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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 3, No. 48, 18 December 2001

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

NOTE TO READERS: The next issue of "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" will appear on 8 January 2002.


OLIGARCHIC SOCIAL DEMOCRATS SUFFER SETBACK. On 13 December, 234 members of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) voted to dismiss Deputy Chairman Viktor Medvedchuk from his position. Medvedchuk is also the chairman of one of Ukraine's most important, but least liked, oligarchic political parties -- the Social Democratic Party (United) (SDPU-O). Medvedchuk achieved notoriety during the Soviet era when he helped send well-known Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus to the Gulag, where he died in 1986. In the 1990s, Medvedchuk's rise to fame was meteoric, and he recently set his sights on the post-Kuchma presidency.

The factions that gathered the 150 signatures to place the motion of dismissal to a vote came from the two Rukh parties (36 members), Reforms-Congress (14), Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland (25), Solidarity (21), and the newly created Unity (15) led by popular Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko. The remaining votes came from the Socialists and Communists, who together command 130 members. Those two factions blame Medvedchuk for the adoption by the Verkhovna Rada last month of the land reform bill.

It has been increasingly evident that both the SDPU-O and Oleksandr Volkov's Democratic Union have been out of favor with President Leonid Kuchma. Volkov, a businessman who is reputed to have ties to organized crime and is wanted by Belgian police on moneylaundering charges, was presented with a medal by President Kuchma in February in honor of his "selfless work and personal merits in promoting Ukraine's socioeconomic development." But since then his star has also waned.

A new party of power, Regions of Ukraine, was created by the head of the State Tax Administration, Mykola Azarov, earlier this year in the Donbas, and many deputies from Volkov's parliament faction joined it. The final indication that Volkov had fallen out of favor with Kuchma and was no longer needed as an "adviser" was his replacement as head of the Democratic Union by Kuchma's long-time personal friend, Volodymyr Horbulin, who was Yevhen Marchuk's predecessor as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council.

Four factors have led to Medvedchuk's decline. First, Omelchenko's Unity faction dislikes the SDPU-O because of its control of many of Kyiv's prize assets, including the Dynamo Kyiv soccer team. Azarov's rival Regions of Ukraine has supported recent draft legislation to tax payments made on the transfers of soccer players from which the USDPU inordinately gained. Omelchenko also dislikes Hryhoriy Surkis, Medvedchuk's ally and president of Kyiv Dynamo and the Football Federation of Ukraine, who was his rival in the bitterly contested 2000 Kyiv mayoral elections. Omelchenko is the president of the Hockey Federation of Ukraine.

Second, the SDPU-O feared that as in the 1998 elections, they would again fail to garner the minimum 4 percent of the vote to secure seats for the candidates on its party list. The SDPU-O needed therefore to gain votes in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine because its main base of support in western and central Ukraine was less reliable. The party sought to capitalize on the language question by collecting 140,000 signatures demanding that a new Law on Languages be adopted to replace the 1989 law. The new law would elevate Russian to the status of an "official language" while keeping Ukrainian as the "state" language. It is unclear to all concerned what the difference between "official" and "state" languages is, a distinction first introduced by Kuchma during his 1994 election campaign but then shelved after his election. On 30 November, the Verkhovna Rada began to debate the replacement of the 1989 law, which ensured that the national democrats would target Medvedchuk as the person behind this move to place it on the Verkhovna Rada agenda only three months before the elections. Verkhovna Rada Chairman Ivan Plyushch has spoken out against discussing the language question on the eve of the elections.

Third, the SDPU-O is suspected of being one of the most likely culprits behind security service officer Mykola Melnychenko, whose bugging of Kuchma's office led to the "Kuchmagate" scandal. There are rumors that in mid-2000, the SDPU-O made a proposal to Kuchma that he hand over power to Medvedchuk in a manner similar to the transfer by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. But Kuchma refused to do so. The SDPU-O was also angry that Kuchma tolerated Tymoshenko's presence in Yushchenko's government. The SDPU-O argued that Tymoshenko and former Premier Pavlo Lazarenko made a lot of money from insider energy deals and therefore knew how to undercut this source of corrupt funds to the oligarchs. Melnychenko has always spoken highly of Marchuk, his former boss as chairman of the Security Service, and the Melnychenko tapes include no conversations between Kuchma and either Medvedchuk, Surkis, or Marchuk.

Finally, the other oligarchic parties could not have abstained in the vote of no confidence to dismiss Medvedchuk without a nod of approval from the presidential administration. Kuchma's blessing for Medvedchuk's fall from grace allows For a United Ukraine to become the main pro-Kuchma election bloc. Led by presidential administration head Volodymyr Lytvyn, a trusted friend and the only surviving member of Kuchma's 1994 election team, it includes five parties of power -- Regions of Ukraine (Donbas), Labor Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk), People's Democrats (Kharkiv and southern Ukraine), Agrarians (Galicia and Volhynia), and Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Each of these can draw upon "administrative resources" in the election campaign in the regions and institutions they control.

The rise and fall of the SDPU-O is characteristic of Ukrainian politics insofar as oligarchic parties lack any ideology and exist only at the whim of the executive. Although the oligarchs and the executive need each other, neither side trusts the other.

"I learned yesterday that Ukraine's GDP rose by 11 percent in the past 11 months." -- Vladimir Putin at a Ukrainian-Russian economic forum in Kharkiv on 15 December. "I learned about that only today." - - Leonid Kuchma at the same forum, in response to Putin's remark; quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website.

"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.


CRIMEAN NEWSPAPER PROBED FOR ANTI-SEMITIC PUBLICATION. The Prosecutor's Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea has launched criminal proceedings against the "Russkii Krym" newspaper in Simferopol in connection with anti-Semitic material it has published, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on 6 December. Prosecutor Oleksandr Dobroriz said a motion will soon be submitted to court to ban the newspaper. An RFE/RL correspondent reported that "Russkii Krym," which is published by the Russian Movement of Crimea, carried an article that claimed to reveal "tricks of the Jews and their ominous role in the contemporary fate of the Russian people." The proceedings against "Russkii Krym," which were initiated under the Criminal Code provision that prohibits stirring up interethnic enmity, is the first criminal case against a media outlet in Crimea. ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December)

NTV EXPANDS TO UKRAINE. Preliminary work on launching television network NTV-Ukraine has been completed, Ukrainian entrepreneur Vadim Rabinovich told on 3 December. An agreement on cooperation between NTV and Ukrainian television was reached earlier. The new channel will start broadcasting in January 2002. According to Rabinovich, the new network's staff will consist of Ukrainian (90 percent) and Russian (10 percent) journalists. "The NTV policies will be preserved, and [that] is the most important thing. We will work together as a team collectively gathering the topics. In alliance with the Russians, we consider ourselves younger partners," Rabinovich stated. ("RFE/RL Business Watch," 11 December)

CHERNOMYRDIN'S SEAT FILLED. A by-election for the State Duma seat left vacant when Viktor Chernomyrdin became Russia's ambassador to Ukraine was held in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug on 16 December. According to the preliminary results, Yamalo-Nenets First Deputy Governor Natalya Komarova won with some 73 percent of the votes, Interfax-Eurasia reported. Komarova competed against Yamal-region television and radio company chief engineer Eduard Ponasyuk, and the head of the information and programming service for the same company, Boris Pakhirko, who received 5 percent and 3 percent of the vote respectively, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 December. JAC

ITALY BACKS UKRAINE ON PATH TO EUROPE. Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero told his Ukrainian counterpart Anatoliy Zlenko in Kyiv on 17 December that Italy will support Ukraine in its bids to integrate into Europe and join the world's leading economic and political alliances, AP reported. Ruggiero and Zlenko discussed bilateral cooperation on investments, energy, transport, tourism, and migration, as well as ways to increase the trade volume between their states. Italy is Ukraine's second-largest trade partner among Western European countries. Trade volume between the two states was $948.3 million in the first nine months of 2001. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VETOES BAN ON ALCOHOL, TOBACCO ADVERTISING. Leonid Kuchma has vetoed the bill passed by the parliament on 15 November that banned alcohol and tobacco advertising "on all information carriers," Ukrainian media reported on 17 December. JM

HUNGARY TO INTRODUCE VISA REQUIREMENT FOR CANADIANS. Hungary will introduce visa requirements for Canadians in early 2002, cabinet spokesman Gabor Borokai told "Vilaggazdasag" on 17 December. The government's decision came after Canada reintroduced visa requirements on 5 December for Hungarians because of the large number of unjustified Hungarian applications for asylum in Canada (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2001). In other news, Hungary opened a new consular office in Berehove, Ukraine, on 17 December. Tibor Szabo, the president of the Office for Hungarians Abroad, said the consulate's opening is part of an effort to facilitate and strengthen links between Hungary and ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. MSZ