Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has replaced his government and declared his intention to participate in the Prague NATO summit despite NATO's insistence that he has not been invited. After consulting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow over the weekend, Kuchma is now in China looking for "proof" that he never sold weapons technology to Iraq.
Prague, 18 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on 16 November appointed a new prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, after sacking the government of Anatoliy Kinakh for allegedly failing to solve social problems.
Some observers see Yanukovych as a potential successor and guarantor of Kuchma's immunity from any eventual prosecution. Kuchma's term in office expires in 2004.
As governor of the Donetsk region, Yanukovych earned a reputation for strong-arm tactics in forcefully cracking down on crime at the expense of democratic rights. He also has a reputation of being a loyal supporter of the embattled Kuchma.
Although Kinakh was also seen as a loyal supporter during his 18 months as prime minister, his difficulties in implementing policy may have spelled his political demise.
The independent weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnya" says Kuchma appointed Yanukovych because he is a "man who can carry out tough policies without contesting presidential orders."
Parliamentary opposition-bloc leader Oleksandr Turchynov said it will make little difference, in the end, who fills the post. "In my view, it is of no significance who fills the post of prime minister now. He'll be a puppet in the hands of [the presidential administration on] Bankova Street, Kuchma and [his chief of staff Viktor] Medvedchuk. We can also speak of oligarchic clans being able to strengthen their economic presence over the Ukrainian market," Turchynov said.
However, Kuchma's predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk, currently a pro-government lawmaker and parliamentary-faction leader for the Social Democrats, said Yanukovych is suited to the post of prime minister. "We can't insist on the ideal of what Europe's view of a prime minister should be. The situation here is the way it is, the constitution is what it is, and we are doing all we can to abide by the constitution so things work like in Europe. Today, what we need is to install in office competent people, professionals who can resolve the situation," Kravchuk said.
Kuchma faces difficulties domestically and abroad for his alleged role in ordering the murder of opposition reporter Heorhiy Gongadze two years ago.
Earlier this year, a court in Kyiv opened an investigation of Kuchma for a variety of crimes, including his alleged role in Gongadze's murder.
Kuchma also faces allegations, which he denies, of having violated United Nations sanctions by approving a $100 million sale to Iraq of a Kolchuga radar system.
U.S. authorities say they have verified the authenticity of a recording in which Kuchma's voice can be heard approving the sale.
After holding talks in Moscow over the weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kuchma flew to Beijing where he is believed to be lobbying China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to back his call for the UN to investigate the alleged radar sale. Ukrainian authorities refused to cooperate fully with a team of U.S. and British investigators who recently visited Kyiv to look into the Kolchuga allegations.
Ukraine has sold four Kolchuga units to China, according to Medvedchuk.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council decided on 16 November that Kuchma should participate in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council session in Prague on 22 November, which is being held within the framework of the NATO summit.
NATO officials in Brussels insist no personal invitation was ever sent to Kuchma and have suggested that Kuchma's participation "would not be wise" and would result in "empty chairs" due to boycotts by Western leaders of any session he might attend.
Nevertheless, Kuchma's press secretary, Olena Hromnytska told Interfax yesterday that according to a list of delegations NATO provided the Czech Republic, Kuchma is mentioned as heading Ukraine's delegation. Hromnytska provided no other details regarding the alleged list.
NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur told RFE/RL today that contrary to reports in the Ukrainian news media, NATO never issued a personal invitation to Kuchma to attend the summit. "President Kuchma did not receive a personal invitation to come to the EAPC [Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council] summit in Prague. But Ukraine, like any other EAPC country, has an invitation to come to Prague and is expected to be in Prague," Brodeur said.
Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda told reporters on 15 November that Prague and Kyiv had already agreed that Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko would attend the talks instead of Kuchma.
However, in the wake of the Ukrainian council's reversal, Ukrainian authorities today officially requested a visa for Kuchma to attend the NATO summit. Czech authorities say they will grant Kuchma a visa.
In contrast, the Czech Foreign Ministry has barred Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from attending the Prague summit, due primarily to his government's human rights record. Foreign Minister Svoboda cited two other reasons for the denial: Lukashenka's insistence on receiving special treatment and special protection, as well as what Svoboda said is the inevitability that Lukashenka would use participation in the summit to legitimize his position in Belarus.