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Ukraine: New Government Could Make Life Difficult For Ex-President Kuchma

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (file photo) Former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma might have been hoping to fade quietly from public view following the defeat of his handpicked successor in December's presidential runoff. But many of his one-time political opponents have now risen to power, and they may have other plans. Politicians have accused Kuchma of misdeeds ranging from corruption to illegal arms sales and murder, and some radical parliamentarians have already called for the former president's arrest. Kuchma denies any wrongdoing, but it appears doubtful the new Ukrainian government will leave the former leader in peace.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kuchma is unlikely to have a quiet retirement as long as his political opponents are in power.

The former president has been accused of offering state property to his relatives and friends, selling weapons to rogue states and involvement in the 2000 murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

Such charges have yet to be proven in court, but the evidence against Kuchma is believed to be mounting.

Igor Losev, a professor of history and philosophy at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy, said Ukraine's new president and prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko and Yuliya Tymoshenko, respectively, have already launched an investigation into the cloud of accusations surrounding Kuchma.

"The new Tymoshenko government is already investigating the possibility of stripping him of all [retirement] privileges given him by the former government," Losev said.

Kuchma currently enjoys a generous pension, the use of two automobiles, a cook, a maid, and much more. All this could be put in peril if the government pursues its case against him.

A number of Kuchma's close friends and relatives have come under scrutiny as well.

Tymoshenko recently announced the cancellation of a dubious privatization deal involving the Kryvorizhstal metallurgical plant, which is co-owned by Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, and Rinat Akhmetov, a prominent businessman from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The trend appears aimed at stripping Kuchma of his power base. Yushchenko announced on 15 February that the government is preparing to reexamine the privatizations of some 30-40 major businesses.

But the most perilous charge potentially facing Kuchma is his alleged involvement in the unresolved killing of Gongadze, who ran a popular Internet news site that often criticized the government.

Gongadze was abducted in 2000 and subsequently murdered. In secret tapes made by a former bodyguard, Kuchma is overheard repeatedly complaining about Gongadze's reporting and ordering then-Interior Minister Yuriy Kravzhenko to "drive him out, throw [him] out; give him to the Chechens."

Kuchma has said he was not involved in Gongadze's murder and claimed the recordings are fakes.

Many opposition politicians disagree.

Losev said the new government had no choice but to investigate Kuchma's alleged crimes: "The new authorities will be pressed to do something about Kuchma, because the people who supported them [during the Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power] will not accept Kuchma being allowed to enjoy a peaceful retirement. That would suggest there is some kind of link between Kuchma and the new authorities."

Losev said, however, it was unlikely Kuchma would ever be put behind bars. He said such a move would be too great a political risk for Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.

"If Kuchma is tried in court, it will mean that no future Ukrainian president could be considered a sacred cow, judicially speaking," Losev said. "It would mean that the standard of responsibility for any future head of state and other officials would be raised."

Losev said Ukrainian politicians feel as though they belong to a single ruling elite, regardless of party affiliation. Were Yushchenko to take Kuchma to court, it would mean a radical break with political tradition.

Oleksandr Lytvynenko, an analyst with the independent Rozumkov Center, a think thank in Kyiv, said the country's ex-presidents enjoyed what he called an "unofficial immunity" and that rule of law had yet to become accepted practice. But, he said, that could change with time.

"The problem is that everything in Ukraine is happening all at once," Lytvynenko said. "A legal consciousness is being formed [in the society], new laws and new policies are being introduced. Everything is done all at once."

Kuchma, meanwhile, appears to be trying to make the most of his retirement while he can. The former president is traveling this week to the Czech Republic for a month in the spa town Karlovy Vary.

Kuchma's spokesman dismissed speculation Kuchma's trip was meant to help him escape criminal allegations in his home country.

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