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Ukraine: Has Yushchenko's Political Honeymoon Come To An End?

  • Valentinas Mite

http://gdb.rferl.org/5781BE02-ECA6-4604-A010-3941AE831B32_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/5781BE02-ECA6-4604-A010-3941AE831B32_mw800_mh600.jpg President Yushchenko with his family Some 200 Ukrainian journalists have joined forces in asking President Viktor Yushchenko to formally apologize for what they say was rude behavior during a recent news conference. The Ukrainian president was angered when a reporter pressed him to address reports about his son's lavish lifestyle. Analysts say it is not the first row between Yushchenko and the press -- but it may be the latest sign the president's political honeymoon is coming to an end.

Prague, 27 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Public regard for President Yushchenko seems to be waning.

Last year's Orange Revolution elevated him to near-hero status, prompting many Ukrainians to joke that the only difference between God and their new president was that God didn't think he was Yushchenko.

Since then, however, a scandal over his son's spending habits and the probing of a newly freed media have forced Yushchenko on the defensive.

The president's son, Andriy, is a university student in Kyiv majoring in international relations. But he appears to have expensive tastes. He drives a new BMW and has been reported to lead a "playboy" existence.

Ukrainian media have given the story constant coverage -- even asking the president for an explanation at a 25 July press conference. But President Yushchenko angrily dismissed the questions, accusing one correspondent of subjecting his children to unfair scrutiny.

"Andriy is just a citizen like you. He wants a private life," Yushchenko said. "You try revealing your private life [to other people]. He is not a public politician. My friends, if you want to strike out at someone, strike out at me. Don't attack wives or children. You should be above that."

But the reporter, from the "Ukrainian pravda" newspaper, probed further, asking where Andriy Yushchenko worked that enabled him to afford his BMW M6 sports car -- valued at $120,000 -- and other luxury items like a $30,000 platinum Vertu mobile phone.

President Yushchenko responded by calling on the correspondent to "act like a polite journalist and not like a hit man." He went on to say his son had a job that allowed him to lease his BMW -- and that the phone had been a gift from a friend.

"He has a job at a consulting company, and he also does some other things there -- honest things, which I have encouraged him to do for a long time," Yushchenko said. "It's not a lot of money, but it is enough to lease a car and hire an extra security guard [not provided by the state]."

Now 200 Ukrainian journalists have published an open letter demanding an apology from the president for what they say was an arrogant retort to a reasonable journalistic question.

Stuart Hensel of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit said the appeal was justified, as Yushchenko is developing a pattern of rude behavior with the press.

"Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of the way in which he has dealt with the press in the past," Hensel said. "He has received criticism for some of his previous press conferences, and specifically this one dealing with his justice minister, where he was very dismissive of allegations made by the press about members of his entourage. And he invited some comparisons to the previous regime [of former President Leonid Kuchma]. I think there is some disappointment, certainly, from the members of the liberal press in Ukraine."

Valeriy Ivanov, the head of the nongovernmental Ukrainian Press Academy, also signed the letter. He told RFE/RL the letter was about more than Yushchenko's coarse words at the news conference.

"The president just simply refused to provide information about the behavior of one of his family members, and this behavior concerns huge sums of money," Ivanov said. "In fact, it was about hidden forms of corruption. In addition to that, he behaved rudely toward the journalist."

He said Yushchenko was breaking the promises he made during the Orange Revolution to respect the free press.

So does this mark the end of warm ties between the president and the media?

Ivanov said such a period, in fact, never existed. He said the new Ukrainian government has from the start tried to impose some control over the press.

"Putting it frankly, it isn't the first problem between a journalist and the new authorities," Ivanov said. "Journalists have many claims against local authorities. [Local authorities] have sought to sack those journalists who worked before the Orange Revolution. Attempts have been made by the authorities to control Internet media."

Andriy Bychenko, the head of the sociological office of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, said this latest conflict was different because those journalists who once supported the president are now assailing him.

"If you look more closely, you will see that it is unpleasant for the president -- that this topic was raised and developed by the same journalists who strongly supported him just a short time ago," Bychenko said. "For a long time, 'Ukrainian pravda' and 'Zerkalo tyzhnia' -- whose journalists were among those who signed the petition to the president -- were almost the only media outlets, together with Channel 5, which presented Yushchenko's and the opposition's point of view."

Bychenko said the scandal clearly showed that Ukrainian media was not doing the government's bidding -- and that while Yushchenko might love the limelight, he has little idea how to deal with an independent press.

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