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Ukraine: Are Kuchma Allegations Mere Politicking Or Do They Signal Real Trouble?

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is facing a barrage of fresh accusations alleging links to corruption and murder. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament voted to ask the country's prosecutor-general to launch an investigation into the president for his alleged role in aiding former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who stands accused -- among other things -- of ordering the murders of two parliamentarians. This week, the prosecutor-general turned down the request, but Kuchma now faces a potential new embarrassment involving alleged armed shipments to Iraq. Is the emergence of these scandals mere politicking before 31 March parliamentary elections, or do they signal trouble ahead for Kuchma?

Prague, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Mykola Potabenko this week dismissed parliament's request to investigate President Leonid Kuchma over suspected criminal ties.

Parliament had asked Potabenko to open a criminal investigation into allegations that Kuchma aided former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who is currently in a San Francisco jail on U.S. charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and transporting stolen property. Lazarenko fled Ukraine for the United States in 1999 after authorities in Kyiv accused him of embezzlement.

Lawmakers say there is evidence linking Kuchma to charges of election fixing, conspiring to intimidate and kill political opponents, and graft. But Potabenko says that, so far, he has seen nothing to substantiate such claims, and he rejected the call for an investigation.

Will Potabenko's rejection of an investigation be the final word in the matter?

Analysts say that, for now, it appears likely. Of 345 legislators present at last the 12 March parliament session, 160 supported the request for an investigation, no one opposed it, and the remainder did not vote. But that is not enough to force Potabenko's hand.

Mikhail Pogrebensky is head of the Kyiv-based Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies. He explains: "In order for parliament to take a binding decision on holding hearings, half of the deputies must vote in favor. That's 226 deputies. In order to submit a simple request for an issue to be examined, let's say a resolution addressed to the prosecutor-general, 150 votes suffice. There are 150 such votes -- 150 deputies who want to ruin Kuchma's day -- but there are not 226. And that's why the current parliament can't take any decisive action."

The other reason is that in two weeks' time, the current parliament will cease to exist, as national elections are held on 31 March to determine the makeup of the future Ukrainian legislature.

"I think that everything that is linked to the activity of the deputies of the current parliament -- which is living out its last days -- has no real meaning. The deputies' only goal is to make their presence known on the Ukrainian political scene. These actions will have no consequences simply because parliament is ending its work, and there is not the number of deputies required to support any accusations aimed at the president. These political acts have no further meaning other than to advertise the deputies' presence."

Potentially more damaging accusations were brought forward by parliamentary deputy Oleksandr Zhyr, who heads a parliamentary commission looking into audiotapes recorded by former Kuchma bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko. Melnychenko, who has since received political asylum in the United States, says he recorded more than 300 hours of conversations in Kuchma's office.

Last week, Zhyr told parliament the tapes tie Kuchma to illegal arms sales to countries under a UN embargo. He referred to conversations Kuchma allegedly has, on the tapes, with Valeriy Malev, head of the Ukrspetsexport state arms export company.

"The commission has received material which implicates the president of Ukraine in the delivery of arms to countries under an international embargo. I will not further disclose the precise contents of this information. But the information comes from audiotapes recording conversations between the Ukrainian president and Malev."

Malev was killed in a car accident last week, four days after the presidential administration received a report about the recordings. Officials deny any political link to Malev's death.

Two days ago, Zhyr made his accusations more specific, alleging that Kuchma had made deals worth some $100 million to sell Iraq anti-aircraft systems.

Kuchma called the charge "gibberish" and added that such a deal would be impossible to carry out, as the sanctions against Baghdad are constantly monitored. Yuri Orshovsky, Iraq's honorary consul in Kyiv, also denies the charge, telling RFE/RL that Baghdad has no use for Ukraine's outmoded weapons.

Analyst Mikhail Pogrebensky says that, for now, this latest accusation is also not likely to go far, nor does he expect it to influence the parliamentary election:

"I don't think that this will have much influence. People are not very interested in this topic. The electoral process has dragged on, and people are tired and disappointed in the parties they were ready to support a month ago. The number of undecided voters is growing, and one can feel their exhaustion."

But if the opposition scores significant gains in the 31 March parliamentary election, all bets are off and the charges could come back to haunt Kuchma. Pogrebensky says:

"If opposition parties make it into parliament, then they can create problems [for Kuchma]. I'm talking about [Oleksandr] Moroz's [Socialist] party and [Yulia] Tymoshenko's party. They won't be able to present much of a threat by themselves -- they'll get 35 to 40 seats at best. But if they ally themselves on certain issues with the larger [Viktor] Yushchenko faction, then these three political powers could create problems for the current president."

Kuchma this week appealed to voters to support candidates who can strengthen the president's hand. He called the current legislature "evil."

(Marianna Dratch of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)