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Ukraine: Opposition Candidates Fail To Present United Front

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is widely favored to win re-election in the presidential election two weeks from now. The opposition's main chance of defeating him lies in uniting behind a single candidate, something they have not yet done. RFE/RL correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv on the status of the opposition and how they are being portrayed in state media.

Kyiv, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When four candidates announced in August they were joining forces in the Ukrainian presidential race, the media covered the event in a glow of sunshine. The four candidates -- socialist Oleksandr Moroz, parliament speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, head of a mayoral association Volodymyr Oliynik, and former Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk -- made their announcement in Kaniv, the rural, leafy burial-place of a national poet, and became known as the Kaniv Four. Analysts said a single candidate from the Kaniv Four could be a real challenger to President Leonid Kuchma, who is running for re-election.

Two months later, the Kaniv Four are again in the news, but the media attitude has greatly changed. Moroz, the most popular of the four candidates, has fallen foul of a scandal surrounding the attack on the life of rival candidate Natalia Vitrenko. Tkachenko has been accused of breaking election laws by campaigning on Russian television. And the failure of the four to announce a single candidate as promised has led to widespread speculation that the Kaniv Four have splintered to a Kaniv Three, or even Two.

The candidates delayed announcing their choice several times, saying fears of physical attack prevented them from naming the candidate. Finally last Friday (Oct. 15), Moroz's team announced that Tkachenko and Oliynik would support Moroz, while Marchuk would continue his own campaign independently. Moroz's campaign manager said the Kaniv Four still intend to field a single candidate and it is "70 percent likely" that Moroz will be that candidate. The final announcement is expected just days before the election, on October 31.

Government media greeted the delays with derision. Kuchma was widely quoted calling the behavior of the group "agonizing." He said the four candidates were "monsters" and that Moroz was "losing face." The press speculated that the announcement was delayed because the four have no strategy.

Mykola Tomenko, head of the Kyiv Institute of Politics, told RFE/RL that he considers the delay in the announcement of a single candidate to be a reasonable response to an unstable situation. He said the decision of Oliynik and Tkachenko to resign their candidacies in support of Moroz is significant.

"It's the first serious step. I think if he remains the only one of four it will be a more serious step to a member of the Kaniv four to have a claim on the presidency."

Tomenko added that he thinks the group was wise not to absolutely name Moroz as their candidate. The media have been linking Moroz with the grenade attack two weeks ago against Natalia Vitrenko, who split with Moroz' Socialist party several years ago and now heads the more radical progressive socialists.

Moroz has denied involvement and attempted to challenge the negative media coverage. Parliament last week ordered the state channel UT-1 to show Moroz defending himself against the allegations. Most commentators say the order had a dubious basis in law. UT-1 did not comply.

Analyst Tomenko says the state media's criticism of the Kaniv Four is an indication that Kuchma sees the alliance as a serious threat. That is a line the candidates themselves have taken.

"I think this only confirms the weight of the four. The official channel UT-1 and [program] Panorama yesterday devoted 15 minutes to criticizing the Kaniv Four and ten minutes to criticizing Oleksandr Moroz. It seems possible to draw the conclusion that the authorities are afraid of the Kaniv Four and afraid of Oleksandr Moroz as a real candidate."

At a press conference today, the four candidates said they plan to appeal to the Central Election Commission to get Kuchma's candidacy annulled. They say he is unfairly using his government power over the media to further his campaign.