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END NOTE: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WANTS COUNTRY TO MAINTAIN ITS COURSE xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

...AND DISCUSS BILATERAL ECONOMIC COOPERATION. President Putin also said that Russia could resume exporting gas to Belarus at domestic rates if a joint venture between Russia's Gazprom and the Belarusian pipeline monopoly Beltranshaz is established, Prime-TASS reported. Talks on such a joint venture are under way, he said. Finally, Putin said that Moscow's recent decision to allow Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to collect value-added tax (VAT) on Russian gas transiting their territories will "have a positive effect on the development" of relations between Russia and Belarus, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004). Lukashenka hailed the move as "a very powerful and timely step on Russia's part," Interfax reported. The news agency reported that the two presidents pledged to take steps to see that new customs barriers between the two countries are not established. RC


Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma delivered an important speech at a gala meeting in Kyiv on 23 August, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of Ukraine's independence. Taking into account that Ukraine is expected to see a new president in the next three months, this was probably the last major occasion for the incumbent to sum up the decade of his rule. Kuchma took full advantage of this opportunity to highlight what he considers to be the most important achievements of his two-term presidency. Simultaneously, he made a sort of political bequest, speculating on how "Ukraine without Kuchma" should develop over the next 10 years.

Kuchma stressed at the beginning of his speech that after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine's historic challenge was the "most unique" among all post-Soviet and Eastern European countries. According to him, Ukraine's transformations in the early years of independence resembled a "wandering in the wilderness." Consequently, Kuchma credited himself with originating the determined course, after his first election in 1994, to build Ukrainian statehood, introduce a market economy, form a democratic civil society, and make the Ukrainians a "self-contained political nation."

Kuchma noted that Ukraine will need a "few decades more" to reach these four ambitious goals. Therefore, he called on his successor to continue the same political course. "The length of the process of Ukraine's transformation objectively requires that we ensure continuity in the political course," Kuchma said. "The next decade must be -- and I am convinced that it will be -- a continuation and not a change, not a rejection of the decade that is ending. I repeat, not a rejection and not a change, but a continuation."

It is no secret that Kuchma sees such a continuation in a Viktor Yanukovych presidency, rather than in that of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko or any other hopeful challenging Prime Minister Yanukovych's presidential bid. Indeed, Kuchma denigrated the Ukrainian opposition in his speech as "political Pygmies," jeering that it is striving to come to power under the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" slogan, which was adopted by the opposition for a string of anti-Kuchma rallies in 2000-02. "They expose themselves to ridicule, as a minimum because the incumbent president is not participating in the elections," Kuchma said. "But I can assure all of my compatriots on one point -- there will never be Kuchma without Ukraine."

As on many earlier occasions, Kuchma credited himself with laying a basis for Ukraine's European integration. "Europeization has already become a national idea [in Ukraine]," he emphasized. He upbraided the EU for proposing the European Neighborhood Policy rather than associate membership for Ukraine. "The status of a geographical neighbor of unified Europe -- which is persistently proposed to us by some Europeans -- contradicts our interests," Kuchma said. "I am deeply convinced that the development of our relations under the principles of association [with the EU] will meet both Ukrainian and EU interests."

In this European context, Kuchma defended his policy of developing a strategic partnership with Russia. "The stable relations with our strategic partner Russia, which are built on friendly, partner-like principles, are not a minus in our relations with Europe, as we are reproached by our opposition from the right wing, but a fat plus, and its real meaning -- I am convinced -- will soon be realized by politicians not only in Kyiv, but also in Brussels and Washington," Kuchma said.

Traditionally, Kuchma has praised his government for achieving and maintaining impressive economic growth. Kuchma said the country's GDP increased by 13.5 percent in the first seven months of 2004 compared with the same period in 2003, which entailed a 15 percent increase in the real incomes of the population. According to Kuchma, the average monthly wage in Ukraine stands now at 600 hryvnyas ($113) versus 181 hryvnyas in 2000, while the average monthly pension is equal to 220 hryvnyas (66 hryvnyas in 2000).

Many, if not all, of Kuchma's self-gratulatory assertions in his 23 August address have been or are being questioned by the Ukrainian opposition and independent Ukrainian observers as well as ordinary Ukrainians.

As regards the country's economic boom, it is necessary to mention here the opinion of Yushchenko, former prime minister and head of the National Bank. According to Yushchenko, the 13.5 percent growth in 2004 has not translated into rising living standards in Ukraine -- during the first seven months budget revenues rose only by 1.8 percent. Yushchenko admits that Ukrainians are now experiencing some improvement in their financial situation, but adds that this has been achieved primarily owing to the 2003 budget's "hidden revenues" that are now being spent by the government as a "bribe" to voters for their support for Yanukovych's presidential bid.

Yushchenko also questions Kuchma's claim that Ukraine has already laid a basis for a viable democratic system. "The choice facing voters this fall is very clear," Yushchenko wrote in an international edition of "The Wall Street Journal" on 24 August. "On the one hand, my vision for Ukraine proposes a system founded on democratic European values, which will enable each citizen to realize their socioeconomic potential in a country governed by the rule of law. On the other hand, those from the ruling regime propose preserving the current autocracy, which rules over competing financial-industrial groups. Their corrupt government bureaucrats implement unpopular policies with no respect for individual liberties and basic human rights."

Moreover, a recent poll by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies found that nearly half of Ukrainians -- 48.7 percent -- believe that their country is not independent, while only 38.1 percent think it is otherwise. Further casting doubts on Kuchma's picture of Ukraine under his rule, 50 percent of respondents said the country's level of economic development has declined since 1991. An even larger number of respondents, 61.5 percent, admitted that living standards in Ukraine have worsened during the 13 years of independence.

In other words, a majority of Ukrainians may not desire the political continuity Kuchma spoke of in his Independence Day speech. But it is anybody's guess whether they will identify Yanukovych as an agent of such continuity and Yushchenko as a new, better start for Ukraine on 31 October, when they go to the polls.

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT URGES CONTINUITY IN POLITICAL COURSE... Leonid Kuchma said on 23 August that Ukraine's next president needs to continue the current political course in order to complete the process of political and economic transformations in the country, the Ukrainian media reported. Kuchma was delivering a speech to mark Ukraine's 13th anniversary of independence on 24 August. "The next decade must be -- and I am convinced that it will be -- a continuation and not a change, nor a rejection of the decade that is ending," Kuchma said. The Ukrainian president asserted that "Europeization" has become a "national idea" in Ukraine and credited himself with laying "reliable" foundations for Ukraine's integration into the European and global communities. JM

...AS OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS FOR CHANGE. In an article published in the international edition of "The Wall Street Journal" on 24 August, Our Ukraine leader and presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko wrote that Ukraine is facing a historic choice in the 31 October presidential election, which may bring "real change" to Ukrainian society. "On the one hand, my vision for Ukraine proposes a system founded on democratic European values, which will enable each citizen to realize their socioeconomic potential in a country governed by the rule of law," Yushchenko wrote. "On the other hand, those from the ruling regime propose preserving the current autocracy, which rules over competing financial-industrial groups." JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION DENIES OFFICIAL ALLEGATION OF PREPARING 'PROVOCATIONS.' The Force of the People coalition, an election alliance backing Yushchenko's presidential candidacy, on 23 August refuted the government's statement that the opposition is preparing "various dangerous provocations" in the ongoing presidential-election campaign, Interfax reported. Last week, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Security Service of Ukraine, and the Interior Ministry issued a joint statement warning against such provocations and pledged to take preventive measures against them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2004). "Having no hope for a victory of the pro-government candidate [Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych in a fair struggle, the authorities are preparing the ground for provocations and heating up the atmosphere of confrontation in society," the Force of the People coalition said in a statement. JM

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS NEGOTIATIONS POSSIBLE ONLY AFTER TRANSDNIESTER 'GETS RID OF JUNTA.' President Vladimir Voronin, who returned from his vacation in the Czech Republic last week, on 21 August told a meeting of top officials that the resumption of negotiations with Transdniester would be possible only after the separatist region undergoes democratization and its residents "are liberated from the junta that has stolen the right to speak for the region," Infotag reported on 23 August. Voronin said Tiraspol is now ruled by a "fascist-like totalitarian regime" led by "a handful of [Russian] carpetbaggers and oligarchs" who are denying "to 700,000 people the right to live in the 21st century." He said he is surprised that some of the mediators in the conflict have turned into defenders of that regime, but failed to mention which of the three mediators -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- he has in mind. MS