DEMONSTRATORS IN KYIV DEMAND PRESIDENT'S OUSTER. Some 500 people held a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv on 15 December, demanding an independent investigation into the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma, Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko, and Security Service chief Leonid Derkach, Interfax reported. A group of demonstrators later pitched a tent on the square to continue the protest, which was launched by several political parties, including the Socialists and nationalists, under the slogan "Ukraine Without Kuchma." The organizers are appealing to Kyiv residents to take part in a protest march on 19 December. The recently publicized audio and video tapes in Ukraine blame Kuchma and his power ministers for the disappearance of Gongadze and for other illegal actions with regard to independent media and opposition politicians. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December)

ANTI-KUCHMA PROTESTERS AT CHORNOBYL CEREMONY ATTACKED. The "Find Gongadze!" Citizen Action Group staged a demonstration on December 15 during the official closing ceremony for the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. More than 30 protestors distributed English-language press releases on the Gongadze case. Police threatened to "lock up" demonstrators, complaining that since they could not read the English-language signs, they are illegal. The police also claimed that storeowners had filed complaints that the flags and signs were "harmful for business." Several young men in civilian clothes attacked the demonstrators who were holding English-language signs; four protestors sustained minor injuries. Contact . (Media Monitoring Agency, 18 December)

PRESIDENT CHARGED WITH BOMBING OPPONENT, FALSIFYING VOTES. Ukraine's scandal implicating President Leonid Kuchma and several top officials in criminal conspiracies took on even larger proportions on 14 December, when lawmakers in the parliament were shown a second videotape featuring former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko. Melnychenko accused Kuchma of organizing a grenade attack on Natalya Vitrenko on 2 October 1999 to prevent her from running in last year's presidential ballot. Melnychenko also alleged that Kuchma ordered falsification of the results of last year's presidential elections and this year's constitutional referendum. Melnychenko confirmed his previous allegation that journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was kidnapped by an Interior Ministry special task force, on Kuchma's instruction to Interior Ministry Yuriy Kravchenko. Prosecutor-General Mykhaylo Potebenko, for his part, told the parliament that the tapes featuring the interviews with Melnychenko are fabrications. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December)

GEORGIA READY TO ACCEPT 'ZERO OPTION' IN DIVIDING FORMER SOVIET ASSETS. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told a cabinet session on 20 December that the parliament will soon debate ratifying an agreement whereby Georgia will withdraw its claims to former Soviet assets in return for Moscow 's writing off Georgia's share of the former Soviet debt, Caucasus Press reported. Shevardnadze noted that all other former Soviet republics, except Ukraine, have already accepted that option. Minister of State Giorgi Arsenishvili told ministers that he has twice discussed the "zero option" with Russian Premier Mikhail Kasyanov, who had agreed to it. Russia had made rescheduling of Georgia's $179 million debt contingent on Tbilisi's acceptance of the "zero option." Shevardnadze had previously informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that Tbilisi would accept the zero option only after a debt rescheduling agreement was signed. LF

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY AGREES TO SACK POWER MINISTERS. Leonid Kuchma met on 20 December with representatives of the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" protest campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2000). According to one of them, Yuriy Lutsenko, Kuchma agreed to order that independent experts be consulted in connection with the disappearance case of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and to sack Interior Minister Yuriy Kravchenko and Security Service chief Leonid Derkach. The "Ukrayinska pravda" Internet newsletter reported that Kuchma "categorically rejected" the demand of the protesters that he himself resign. However, presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko commented later that Kuchma "is ready to consider [the dismissals] but stressed during the meeting [with the protesters] that all appointments and reshuffles of ministers are made following proposals by the Cabinet of Ministers." Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said Kuchma wants to shift responsibility for the dismissals to Premier Viktor Yushchenko. JM

UKRAINIANS SAY FAREWELL TO UNIATE CHURCH LEADER. Some 10,000 people gathered in Lviv on 20 December to pay their last respects to Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lyubachyvskyy, head of Ukraine's Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church, who died last week at the age of 86, Reuters reported. Lyubachyvskyy led the largest Uniate Church in the world and was spiritual leader of 5 million Uniates in Ukraine and another 2 million Ukrainian believers living mostly in Canada, the U.S., and Australia. After spending 45 years in exile, Lyubachyvskyy went back to live in Ukraine in 1991. "His return to Ukraine became a vindication of the irreversibility of the reign of God's spirit over our nation," independence activist and former Soviet dissident Mykola Horyn said in his words of condolence. JM

POLISH PROSECUTORS TO PROBE MYSTERIOUS TELECOMMUNICATIONS CABLE. Justice Minister Lech Kaczynski has ordered that prosecutors investigate a mysterious high-tech telecommunications cable that Russia's Gazprom has laid along its gas pipeline across Poland, Polish media reported on 20 December. Kaczynski told journalists that the investigation will "definitely involve more than one ministry." The existence of the fiber-optic cable, which is able to handle most of Russia's telecommunications traffic with the West, was revealed by "Gazeta Wyborcza" last month (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 21 November 2000). JM

Since his ouster as Belarusian head of state by a Communist-dominated parliament in 1994, Stanislau Shushkevich has been one of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's most ardent critics.

A physicist by training, the 66-year-old Shushkevich became involved in politics in 1986 when he criticized government negligence in reporting on the nuclear accident at Chornobyl in neighboring Ukraine. With the backing of the Belarusian Popular Front, Shushkevich became a member of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet in 1990. The following year, he was named its chairman--the highest post in the country.

Shushkevich was one of the three signatories of the Belovezha accords in December of that year. Those accords created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

He had advocated neutrality in military matters, but in 1993 the Belarusian parliament overrode Shushkevich's objections and voted to join the CIS collective security agreement. Communist legislators forced Shushkevich from his post as head of state soon afterward. He now leads the Social Democratic "Hramada" party.

During a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague recently, Shushkevich said that Belarus's current leadership has been unable to develop the economy and that for the past several years, Belarus has been subsisting on its aging Communist-era infrastructure. "In Belarus, the relics of gigantic unprofitable communist enterprises are being preserved," he commented. "The relative well-being of society--I stress, relative -- and our current survival stems from the fact that we are using up the resources that our fathers and grandfathers amassed."

According to Shushkevich, Belarus's feeble economy means the country is not self-reliant, putting its sovereignty at risk: "In the conditions of such a drop in production and the using up of our basic resources, Belarus cannot pay for its own upkeep. The labor of its people is not enough to buy it the necessary amount of energy it requires in Russia--gas and coal."

Shushkevich noted that Russia has skillfully manipulated Belarus's predicament--with the willing help of President Lukashenka, to bring Minsk back into its embrace. "As a result, it looks as if Russia is constantly helping this poor Belarus and keeps the poor Belarus afloat, which cannot exist as a sovereign state," he added.

In addition to running the economy into the ground, Shushkevich faults the Belarus leadership for gutting all efforts at nation-building. In 1994, when Lukashenka came to power, textbooks that attempted to portray the region's past objectively were pulled from school shelves, to be replaced by Soviet-era books. The country's post-independence flag was replaced by its Soviet equivalent.

Currently, in the capital Minsk, there is only one secondary school where teaching is conducted in the Belarusian language. As in Soviet times, all students interested in continuing their education must be fluent in Russian. "The possibility of receiving an education in the Belarusian language has been lost," he lamented. "There is not one higher education institution where courses are taught in Belarusian."

The press, too, has been curbed. The few semi-free publications that exist are dwarfed by the output of statesponsored periodicals. Shushkevich pointed out that "for each edition of the more or less free press--and I say more or less because we have no truly free press--there are 24 government publications of considerably better quality, [that are] cheaper, and so forth."

But Shushkevich says that all these factors, have galvanized the divided opposition. Next year, presidential elections are due, and Shushkevich says the opposition intends to field one candidate against Lukashenka.

Next year holds the promise of political change for Belarus--if the opposition plays its cards right. But Shushkevich says he is determined to effect change through the ballot box. He shrugs off the possibility of a Yugoslavstyle popular revolt, pointing out that after centuries of suppressed national consciousness and 80 years in which personal initiative of any kind was stifled, Belarusians are not ready to take to the streets en masse.

"As a physicist, I will tell you: We have different surroundings and different starting conditions."

But as a politician, Shushkevich says he intends to be there for his people, whatever happens.