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Ukraine: Protestors Unite Against Kuchma

As residents of Kyiv prepare for the New Year, a small group of protestors are reminding them of a political scandal involving a missing journalist who is believed to have been murdered and -- allegedly -- by their president, Leonid Kuchma. RFE/RL's Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv on the 'Ukraine Without Kuchma' demonstrations.

Kyiv, 29 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the shadow of the giant Christmas tree on Kyiv's central square, a small tent introduces a grim note into an otherwise festive New Year atmosphere. The tent is covered with posters by now familiar to most Ukrainians. They show a silhouetted head with the words, "Gongadze, you're with us" -- a reminder of the disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze three months ago, his probable murder and the political crisis the affair has sparked.

Late last week, some 100 protestors camped out in tents on the main square in sub-zero conditions. They demanded the truth from the authorities investigating Gongadze's disappearance and widely suspected of covering up his murder. A district court ruled on Friday that the square be cleared for New Year celebrations. But the one tent remains to show Kyiv residents -- and also, the protestors hope, the government -- that Gongadze is not forgotten.

The demonstration, called "Ukraine without Kuchma," has brought together 15 political groups usually found at opposite ends of Ukraine's political spectrum. It is headed by the Socialist party, whose leader, Oleksandr Moroz, last month produced audio tapes he said were of Kuchma and his advisors talking about getting rid of Gongadze. Later, a former Ukrainian intelligence (SBU) agent made public video film which he said was shot in Kuchma's office and directly implicated the president in the Gongadze affair.

Gongadze specialized in investigating corruption for the Internet newspaper he edited, "Ukrainska Pravda." He disappeared on September 18, on his way home from work in Kyiv. Eight weeks later, a passer-by discovered a decapitated and mutilated body in a nearby forest. Fellow journalists and his wife believe the corpse was Gongadze's, but authorities have yet to announce the results of any examination they may have made -- an autopsy or a DNA test.

Kuchma and the other alleged speakers on both the audio and video tapes have called them fakes and a provocation. The president's office said allegations that Kuchma was involved in Gongadze's disappearance are "totally groundless." But none of the principals involved has specifically denied that the taped voices heard are theirs.

The Socialists' allies in the protest are UNA-UNSO, an extreme right-wing movement with its strongest following in West Ukraine. Other participants include the centrist young Rukh and the Communist Komsomol youth movement.

At a mass demonstration in Kyiv last week, close to 5,000 protestors showed up, including representatives of the Communist, Rukh, Christian Democrat and Yabloko parliamentary groups. This wide range of usually adversarial parties has been dismissed as representing only the political extremes. But protestors like Anatoly Ivashenko from UNA-UNSO say otherwise:

"We don't bother with divisions into right and left, as the authorities try to divide us. We reached the point when people simply thought this is a criminal government which can destroy us, and it's time to unite. We don't accept the Socialist ideology, but we are united not for something but against something, against Kuchma's criminal regime."

After the mass march last week, which converged on parliament and the president's offices nearby, Kuchma met with the movement's leaders. According to them, the president agreed to consider the resignation of interior minister Yury Kravchenko, SBU chief Leonid Derkach and Yury Solovkov, the head of the customs service. But the protestors' main demand remains the departure of Kuchma himself.

Some of the protestors admit that the Gongadze case, although it sparked the demonstrations, is providing an opportunity for the airing of older grievances against Kuchma. Yevhen Filindash, one of the Socialist party organizers of the protest, says:

"It [Gongadze's disappearance] was the last straw that brought us out on the streets. It was not the only reason, but it finally proved the criminality and rottenness of this regime. It was the final proof that we couldn't put up with it any longer."

The Ukraine without Kuchma movement seems to have touched a sympathetic chord among a number of Kyiv residents. People of many ages and walks of life told RFE/RL why they identified with the protestors. Here are some of their voices:

A young woman says:

"Look at the revelation of all these recordings -- it's true. We are here so they can't keep silent, they can't hide it. They can't only allow [TV] channels to broadcast which support the president, and say what's black is white, and what's white is black."

A middle-aged woman complains:

"What [monthly] pension do we have? The highest is 80 hryvnias [$14.2], and wages for doctors and teachers are only 137 hryvnias. I don't believe that just Kuchma is guilty, we have to change the whole system. This regime is anti-people. [But] our people are very passive, it's difficult to arouse them. We have a mentality called, 'Our house is far away, we don't know anything.' We just sit and wait, and quietly die."

A mail pensioner, in Ukranian said:

"They've stolen everything -- farms, factories, enterprises -- put all the money in foreign bank accounts and turned us into beggars. They talk, 'market, market, market.' But we pensioners have to work in our allotted vegetable gardens and sell our produce in the markets. These speculators send everything abroad, and we pensioners are wallowing in misery."

Over the holiday period, demonstrators have taken their protest out of Kyiv to Ukraine's regions. But they intend to return to the capital after January 10. They say they will stay until Kuchma leaves office.