalities."

Yushchenko was born in the town of Khoruzhivka in Sumy Oblast, which borders Russia. His first financial job was as assistant to the chief accountant at a collective farm in Western Ukraine. After serving his time in the Soviet Army he began work in the USSR State Bank and rose rapidly within its ranks. When Ukraine declared independence in 1991, Yushchenko was the deputy director of the commercial agro-industrial bank Ukrainia.

Yushchenko's public behavior makes him a rarity in Ukraine. Unlike most high officials, he has not sought to exploit his position for personal gain. Instead, he comes across as a self-effacing person who values his privacy.

Those who know him personally describe him as pleasant and sensitive. Bank employees used to affectionately refer to him as "batko" or father. He likes art and, while chairman of the National Bank, sponsored many art exhibitions to promote young artists.

Friends say Yushchenko is committed to economic and democratic reforms. They say he is deeply patriotic and wants to solidify Ukraine's independence and give Ukrainians reasons to be proud of their country.

Others point to his courage: During the presidential campaign, Yushchenko threw his support behind one of the few genuinely democratic and reformist candidates, Yuri Kostenko, rather than taking the politically expedient path of supporting the successful incumbent, Leonid Kuchma.

The primary task for the new prime minister is to lead Ukraine out of its economic morass. Living standards have plunged since independence, and industrial and agricultural outputs plumb new depths with each successive year.

The former central banker holds out a vision of a new, fiscally responsible Ukraine. He told RFE/RL that Ukraine's economic situation is dismal, with successive governments borrowing massively without making plans about repayment.

"The last two years have been the most difficult that I remember not only in Ukraine's recent history but ever in the field of national finances. It's a logical outcome because for the last nine years, as far as economic matters go, we have been living amorally. We did not adopt a conscientious political stance, there was no political solidarity and in the absence of those things an atmosphere of political irresponsibility developed."

Yushchenko hopes that he will be able to win over a large enough proportion of the parliament to back his and President Leonid Kuchma's wide-ranging reform plans. These plans include abolishing collective farms, massive privatization and a radical reorganization of central and local administrations. The present parliament--and its predecessor--failed to make much progress on widespread economic or political reform because the Communists, who constitute the largest single party in the parliament, have been able to block legislation in concert with their leftist allies.

Ivan Lozowy is the director of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, a Ukrainian think-tank. He says Yushchenko is the best choice for prime minister that independent Ukraine has had.

"I think this is a very unexpected but very pleasant boon to Ukraine to receive such a prime minister as Viktor Yushchenko. This is a respected banker and a person who has demonstrated that he is of a clear reformist orientation. And in the conditions that exist in Ukraine in the political sphere, he is a very welcome addition to the political establishment and it certainly opens the door to the hope that things can change for the better finally."

Some observers in Ukraine believe that President Kuchma's appointment of Yushchenko was simply a cynical move to exploit Yushchenko's good relationship with the IMF and Western politicians. They suggest that with such a respected prime minister, Kuchma could secure better terms for repayment when Ukraine's huge debts--around $3 billion-- become due this spring. After that, cynics say, Yushchenko will be fired.

Lozowy says that could be part of Kuchma's calculation-- but that if Yushchenko does manage to improve the economic situation it will be difficult to remove him.

"Certainly the administrative changes that have begun finally at the initiative of President Leonid Kuchma and now being picked up by Viktor Yushchenko leads me to believe that systemic change has already begun. Again I stress that in the short term, it's difficult to see real changes taking place but in the long term, we know for a fact, and that's the essence of real reform, that they will have a positive impact."