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Ukraine: Political Tensions On The Rise

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Political tensions in Ukraine are on the rise. This week the country's most prominent female politician, former Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, was arrested. And Ukrainians were startled that reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko signed a joint declaration with President Leonid Kuchma warning that strident action will be taken against demonstrators demanding Kuchma's resignation. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 15 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An attorney acting for Ukraine's former deputy prime minister, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who was arrested Tuesday (13 February), will today try to secure her release.

Lawyer Viktor Shvets intends to protest to Ukraine's Supreme Court the legitimacy of the warrant issued for Tymoshenko's arrest by Deputy Chief Prosecutor Mykola Obykhod.

Obykhod said investigations show Tymoshenko gave $80 million in bribes to former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, her one-time close political ally. Lazarenko fled Ukraine in 1999 and is now in a U.S. jail on charges of conspiring to launder millions of dollars in bribe money.

Prosecutors have also accused Tymoshenko of stealing and illegally exporting Russian natural gas worth $2.5 billion, mainly during 1996 and 1997 when she headed Ukraine's biggest energy supplier, Unified Energy Systems. The prosecutor's office would not comment on the case, saying it was an ongoing matter.

Tymoshenko denies all the charges. Opposition politicians say she was arrested because she is one of the best-known members of a newly formed anti-Kuchma alliance, called the Forum for National Salvation, which cuts across Ukraine's political spectrum.

That is also a view held by analysts such as the head of the independent Institute of Politics, Mykola Tomenko.

"It's completely obvious that political considerations here outweigh, by far, any criminal or administrative misdoing."

Tomenko believes the arrest will further discredit Kuchma and could draw more people into demonstrations against his rule.

"I think this strengthens the hand of the political opposition and has delivered another blow to the power elites and the administration."

Tymoshenko herself made a fortune during her time heading the energy company, but she has always maintained that she was not involved in criminal or corrupt deals. Her husband, Oleksandr, from whom she is separated, was arrested on similar charges several months ago.

Tymoshenko is the leader of Ukraine's third-largest political party, Batkivschyna (Fatherland), and became deputy prime minister last year. She immediately launched a crusade against corruption in the energy sector and was regarded as one of reformist pro-Western Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko's most effective colleagues.

Tymoshenko pushed through reforms in the energy sector that curbed widespread practices involving barter deals instead of cash payments for gas supplies. Shady barter schemes were often used by Ukrainian and Russian businessmen in corrupt deals.

Her reforms reportedly angered Kuchma and some of his closest political allies. Last month Kuchma fired her from her government post.

Since then Tymoshenko has played a leading role in a growing movement pressing for Kuchma's resignation. The movement was sparked by allegations that Kuchma last year ordered the disappearance and presumed murder of an anti-corruption journalist, Heorhiy Gongadze.

Gongadze went missing in September. Two months later, a headless corpse was discovered, almost certainly his. A few weeks afterward, audio tapes secretly recorded by a former Kuchma bodyguard were revealed and said to implicate the president in the journalist's removal.

Kuchma denies any involvement in Gongadze's disappearance and his office has said the tapes have been altered to distort their meaning. But many Ukrainians still blame Kuchma for Gongadze's disappearance.

Thousands of demonstrators have taken to Kyiv's streets three times in the last week to demand Kuchmas's resignation. The protesters blame Kuchma not only for the journalist's disappearance but for widespread corruption, ruining the country's economy, and suppressing press freedom.

On Tuesday Kuchma, Prime Minister Yushchenko and parliament speaker Ivan Plyushch issued a joint statement saying the demonstrations were aimed at bringing chaos and even civil war to Ukraine.

The three officials said many of the opposition leaders were criminals and said that authorities would use "all legitimate means" to quell the disruptions.

Yuschenko's signature on the statement probably disappointed many Ukrainians. Polls show he is Ukraine's most trusted politician and is regarded as pro-Western and liberal.

On Tuesday, a Kyiv court ordered 150 anti-Kuchma protesters camped in tents in the capital's main square to disperse by noon the same day. The demonstrators have remained in the square, with members of parliament "adopting" the tents and extending parliamentary immunity to them. So far the police have not made any efforts to move them out forcibly.