By Michael Mihalisko/Lawrence Holland
Prague, 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has rejected criticism over press freedom in Ukraine and has expressed confidence that he will prevail in elections later this year.
In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Kyiv this week (June 22), Kuchma says claims that he and the government control the media are "absolutely" wrong. He in particular dismisses claims that the media has been made inaccessible to other candidates in October presidential elections.
"We have more than 8,000 print media in Ukraine. And more than 1,000 television companies. All of them are private or, one can say, non-state media. It is no secret to anybody than many of [my rivals in the presidential race] have their own private media. The president has no such media. If one looks closer at media, one will see at once who possesses this or that newspaper or this or that channel. Thus I absolutely disagree with the opinion [that media in Ukraine is controlled by the government]."
Kuchma's comments follow publication last month of an annual ranking by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) which included him on its list of the "Ten Enemies of the Press". The list also included, among others, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Cuban President Fidel Castro and China's President Jiang Zemin.
The CPJ accused Kuchma of using "tax and libel laws as instruments" against journalists and said he even encouraged violent physical attacks on them. The CPJ also accused Kuchma of, in its words, running "roughshod over any expression of opposition".
Kuchma responded last month to the CPJ criticism by announcing he would sue the organization.
On the October 31 presidential vote, Kuchma expresses confidence in his re-election.
"I am convinced of my victory. That is why I am running. In the current situation a change of political course would be fatal for Ukraine. I see my duty in continuing what I began in 1994. There is simply no other way for Ukraine. This is the main motive behind my struggle for the presidential post."
Kuchma acknowledges that Ukraine's economic troubles are an obstacle to his re-election. He calls the economic situation his "main opponent".
But Kuchma lists accomplishments in the economic sector among the main achievements of his presidency. He cites a steep reduction in inflation, the introduction of a new currency - the hryvnia, and stabilization of monetary system. He also cites a slow but steady increase of investments, and progress on privatization.
Kuchma also comments on his prolonged standoff with the Ukrainian parliament, or Rada. He strongly criticizes what he says is the body's slow work on legislative issues and says it is difficult to run a country by presidential decree. Kuchma says there are issues which can be governed only by the laws adopted by the legislature and does not exclude the possibility that parliament might face dissolution.
Kuchma also cites areas of foreign policy among his major achievements. He specifically cites the creation of what he calls "a zone of stability around the country" through the reaching of treaties with Russia, Poland, or Romania.
Kuchma refuses to say whether the building of better ties with Russia, the United States or Poland is most critical, saying instead that relations with all three are important.
Kuchma states that he would not support efforts by those he identified as "leftists" in Ukraine to include the country in efforts to form a "Slavic union" with Belarus and Russia. Kuchma says "part of Ukraine" will never accept going on what he calls the "Belarusian path".
Kuchma also comments on the possible consequences of eastward expansion by the European Union. Neighboring Poland is in the front ranks of candidate states and says it hopes to join in the early part of the next decade.
"The EU's borders will soon reach Ukraine. The European Union is a structure with it's own laws. [This division] will be painful not only for Ukraine but for countries joining the EU."
Kuchma added that therefore, the consequences of EU expansion is one of Kyiv's top priorities in discussions with Poland and with other members of the Central European Initiative. He said "one of the main aims is to find a way to soften the economic and social impact of EU expansion on Ukraine."
Kuchma also comments on the crisis in Kosovo, where NATO troops are stepping up operations after forcing a withdrawal of Serb troops and paramilitaries from the majority ethnic Albanian province. Kuchma called the end of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia and the beginning of a peace process in Kosovo a "great relief", particularly from a humanitarian viewpoint. But he said it is also important for economic reasons.
"War is war. But this also a relief from the economic side too, because during the conflict Ukraine was lost $200 million as a result of closure of transit on the Danube."
Kuchma praises Russia's peace initiatives on Kosovo and also praises the U.S. for agreeing on a Russian role in the process and in peacekeeping operations.
Kuchma says that Ukraine will "take part in peacekeeping operations within [its] capabilities".
(The interview was conducted by the Ukrainian Service's Andreas Hajdamacha, Larysa Mudrak and Pavlo Balkovsky.)