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Ukraine: Black Berets Surround Odessa City Hall

Kyiv, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A platoon of black berets loyal to the central government has taken over Odessa City Hall to prevent renegade Odessa Mayor Eduard Hurvits from entering the premises. At the same time, Ukraine's Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko has named one of his deputies to act as temporary mayor of Odessa, ending a week of speculation on whether direct Presidential would be imposed on the restive Black Sea port.

RFE/RL Kyiv reports that, in his second Odessa visit in as many weeks, Pustovoitenko oversaw the operation, appointing subordinate Nikolai Biloblotsky to replace sitting Mayor Eduard Hurvits. The Prime Minister argued that, since Odessa must hold new Mayoral elections, an unbiased city manager is required to keep them clean. Pustovoitenko also said increased police presence is needed to "keep the peace," as he put it, until elections can be carried out.

About 50 Odessans gathered at city hall to protest the takeover. No incidents were reported.

In recent days, the national government has launched an all-out offensive against independent-minded Odessa Mayor Eduard Hurvits, charging - among other things - that a March 29 election, returning Hurvits to a second term, was rigged. Assisted by a newly appointed prosecutor, Biloblotsky will also oversee an audit of Odessa city financial and privatization records. Hurvits opponents say it will prove graft and corruption to be the main feature of the past Hurvits administration.

RFE/RL Kyiv reports the target of the accusations had a very different view on recent developments.

"Illegal, without precedent, and unconstitutional," Hurvits tells RFE/RL in Kyiv. "We are already talking about a police state," Hurvits said.

His lawyers maintain the election was legal and valid, and that the Biloblotsky appointment, plus police at city hall, equals little more than a blatant grab by the center for tighter control of one of Ukraine's wealthiest cities. "We have the money here in Odessa," a City Council attorney (anonymous) said, "(and) Kuchma wants it."

Last Friday, Hurvits sued the Supreme Court justice who nullified the March 29 election results. And, while Pustovoitenko was in Odessa naming a erstwhile replacement, Hurvits was in Kyiv politicking in Parliament.

At the instigation of political ally and acting chairman Pavel Lazarenko, Ukraine's Parliament took up the issue of the Kuchma administration's latest moves in Odessa.

Opposition leader Yuri Karamazov (Hromada-Odessa) told fellow deputies the move was "a cynical abuse of power by the Kuchma government.... or, in his words, "political dictatorship." He also said inviolability of the law in Ukraine was "at an end."

Acting chairman Lazarenko allowed Karamazov an extra three minutes to rail at the administration, before proposing that Parliament send a commission to Odessa to investigate the Presidential investigators. The proposition for a parliamentary commission failed, garnering less than a quarter of votes required.

Asked if he was disappointed with the result, Hurvits replied, "Of course not." He said he would continue to fight in the Supreme Court and, if necessary, in the European Community and the Council of Europe."