Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has fired at least two-high level security chief officials in recent days. But demonstrators in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, are keeping up their demands for the president himself to resign. And a new anti-Kuchma alliance, uniting politicians from all shades of the political spectrum, has been formed to intensify pressure on the president to leave office. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.
Prague, 13 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The large demonstrations in Kyiv demanding Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's resignation began last week, and they are continuing apace.
An estimated 5,000 protesters marched through Kyiv's streets Sunday. In addition, for the past two months an anti-Kuchma encampment in the city's central Independence Square has been growing, with protesters vowing to stay in about 30 tents until the president resigns.
But yesterday a Kyiv court ruled the tents must be removed because, under Ukrainian law, occupying a historic site such as the square is prohibited. It is not clear whether the protesters will obey the court's ruling.
The demonstrators are not only calling for Kuchma's resignation. They are also campaigning for greater democratization -- with more power given to parliament -- as well as for freedom of the press and economic reform.
On Friday (Feb 9), a new anti-Kuchma alliance of politicians was set up under the name of the National Forum for Salvation. Composed of politicians from the left, right and center, the forum is intended to coordinate pressure on the president to quit and to shift the center of political power away from the presidency and toward parliament.
The movement's 15-member council includes leftists like Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, respected center-rightists such as former justice minister Serhiy Holovaty, and right-wingers like Ukrainian Conservative Republican Party chief Stepan Hmara.
Another prominent forum member is former deputy prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko who Kuchma dismissed last month. She has leveled accusations of corruption against Kuchma for months.
Forum member Oleksy Shekhovtse says the group will soon begin moves to impeach Kuchma.
The anti-Kuchma moves caused the president considerable embarrassment during the two-day visit to Ukraine Sunday and yesterday (Monday) of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But there are no signs that Kuchma is preparing to leave office.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on Saturday (Feb 10), Kuchma dismissed forum members as people who jeopardized Ukraine's independence and its aspirations to forge closer links with Western Europe.
"I would say this about the committee [that is, forum] -- this doesn't apply to all its members because I don't know them all. The committee talks about Ukraine's salvation. Ukraine doesn't need salvation. Ukraine has very clearly chosen a path toward Europe and our 10 years of independence confirm that course. These are people [in the forum] who want to move away from that path or create another course based on a different idea."
Kuchma also said the actions of Ukraine's political opposition threaten the country's national security and independence.
The anti-Kuchma demonstrations were triggered by the disappearance -- and probable murder -- last September of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. His Internet articles had accused Kuchma and his close political and business associates of corruption.
In November a headless corpse, almost certainly Gongadze's, was discovered near Kyiv. Audio tapes secretly recorded by one of Kuchma's bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko, later seemed to implicate the president in Gongadze's disappearance.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that the United States is "troubled" by the lack of progress by Ukrainian authorities looking into the Gongadze case.
"Frankly, we are troubled by the lack of progress to date in the investigation. We think that independent media, such as those Mr. Gongadze represented are one of the essential elements of any democratic society and journalists must be able to do their job without fear of harassment, intimidation or retribution."
Kuchma has denied any involvement in the journalist's disappearance.
In his interview with RFE/RL, Kuchma sought to reply to international criticism -- including criticism from the European Union last week -- that Ukrainian authorities were not doing enough to investigate the Gongadze case and were not being sufficiently open.
"Criminals enjoy in our land today more technical, financial and political support than do the forces of law and order. If I tell you that someone working for the police makes an average from $50 to $60 a month, then that tells you a lot. Therefore, if Europe [that is, the EU] wants to help -- and not only by criticism that says Ukraine does nothing -- then I propose that we discuss everything openly. In that way, such [criticism] will be diminished in Ukraine, and not only in Ukraine. For that sort of task, I am ready to open up everything so that work can be carried out in an honest manner [on this case]."
The anti-Kuchma protesters have demanded the dismissal of Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, Security Council chief Leonid Derkach and Prosecutor General Mykhailo Potybenko. All of them have been accused for months of deliberately obstructing the investigation into Gongadze's death.
Last week, Potybenko abruptly announced he was going an on extended leave of absence. Observers believe he has taken his vacation on Kuchma's instructions and is unlikely to return to work.
On Saturday (Feb 10), Kuchma dismissed Derkach from his post and also fired the chief of the State Security Department, Volodymyr Schepel. Schepel was the boss of bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who secretly recorded the president's remarks.
Kuchma did not say the dismissals were linked to the demands of the protesters. He did say they were linked to the tapes made secretly by his former bodyguard.
Last month, the prosecutor general's office said the tapes had been edited and altered to change their meaning. In Ukraine, the whole episode is now known as the audio-cassette affair. Kuchma says:
"[The dismissals are] connected to Ukraine's security, including the cassette scandal. Tell me, please, if today -- and we can say with 98 percent certainty that this is so -- foreigners [that is, foreign intelligence services] record the president, then what is the value of those services that are supposed to be looking out for the security of the country and the security of the president?"
Putin flew into the east Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk late Sunday. Before his arrival, he said he didn't think it was right for him to comment on the protests, which were, Putin said, a strictly internal Ukrainian matter.
But there is little doubt that, from Kuchma's point of view, the protests provided an unwelcome backdrop to Putin's visit.
Yesterday, the two leaders signed a number of accords on bilateral cooperation. As they did, demonstrators protested in Dnipropetrovsk against police holding nine people who were arrested in an anti-Kuchma protest on Saturday.
Many observers in Ukraine believe the protests will continue for some time. One independent political analyst, Mykola Tomenko, says: "Ukraine will continue boiling until the demands of the protesters are fulfilled. I think we will be without Kuchma by spring."
Today, a top-level EU team that includes foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and the foreign ministers of Sweden and Belgium -- current and future holders of the rotating EU presidency -- will visit Ukraine. Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach, yesterday told reporters the EU officials "will be pressing for a transparent investigation of the Gongadze case." She added: "We will stress the need for continued political [reform] and express concern over democratic principles."