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Ukraine: Violence Hits The Presidential Campaign

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Tensions have been heightened in Ukraine after a bomb injured an opposition presidential candidate on October 3, just weeks before the country is due to hold a first round of voting for the country's top post. But RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports tensions were already high because of accusations that incumbent President Leonid Kuchma is using improper campaign tactics.

Kyiv, 5 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian police yesterday were questioning two suspects detained minutes after grenades exploded at a rally on October 3 for Progressive Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Natalya Vitrenko. The explosions injured Vitrenko slightly and more than 20 other people, four seriously, at a meeting in the town of Inhuletsk in southeastern Ukraine.

Immediately after the attack there was heated speculation about who was responsible. State-controlled television channel UT-1, widely regarded as being close to Kuchma, claimed today it had information linking the detained men to prominent leftist candidate and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz.

Moroz and the apparent victim of the attack, Vitrenko, are seen as Kuchma's most formidable rivals for the presidency. Moroz's aides dismissed the accusation against him and said it was a blatant attempt at discrediting their candidate.

They argue that Kuchma sees Moroz as his most dangerous rival and that an attack against Vitrenko would win her an increased sympathy vote and help split the leftist vote.

Several opposition candidates, including Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, said they believe that Kuchma's campaign staff was behind the attack.

There have been previous accusations by the opposition candidates that their supporters have been intimidated and attacked. In August Moroz said a gun had been fired at a bus carrying his supporters. A hall in which another candidate, former Ukrainian KGB chief Yevhen Marchuk, was addressing supporters had to be cleared after a bomb threat.

The director of the independent Institute for Statehood and Democracy in Kyiv, Ivan Lozowy, believes that many people were expecting something sinister to happen in the run up to the elections on October 31. Lozowy spoke yesterday with RFE/RL by telephone from the Ukrainian capital:

"I think this attack was to be expected. The fact that it came directed at Natalya Vitrenko was, of course, difficult to forsee but there have been foreshadowings of this kind of activity. Plus taking into account what is at stake: not just governing society but huge amounts of money, criminal elements, and mafia structures. I think this type of event was to be expected."

Police said that the two men detained for the attack came from Rostov-on-Don in Russia, not far from the Ukrainian border. Lozowy said that Ukrainian police have proved unable to apprehend anyone for most high-profile assassinations in the country in recent years. He thought it very strange that they caught two suspects so quickly.

"The suspicious circumstances of people returning to the country and immediately throwing grenades, I'm referring to the perpetrators of this event, makes for a very dangerous and explosive situation because anything can happen in the future. I know one thing for certain, the people behind this, whoever they are, are playing with fire."

Andrew Wilson is a political analyst and lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. He was an observer at last year's Ukrainian parliamentary elections and will be present at the presidential elections.

Wilson told RFE/RL yesterday that he thought the general climate during the election campaign had been dirty. But he said he had not expected violence.

"I am surprised by grenades being used in a public context but this has occurred in the context of quite ruthless methods being used against many of the current regime's opponents."

In the past two weeks most of the opposition presidential candidates have complained vigorously about Kuchma's alleged electoral campaign violations. They have accused him of using state funds to finance his election and of using government agencies to obstruct rival candidates. Kuchma has denied the allegations and says they are politically motivated.

Parliament passed a resolution demanding that the Central Election Commission ban Kuchma from standing in the elections. That is unlikely to happen as Ukrainian election law is unclear on how to disbar a candidate who is already registered.

Most of the candidates and parliament called for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to send observers to monitor the situation before the election. A delegation arrived from the Council of Europe yesterday. Ukrainian parliamentarians hope the presence of the delegation, which will later be joined by 200 other international observers, will curb attempts to abuse the election rules or rig the vote counting.

Wilson says that international observers cannot be expected to prevent grenade attacks but that the Council of Europe could investigate complaints into issues such as official attempts to interfere with the press.

He says it is important that Ukraine try to hold honest elections and that a dirty election would harm the country's reputation and affect relations with western countries.

"Well, minor impropriety, even occasionally major impropriety, I suppose, are to be expected. It would do Ukraine's public image in the West severe damage if such impropriety was seen to be gross."

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote on October 31, a runoff between the top two vote winners will be held two weeks later. Most polls show Kuchma running first, but not with enough support to win in the first round. Polls show either Moroz or Vitrenko running second.