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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 16, 1 May 2001

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team


WHAT COMES AFTER YUSHCHENKO? One answer to this question suggests itself almost automatically: another political turmoil in Ukraine. Irrespective of what form it may take, it will surely not benefit the country's economy.

The best scenario for the country would be to obtain a "technical premier" with no political ambitions; an administrator who would only look after the economy and prevent it from sliding into chaos until next year's parliamentary elections, which are generally expected to structure both the parliament and society to a far greater degree than they are structured now. One of the bleakest scenarios would be to install a Communist (or someone like Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko) in the post of prime minister and to subject Ukraine to a situation similar to that of Belarus's malady -- selfisolation from the West and reintegration with Russia. But for some reason, Ukrainian commentators and analysts exclude such a development from their speculations on the future of their country.

When 263 lawmakers voted on 26 April to oust Yushchenko for what they say was the government's unsatisfactory performance in 2000, there were few commentators in Ukraine or abroad who took this official explanation at face value. Indeed, under Yushchenko's cabinet Ukraine posted its first post-Soviet economic growth, restructured a total of $2.6 billion of commercial debt, stabilized the hryvnya, launched the privatization of collective farms, increased pensions by 40 percent, and -- according to official reports -- increased real incomes by some 6 percent. It should be noted that all of this was achieved without resorting to external loans. Even if some parameters of the "Reforms for Prosperity" programs were not met by Yushchenko's cabinet, its term was in no way a complete failure.

As regards the ulterior motives for Yushchenko's dismissal, many commentators say Ukraine's oligarchic parties -- the Social Democratic Party (United), the Democratic Union, and the Labor Ukraine bloc -- want to take over the helm of power jointly with the Communist Party in order to better position themselves for next year's parliamentary elections. Some also believe Yushchenko's ouster was orchestrated by President Leonid Kuchma, who resented the premier's growing popularity among Ukrainians and, additionally, had long wanted to divert the public attention he attracted from the tape scandal implicating him in the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. If this second supposition is true, then Kuchma may have seriously miscalculated the situation.

On the day Yushchenko was dismissed, another important vote took place in the Ukrainian parliament: 209 lawmakers voted to put Kuchma's impeachment on the parliamentary agenda (only 19 votes short of the required majority to launch a debate on the issue). The measure was supported by the Communist Party, the Fatherland Party, Rukh, and Solidarity groups (the "oligarchic parties" did not back that measure). But it was certainly a clear warning to Kuchma: Should he try to significantly impede the "Communist-oligarchic" takeover in Ukraine, it will be no problem to muster the 226 votes needed to put the impeachment issue on the agenda. Such a development, coupled with former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko's powerful push to organize an anti-Kuchma referendum, would made Kuchma's position extremely shaky. His earlier exit would suddenly cease to be just a theoretical issue in the country.

If Kuchma understood the hint that lay in the impeachment debate vote, then he should propose a candidate to head the government who will be accepted primarily by oligarchs. But even such a move will not secure his future. If the Communists accept the leadership of the parliament as their reward for helping the oligarchs oust Yushchenko, then an oligarchic cabinet may try to get rid of Kuchma with more powerful levers than a parliamentary vote.

Yushchenko's future seems unclear as well. Many admit that by sticking to his political principles and refusing to bargain with oligarchic parties over his dismissal, Yushchenko has acquired a sort of political personality and now has a good chance to remain in the spotlight of Ukrainian politics for a long time -- and even to run for president. But as of now, he has neither clear political allies nor leverage in media (the state-controlled media work for Kuchma, while private ones for various oligarchs). Yushchenko has announced that he wants to build a broad, nationwide coalition of reformist forces -- a prudent statement by someone who aspires to become the president of all Ukrainians. But in actual fact, for the time being he can count only on support of the opposition groups united in the Forum of National Salvation and the For the Truth civic initiative. And these groups have so far been successfully marginalized by the state media and administration.

It is highly probable that in the near future we will be witnessing the competition of no less than four significant forces in the political arena in Ukraine: the pro-Kuchma administration, the oligarchs, the anti-Kuchma opposition in an alliance with Yushchenko's "broad reformist coalition," and the Communists (who are unlikely to remain for a long time in the current situational alliance with the oligarchs). Judging by all appearances, the impending political turmoil is set to be far greater than that provoked in the past by several standoffs between Kuchma and the parliament.

Fifteen years ago an accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine spread radiation across a broad swath of the USSR and Eastern Europe, which then forced the Soviet leadership to open the way for glasnost and the ultimate demise of communism in Europe.

On 26 April 1986, a test at the Chornobyl nuclear plant went badly wrong, an explosion occurred and massive amounts of radiation were released into the atmosphere. The initial Soviet response was first to deny that there had been any problems at the plant and then to insist that Soviet nuclear engineers were in complete control of the situation.

Had the reactor been located further from the Soviet borders with the West and had the radiation plume not passed over Scandinavia, the Soviet government might have been able to get away with such denials just as Moscow often had succeeded in doing with earlier disasters.

But once Swedish scientists monitored the radiation cloud, radio and television stations in Eastern Europe and Western Europe began to report that an accident had taken place. And Soviet citizens quickly learned what had in fact happened -- some from cross-border Polish television broadcasts and others from international radio broadcasters.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union only 13 months earlier, was faced with a crisis. If he followed the standard Soviet protocol on such matters, he would not only lose face at home and abroad as a reformer, but also risk losing his power base within the Soviet leadership.

Confronted with this choice, Gorbachev first equivocated and then signaled that he was willing to allow the Soviet media to report more accurately on what had happened. Soviet newspapers, radio stations, and television networks began to tell Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians more of the story, and Gorbachev sought to use this new openness, which he eventually labeled "glasnost," as a means to win popular support and defeat his political enemies.

For the first time, Soviet citizens were hearing more or less accurate information about a disaster in their country not just from foreign radio "voices" but also from their own media. That did not lessen their fears about the consequences of the Chornobyl accident, but it did mean that they now looked to their domestic media as a source of news.

Gorbachev's own hesitations and statements then and later make it clear that he did not recognize what he had begun or where it would lead. Once the Soviet media implicitly, and in some cases explicitly, acknowledged that Soviet outlets had not told the truth in the past about Chornobyl and nuclear power, Soviet citizens and a growing number of Soviet journalists began demanding for a fuller accounting on other issues as well.

Over the next five years, this process accelerated, forcing Gorbachev and the Soviet government to confront ever more controversial questions about the rule of the Communist Party and Soviet state policies.

And as Soviet claims were shown to be hollow and false, ever more citizens of the USSR turned away not only from the system as a whole, but from Gorbachev, who had allowed these revelations to occur. That shift contributed to the collapse of communism, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the difficult period of transition away from a totalitarian system toward democracy and freedom.

The Chornobyl accident, in the first instance, called attention to the incredible dangers inherent in the use of atomic power, and many people in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia are still suffering from exposure to radiation.

But at the same time, the aftermath of that accident highlighted the incredible power of a more open press to change people's minds and ultimately to change the course of history.

"As a citizen, I am convinced that democracy in Ukraine suffered a serious defeat [today]. We were unable to make our choice. The political elite, represented by a majority of those who voted against the Ukrainian government today, proved to be unready to recognize that a legal economy and public politics are the only possible path to social development. I thank all who supported the government and me during the [past] 18 months, I am convinced that our efforts in this regard were not in vain. I will continue the policy I have proposed with all available instruments and methods that are allowed by democracy and principles of public politics. I'm not going away from politics, I'm going to return." -- Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yushchenko to the parliament on 26 April, after it passed a no-confidence vote on his cabinet; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"As far as I understand, Mr. Yushchenko was following the president's course. The president is remaining, and he has not said anything about his intention to change the course. Therefore I think that a new prime minister will follow this course, too -- that is, the course followed by Yushchenko." -- Ukrainian political scientist Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 26 April.

"There is a silly opinion that the premier [Yushchenko] was following the president's course. Let us say openly -- our president [Kuchma] has no course. We simply look like clowns on the world's arena while following, so to say, the president's direction. It was Yushchenko who had a course. After his dismissal, we have lost this course and are facing an incomprehensible situation." -- Former Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 26 April.

"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.

U.S. SAID BEHIND INSTABILITY IN UKRAINE. Mikhail Delyagin, the head of the Russian Institute on Globalization, has concluded that the United States benefits from instability in various parts of the world and appears to be behind the current problems in Ukraine, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 28 April. Delyagin said that as a result, Ukraine could soon fall victim to what he called "the Yugoslav scenario." He said that Moscow must do everything in its power to prevent this from happening. PG

GEORGIA CLAIMS OWNERSHIP OF IMPOUNDED ARMS SHIPMENT. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said in Tbilisi on 1 May that the planeload of arms intercepted and impounded in Burgas on 26 April is Georgian property (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2001). He said Tbilisi had purchased spare parts for artillery systems from the Czech Republic. Bezhuashvili was at a loss to explain why the Ukrainian plane transporting the materiel had landed in Burgas to refuel, and why the crew said the cargo was destined for Eritrea. He also denied reports that the cargo consisted of Kalashnikovs and submachine guns. The Czech Foreign Ministry confirmed on 1 May that it had authorized the arms shipment to Georgia, but Thomas CZ commercial manager Jan Decky told CTK that his company had only sold Georgia howitzers, not the submachine guns and ammunition reported by Bulgarian media. LF/DW

THOUSANDS CELEBRATE MAY DAY IN UKRAINE. More than 10,000 people participated in a Soviet-style May Day rally in Simferopol, Crimea, Interfax reported. Participants held placards reading: "Let Lenin's Name and Achievements Live for Centuries!"; "Sunny Crimea -- Yes, Yes, Yes! NATO and Its Followers -- No, No, No!"; and "Privatization Is the Robbery of the People!" Some 5,000 people celebrated May Day with a march in Kharkiv, which was headed by Communist Party supporters following a scuffle with other participants. There were several separate May Day rallies in Kyiv: the Social Democratic Party (United) gathered 1,500 people; the newly created Communist Party of Workers and Peasants (KPRiS) 1,000; the Communist Party 500; and the Progressive Socialist Party 500. KPRiS leader Oleksandr Yakovenko said his party aims at organizing a "socialist revolution" in Ukraine. Some 3,000 demonstrators in Dnipropetrovsk demanded that Kyiv break ties with the IMF and give Russian official language status. JM

COMMUNISTS WANT TO RUN UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko told a rally in Kyiv on 1 May that his party is ready to assume responsibility for the future of the country, Interfax reported. Symonenko noted that it was Communists who initiated the ouster of the "pro-American" government of Viktor Yushchenko. Symonenko said Yushchenko's cabinet increased Ukraine's economic and financial dependence on the West, canceled privileges to the poor, and increased housing and utility payments. According to Symonenko, "the nationalists jointly with oligarchic capitalists" -- assisted by the West -- are seeking to divide Ukraine into three parts. Symonenko added that the U.S. is currently working to make Yushchenko the leader of the Ukrainian opposition and tear Ukraine away from "fraternal Slavic peoples." Symonenko said his party might propose no less than four candidates to head a new cabinet. JM

UKRAINE'S MOROZ DEEMS ANTI-KUCHMA REFERENDUM A GOOD IDEA. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz on 1 May said the recently proposed referendum on the impeachment of President Leonid Kuchma (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2001) is a "promising" idea, Interfax reported. "This [referendum] campaign will help [us] impart the truth to people," Moroz noted. According to Moroz, Ukrainians should be consulted in the referendum not only on Kuchma's dismissal, but also on issues that "reflect our position on the need to change the power system." He added that referendum questions should also address issues connected with ensuring, in practice, the constitutional guarantees of free education and health care, as well as establishing "sensible" housing and utility payments. JM