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Ukraine: Opposition Joins Forces In Calling For Kuchma's Ouster

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Demonstrators demanding the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma today took to the streets of Kyiv, with the opposition looking for ways to broaden its protests and put further pressure on the Ukrainian leader.

Kyiv, 10 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of protesters marched through the streets of the capital today (Tuesday) to demand the resignation of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

The cry of "Ukraine without Kuchma" could be heard repeatedly as demonstrators carrying flags and banners wound their way through Kyiv's hilly cobblestone roads. The march took protesters past the parliament building, down the city's main thoroughfare, and on to a rally outside the capital's historic Saint Sofia cathedral.

Organizers estimated some 7,000 protesters attended the demonstration. Police officials put the figure at around 4,000 people.

Kuchma has been accused of involvement in last year's disappearance and death of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The Ukrainian president is also blamed for the country's widespread corruption and sagging economy.

Kuchma has repeatedly denied involvement in Gongadze's murder.

Today's demonstration was the first to feature the new Forum for National Salvation coalition, which joined three opposition organizations under one umbrella group.

Forum representatives include politicians and several parliamentary party leaders, who say they can count on the support of more than one-third of the parliament's 350 members in their bid to oust Kuchma from the presidency.

Among the speakers at today's rally was one of the forum's leaders, Volodymyr Oliynik, the reformist mayor of the city of Cerkassy and a former presidential candidate. He said that there was no point in holding a dialogue with Kuchma, and urged Ukrainians to pursue their protest in "Yugoslav style" -- a reference to the mass demonstrations that eventually toppled Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic in October:

"We will take the Yugoslav path. That is a path of protest but of peaceful protest, the path of civil disobedience, of action, of opposition. Thank God that Yugoslavia is without Milosevic. Pray to God that Ukraine will be without Kuchma."

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz also spoke at the rally. He applauded the new forum coalition, saying coordination among the different opposition parties was essential to securing Kuchma's removal.

"The president has appeared here and there at functions and said that he doesn't know whom to talk with in the opposition [because] he sees that there is no leader. The opposition doesn't need a leader -- the leader of the opposition is the people themselves. The leader of the opposition is those people who cannot remain complacent and cannot resign themselves to the injustice that they see in every corner of our Ukraine."

Today's demonstration followed one yesterday (April 9), in which some 1,000 students from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities marched in the capital.

The new wave of protests is one of the key elements in the opposition's strategy to increase pressure on Kuchma.

Demonstrations began last December but have never drawn crowds larger than 10,000 people. At its first open meeting last Saturday (April 7), the forum announced its intention to expand into a wider mass movement with the hope of bringing about substantive change in the country's political system.

More than 200 people packed a hall in a parliamentary building to discuss how to increase the ranks of the protest movement. The star of the meeting was the country's best-known female politician, Yuliya Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko, who heads the Fatherland Party and is an open opponent of Kuchma, was removed by the president earlier this year from her job as deputy prime minister. She was then arrested on charges of financial wrongdoing and kept in jail for a month-and-a-half. She was released late last month pending a trial.

Tymoshenko has denied any financial impropriety and maintains the charges were brought against her because of her anti-Kuchma stance. At last Saturday's meeting she said it was imperative to get rid of Kuchma to secure a democratic future for Ukraine:

"Kuchma is like a piece of cork in the good bottle of wine of freedom and independence, and as long as you don't remove this piece of cork the people of Ukraine will never be able to drink from this wine of independence, freedom, and well-being."

Tymoshenko said that if Kuchma was not forced to resign, he could cancel parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. She said that pressure for Kuchma's ouster should be increased by organizing a referendum in which people could express a vote of no confidence in the president, and added that a stalled presidential impeachment process could be revived in parliament.

The meeting's attendees voted almost unanimously to support the moves for a referendum and impeachment.

However, one of Ukraine's foremost political commentators -- Mykola Tomenko of the independent Political Institute -- said yesterday that he did not think a referendum was a viable option because it required massive resources to organize and would be open to manipulation by Kuchma's administration.