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2000 In Review: Millennium Brings Little Cheer To Ukraine

The year 2000 brought little in the way of good news to Ukraine. From allegations of high-level corruption and other wrong-doing -- including a bizarre case involving President Leonid Kuchma and the disappearance of a reporter -- to legislative paralysis and failure to jump-start the moribund economy, there was little for Ukrainians to be cheerful about. There was one exception: the Chornobyl nuclear power plant shut its doors for good at the end of the year (Dec 15). RFE/RL's Tony Wesolowsky takes a look at Ukraine's disappointing start in the new millennium.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Things for Ukraine this year got off to an ominous note in January when a long-standing feud in parliament finally came to a boil.

On January 20, some 260 right-leaning legislators wanted to vote to dismiss leftist speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko. He blocked the vote, sparking the right-wing legislators to walk out of parliament in protest.

Tkachenko called the walk-out a coup attempt.

"I can't characterize this as anything but a parliamentary coup, and we can see that the president and the cabinet of ministers has played a direct role in this coup."

Long at odds with parliament, president Leonid Kuchma not surprisingly backed the protesting legislators and recognized an alternative parliament they had set up. Outside the "old" parliament police kept watch as loudspeakers blasted the ongoing legislative proceedings to passers-by.

By April, Kuchma would get his revenge on the leftist parliamentarians. A controversial referendum was passed by a majority of Ukrainian voters that greatly enhanced Kuchma's power over the legislature. The referendum was criticized, not only by the parliament, but by international observers, including the Council of Europe.

All the bickering between Kuchma and the parliament meant ambitious reform measures put forward by Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko were put on the back burner.

Economic reform had been one of Kuchma's two main planks in winning re-election in November 1999. The other was bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union.

On that front, Kuchma was largely foiled again. Relations with the union appeared to brighten following a May meeting between Yuschenko and EU officials in Brussels -- at least gauging from comments by EU Commission President Romano Prodi:

"It's a very important moment for our [bilateral EU-Ukraine] relations. We trust in the reforming policy of the new government, and we are prepared to increase strongly the relations between the European Union and Ukraine."

However, by the time an autumn bilateral summit in Paris took place, EU leaders appeared again reluctant to commit themselves to a timetable for launching membership talks with Ukraine.

The German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented in October that concern is growing in Kyiv that the country of 50 million people could be left out in the cold by the EU. The newspaper blamed West Europeans for fueling such fears, noting a report prepared in the summer by a Franco-German planning group made it clear that Ukraine was not even a potential candidate for the EU. One reason cited was concern that Europe should not isolate Russia.

Russia casts a formidable shadow over Ukraine. And the issue dominating their relations is natural gas, or more precisely Ukraine's failure to pay for Russian gas deliveries. It owes Moscow some $1.5 billion for previous gas supplies.

Moscow also accuses Ukraine of siphoning gas from the Ukrainian sector of the pipeline, responsible for transporting 90 percent of Russian gas to the lucrative Western European market.

Russia is now looking to cut out Ukraine by constructing a new pipeline through Poland.

Wary of harming relations with Ukraine, Warsaw was initially lukewarm to the proposal. But Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said last month his country could go along with the pipeline if Ukraine shares in the benefits.

Moscow has also been unhappy with Ukraine's desire to improve ties with NATO and the West. And that may be the main reason Ukraine Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk lost his job at the start of October.

The new man in charge, Anatoly Zlenko, made it clear that ties with CIS states were of paramount importance and that relations with Moscow needed to be smoothed out.

A factor working in favor of Zlenko was his years of diplomatic service abroad. Not necessarily for the ties he may have groomed there, but more for the ties he avoided making in the corrupt, clan-like atmosphere of Ukrainian politics.

Nearly 10 years after winning independence, Ukraine has yet to make a dent in widespread corruption. The country now stands tied for 87th with Azerbaijan out of 90 countries ranked in Transparency International's 2000 Corruption Perception Index.

The International Monetary Fund suspended financing to Ukraine because of corruption and lagging reforms. The most high-profile case of corruption involves former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who will soon be tried in the United States on charges of laundering $114 million of public money.

Mary Mycio, an American lawyer working in Kyiv, explains why that case is so important.

"This is the first time that a former highly placed Ukrainian official, or for that matter any official from the former Soviet Union, that their actions, or alleged actions are being investigated by an independent judiciary system."

But the case now grabbing the most attention in Ukraine doesn't involve bribe-taking or money laundering. President Kuchma finds himself embroiled in a growing scandal involving the disappearance of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.

The crisis began last month when journalists - acting on a tip - identified a headless corpse as that of Gongadze, who vanished in September. The case took a dramatic turn in December when Socialist opposition leader Oleksander Moroz told lawmakers he had tapes of conversations between Kuchma, his chief of staff, and the interior minister linking the president to Gongadze's disappearance.

"I did not accuse him of murder or organizing a contract killing, but one can clearly hear from the tape his (Kuchma's) concrete phrases, which sound like orders or proposals to relevant institutions -- for instance [Interior Minister] Yuri Kravchenko, to make sure Heorhiy Gongadze disappears. It is not something that is a [faked or edited version]. There is no doubt."

The plot thickened in mid-December when a former bodyguard of Kuchma said he too had tapes incriminating Kuchma and key advisers in the journalist's disappearance.

There was one piece of good news in all of this. The crippled nuclear power plant at Chornobyl, site of the world's worse civilian nuclear accident in 1986, was finally shut down for good at the end of the year.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.