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SUSPECT NAMED IN LUKOIL KIDNAPPING CASE PROCLAIMS HIS INNOCENCE. One of the three men named by investigators as suspects in the kidnapping case of LUKoil First Vice President Sergei Kukura appeared in Moscow on 1 October and vehemently denied any involvement, NTV and other Russian news agencies reported. Armenian businessman Gagik Bgdoyan, who along with two Ukrainian citizens was named publicly as a suspect in the case, told NTV that he was in Armenia during the time that Kukura was missing. He said that he will go to prosecutors accompanied by NTV journalists to declare his innocence. He admitted that he knows one of the other suspects named, a man who once worked for Bgdoyan as a driver. RC
TURKMENISTAN, UKRAINE REACH GAS-SALES AGREEMENT. During talks in Ashgabat on 1 October, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov and Naftohaz Ukrayiny board Chairman Yurii Boyko reached agreement that in 2003 Ukraine will purchase 36 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas at a price of $44 per thousand cubic meters, Interfax and turkmenistan.ru reported. That price will be paid half in cash and half in goods. The two also discussed expediting construction of a bridge over the Amu-Darya River and other building projects in which Ukrainian specialists are engaged. LF
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UNIAN JOURNALISTS COMPLAIN OF POLITICAL PRESSURE, CENSORSHIP... Journalists of the Kyiv-based independent news agency UNIAN on 1 October posted a statement on the UNIAN website (http://www.unian.net) saying they have been subjected to censorship and have come under "fierce pressure regarding the formation of [our] independent information activity" since the appointment of a new UNIAN executive director, Vasyl Yurychko, a week ago. "We feel that people representing the political interests of the authorities -- in particular, those of the administration of the president of Ukraine -- are interfering with journalistic matters at the agency," the statement reads. The journalists warn that they will go on strike if "the situation does not change and if the authorities continue to grossly interfere with UNIAN's editorial policy." JM
...AFTER INCIDENT INVOLVING OPPOSITION LEADERS. AP reported that the UNIAN journalists' statement appeared after a dispute between Yurychko and three Ukrainian opposition leaders over whether the opposition could hold a news conference at the agency's headquarters. In its regular news issue on the afternoon of 1 October, UNIAN carried a message saying that opposition lawmakers Yuliya Tymoshenko, Oleksandr Moroz, and Petro Symonenko "have begun brutally to pressure" the agency. Quoting UNIAN General Director Oleh Nalyvayko, the agency said Petro Yakobchuk from "Yuliya Tymoshenko's press service" demanded earlier the same day, "in the form of an ultimatum," that the agency provide its premises at 1 p.m. for a news conference featuring Tymoshenko, Moroz, and Symonenko. Nalyvayko reportedly refused, saying it was the first time he faced "such a brazen and gross [example of] pressure on the independent media." JM
UKRAINE PLEDGES TO ASSIST U.S. PROBE OF KOLCHUGA ALLEGATIONS. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma told U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Elizabeth Jones in Kyiv on 1 October that he will cooperate with any probe into allegations that Ukraine might have sold a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq, Reuters reported. Presidential spokeswoman Olena Hromnytska quoted Kuchma as saying he is ready to investigate the Kolchuga charges together with U.S. experts. Kuchma denied that Ukraine sold any weapons to Iraq in contravention of UN sanctions. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said later the same day that Jones in Kyiv "pressed the seriousness" with which Washington views evidence that Kuchma approved the sale of Kolchugas to Iraq. "We will now look at the reports that we get and make our assessment on the next steps," Boucher added. ITAR-TASS reported that Ukrainian Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko promised Jones that Ukraine will show Kolchuga radars to U.S. experts as soon as they arrive in Ukraine. JM
UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS PLAN COUNTRYWIDE PROTEST ON 12 OCTOBER... Three opposition leaders -- Yuliya Tymoshenko, Oleksandr Moroz, and Petro Symonenko -- announced on 1 October that they will organize another nationwide protest on 12 October to demand President Kuchma's ouster and will stage "people's tribunals" across the country to judge him, AP reported. "The protest action 'Rise Up, Ukraine!' has not yet reached its climax, as was claimed by some pro-presidential political scientists and some media," UNIAN quoted Moroz as saying. JM
...AND WANT TO TALK WITH RUSSIAN PRESIDENT... The three opposition leaders, as well as Our Ukraine head Viktor Yushchenko, have sent a letter to Russian President Putin asking him to meet with them during his visit to Ukraine on 6 October, UNIAN reported on 1 October. "We asked Putin not to interfere in the domestic affairs of our people, [and] we just informed him about our situation," Symonenko said. The opposition leaders said they want to talk with Putin about a planned Russian-Ukrainian agreement creating a consortium for the transport of Russian natural gas through Ukraine to the rest of Europe. They said they fear that private companies dominated by the Russian gas giant Gazprom will gain control of Ukraine's gas pipelines, AP reported. JM
...WHILE RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TELLS THEM TO MIND THEIR OWN BUSINESS. Later on 1 October, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin said he is sure the Ukrainian opposition is unable to block the creation of the gas-transport consortium. "I don't think this is a question for the opposition. Let the opposition take care of its own business," AP quoted Chernomyrdin as saying. JM
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS NEGOTIATIONS MUST CONTINUE WITHOUT PRECONDITIONS... President Vladimir Voronin on 1 October criticized the separatist position in negotiations over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) project for solving the conflict with Transdniester, Infotag reported. At a meeting with representatives of the three mediators in the conflict -- the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine -- Voronin said that while Moldova is ready to negotiate without preliminary conditions, Tiraspol has again raised the problem of the so-called "economic blockade" imposed by Chisinau when it withdrew the rights of Tiraspol to issue customs certificates. Voronin said the "all-embracing Transdniester-settlement problem should not be linked with the specific problem of customs stamps," according to Infotag. He added that "the economic blockade can be solved only after the signing of an agreement on Transdniester's status within the Moldovan Republic." Voronin said he is confident that international support from the OSCE and the other mediators, and in particular the fact that at their last meeting U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin included in their joint declaration a statement on cooperation in the Transdniester settlement, are proof that the conflict will find a solution. MS
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT DOES NOT WANT TO STEP DOWN
President Leonid Kuchma addressed the country on ICTV television on 28 September and accused the opposition of resorting to violence to unseat him. "It is one thing to express one's dissatisfaction but another thing to [try to] force a violent change of power and the social system," the president said. Kuchma called for an end to the opposition protests that began on 16 September, saying that previous demonstrations damaged Ukraine's image and stalled social progress. "[Opposition leaders] must think about whether to discharge the responsibilities for which they were elected by some 50 million citizens during the elections or to execute the demands of close to 50,000 people who participated in nationwide demonstrations," he said. "I refuse categorically to resign...because I was elected by the people as the head of state, and I feel fully responsible for all that happens in the country."
It appears that the Ukrainian president is beginning to regain control of the political situation in the country despite the two huge antipresidential rallies in Kyiv on 16 and 24 September, as well as numerous, albeit less well-attended, protests in the provinces. There is also no sign that Kuchma has been affected to any degree by the recent allegations from Washington that Ukraine might have illegally sold a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq following Kuchma's personal authorization.
Last week, the nine pro-presidential groups in the Verkhovna Rada -- the Party of Entrepreneurs-Labor Ukraine, Ukraine's Regions, Social Democratic Party-united, European Choice, Democratic Initiatives, Popular Democratic Party, Power of the People, Ukraine's Agrarians, and People's Choice -- announced that they have created a 226-strong parliamentary majority to "assume responsibility for legislative activities and the creation of a coalition government in accordance with the president's proposals regarding the implementation of political reform." The practicality of such a razor-thin majority -- 226 is the minimum number of votes necessary to pass laws -- is dubious, as witnessed by several abortive votes on legislation in parliament last week. But the announcement shows that Kuchma does not intend to bow to the demands of former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko that a parliamentary coalition be created around his grouping, Our Ukraine, which won the most parliamentary seats contested under a proportional party-list system in the 31 March parliamentary elections.
According to Roman Bezsmertnyy, Our Ukraine's political coordinator, a viable majority in the Verkhovna Rada should consist of at least 270 deputies. Until now, the opposition Communist Party, Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- as well as Our Ukraine -- have been able to disrupt parlaiment's work by boycotting votes. But such tactics seem to play into the hands of the presidential administration. In his 28 September address, Kuchma accused the opposition of sabotaging the current parliamentary session by refusing to participate in voting. He castigated opposition groups for failing last week to support a law on money laundering and suggested that Ukraine's international image might be severely damaged and international organizations might impose sanctions on Ukraine because of this failure. He also lashed out at opposition legislators for not voting on a bill to provide assistance to the families of disabled people. These are arguments with some populist appeal.
It seems that Kuchma's primary intention is to persuade Yushchenko that Our Ukraine -- if not as a whole, then in part -- should join the pro-presidential majority and provide the necessary support for the legislative activities of the Verkhovna Rada. Mykhaylo Pohrebynskyy, a political analyst with links to the presidential administration, described for the "Ukrayinska pravda" website how Yushchenko could make such a move toward Kuchma. "[Yushchenko] could create two factions on the basis of his [Our Ukraine] mega-faction," Pohrebynskyy noted. "One faction could be more resolute and consistent in pursuing [Our Ukraine's] opposition line. The other could be more prone to compromise and ready for more active cooperation." According to Pohrebynskyy, the "radical part" of Our Ukraine could "maintain room to maneuver for Yushchenko, and he would not have to go between [Yuliya] Tymoshenko, [Oleksandr] Moroz, [Petro] Symonenko, and Kuchma, but would be able to move among his own people."
It is for Yushchenko to judge whether he wants to join a majority in which he will not play the main role, as well as whether such a scheme would not actually mean a split within Our Ukraine. But it is also obvious that the time for making his crucial political choice -- moving to the radical antipresidential opposition or joining the pro-presidential coalition -- is already at hand. Any further wavering and maneuvering on the part of Ukraine's most popular politician could irrevocably alienate his current and/or future allies.