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Ukraine: Anti-President Demonstrations Continue

There are ongoing demonstrations against Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The protesters accuse Kuchma of corruption and involvement in the disappearance and probable death of an opposition journalist. But RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports Kuchma is resisting calls for his departure from office.

Prague, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Protesters camped in tents in Kyiv's central Independence Square yesterday as they continue their demands for the resignation of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

This follows the demonstration which began on Tuesday (Feb 6) when up to 10,000 people from all over Ukraine gathered in the capital demanding a "Ukraine without Kuchma."

Tuesday's demonstrations were the largest since the pro-independence protests of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Protesters blocked traffic for several hours in Kyiv, set fire to portraits of Kuchma, and burned a two-meter effigy dressed in a striped prisoner's uniform.

The protesters included people from all parts of the political spectrum, from communists to the right-wing.

The issue that has brought them together is the disappearance last September of independent journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, who was known for his articles attacking corruption in Kuchma's administration.

In December a headless corpse, almost certainly that of Gongadze, was discovered outside Kyiv. The police have not been able to discover what happened to Gongadze or to arrest any culprits for his disappearance.

But Kuchma and some of his close associates became, in the public mind, suspects in the disappearance after the publication of incriminating audio tapes.

The tapes were allegedly secretly recorded by an intelligence officer who was part of Kuchma's entourage. They have Kuchma saying he would like Gongadze removed -- although he does not explicitly say the journalist is killed.

The tapes, in which Kuchma uses foul language, also seem to show his routine acceptance of bribes and involvement in corrupt privatization deals. Kuchma has denied any involvement in Gongadze's disappearance and Ukrainian authorities say the tapes are a blend of genuine voices but with the speech edited to distort its meaning.

The protestors also say they are frustrated by government corruption because it has stalled economic growth and scared away many foreign investors.

One of the protestors, Heorhiy Komenda, a member of the Ukrainian Nationalist Party, said that people were fed up with Kuchma's rule and he believes that if the demonstrations persist, Kuchma will have to resign.

"You have to understand that currently in our country there is a situation where anyone who displeases the regime can either disappear or -- accidentally -- be killed in a car crash."

Gongadze's family and colleagues and many members of the Ukrainian parliament have said the investigations into the journalist's disappearance have been deliberately mishandled.

Last month the investigators drew derision after they announced there was still room for doubt about the corpse's identity because tests were only 99.6 percent certain that it was Gongadze's.

On Tuesday, the European Union added its own criticisms, saying it "is not convinced that this case has been investigated with sufficient transparency and thoroughness."

The EU has also expressed concern about media freedom in Ukraine, where much of the press and television have ignored the Gongadze case or treated it only superficially.

Demonstrators have erected tents in Kyiv's main central square in preparation for drawn-out protests.

American journalist Mary Mycio, who has covered affairs in Ukraine for 10 years, said the protests look set to continue and another major demonstration is planned for February 11.

"Considering that you have parliamentary elections coming up in 2002, which is just a year away, these kinds of protests could very well increase."

But Mycio said there was probably some truth in rumors that some protesters on both the anti and pro-Kuchma sides were being paid, and so the size of the protests might depend on whether the payments keep coming.

Presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko told reporters that although Kuchma is aware of the protesters' demands "he does not intend to resign." His representative in parliament, Roman Bezsmertny, said any hope that Kuchma would resign because of the demonstrations were forlorn.

Mycio said a Kuchma resignation and his replacement by someone regarded as essentially honest could go against the interests of corrupt forces in Ukraine and they would try to prevent it.

"If Kuchma resigns, according to the Ukrainian Constitution, Prime Minister Yushchenko becomes acting president for three months and then calls new elections. It is very likely, considering his popularity, that Yushchenko would win the presidency. This is for various political, business, financial, oligarchic, whatever you want to call them, forces a very unpleasant prospect. For them it would be far more useful to have a weakened Kuchma who is beholden to them."

She believes Kuchma might be tempted to resign if the demonstrations and domestic and international criticisms of his rule grows.

"I think that he could still resign if he decided that he will be better off, perhaps given a promise of immunity (from prosecution) if Yushchenko becomes acting president, than if he remains in office in a totally weakened position." But Mycio believes he is so in thrall to some of his most powerful business and political associates that he may not be able to resign even if he wanted to.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Ukrainian government announced it has created a council for the prevention of the disappearance of people.