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Ukraine: Kuchma Delivers Upbeat, Pro-Western State-Of-The-Nation Address; Analysts Skeptical

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament today. In his speech, Kuchma urged lawmakers to speed reforms in order to bring the country closer to Europe. RFE/RL reports on the speech and speaks to a Kyiv-based analyst who notes that Kuchma said all the right things, but that actions speak louder than words.

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking before parliament in Kyiv today, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma delivered a state-of-the-nation address that was at once forward-thinking and pro-Western in tone.

Kuchma urged legislators to "make the European choice" and quicken economic and social reforms so that Ukraine can draw closer to its Western partners. Kuchma said the government's ultimate and clear goal was to see Ukraine in the European Union. "The 'European choice' for us means development, step by step, of civil society and a socially oriented market economy. I have to note that parliament has a very important role in achieving these strategic objectives. You with the president and the government have to provide legal support of structural reforms that will encourage the necessary economic and social preconditions for our country to enter the European Union. It's a lot of work. The appropriate documents number tens of thousands of printed pages," Kuchma said.

The Ukrainian president expressed confidence the task could be achieved. Kuchma's pro-European rallying call comes on the heels of Kyiv's announcement that it will seek to join NATO.

Kuchma urged the newly elected parliament to unite in adopting pro-reform legislation for the good of the country and he spoke of the need to end factionalism and partisanship. "Relations between the president and parliament have not always been the best. I suggest, quite seriously, to start on a new page. For the next 2 1/2 years we will have to work together and we will not be able achieve anything, if we direct our energies to conflicts and resistance. We have too much work to do. Today I would like to call on all constructive deputies to work together," Kuchma said.

But a walkout by two opposition parties in the middle of his speech was an illustration of the divisions that remain in Ukrainian politics and indicate that Kuchma's call is likely to go unheeded.

Maksim Strikha, an analyst at the Kyiv-based Open Policy Institute, described Kuchma's speech as "a lot of nice-sounding words" but he told RFE/RL the president's past record gives little reason to expect the government is about to undergo any fundamental changes.

In Strikha's opinion, Kuchma's words were motivated by two principal factors: a need to boost his personal popularity so he can ride out the remainder of his 2 1/2 years in office and a desire to catch up to Russia on the world stage.

March legislative elections demonstrated Kuchma's weakening popular and political support. Despite intensive campaigning, his For a United Ukraine faction garnered less than a fifth of the vote in the poll. In recent months, Kuchma has faced, and so far successfully dodged, a slew of accusations from lawmakers: from charges that he profited from illegal arms sales to allegations that he was involved in plans to murder political opponents.

Given the circumstances, Strikha said noble words about reform and European integration are calculated to make Kuchma appear as if he is turning over a new leaf while winning him continuing support in the West. But so far, he said, there is little evidence that words will translate into action. "Democracy and civil society and the manner in which the last elections were conducted, these are things that are polar opposites, not to mention the fact that a European orientation and statements about Ukraine's simultaneous integration into the Eurasian Economic Community are also concepts you cannot combine. Therefore, I'd say that the president's speechwriters did a nice job in using phrases often employed in civilized society, but unfortunately, this is not enough to lead us to conclude that concrete steps in this direction are going to ensue," Strikha said.

Strikha said a further indication that Kuchma's address has almost no grounding in reality was the Ukrainian president's analysis of the country's current economic situation. "The whole speech was given in a post-crisis tone: 'We've overcome the crisis, there are still some difficulties, but well-being is growing.' Look, what kind of well-being are we talking about when the average salary of 355 hryvna -- just over $60 [per month] -- barely surpasses the monthly minimum necessary for survival, which itself is quite low at 342 hryvna? The majority of social payments such as pensions and student stipends doesn't even reach this minimum level," Strikha said.

Some observers have expressed surprise at Kuchma's recent westward turn, once more reflected in today's speech. Until very recently, Ukraine had not sought to join NATO and the Ukrainian leadership had never identified full EU membership as a clear goal. Strikha said this policy shift reflects a growing realization in the Kuchma administration that Kyiv risks being left behind by the rapprochement taking place between Russia and the West. "Recently, Ukraine has catastrophically lost the initiative on the Western front. You could say that Kuchma's weak Ukraine is losing out to Putin's strong Russia in every aspect. Russia has been demonstrating its active policy toward the West and Ukraine can't stay completely inactive. On the level of words, at least, we are not Belarus, and that is probably thing we can be proud of," Strikha said.

To sum up, independent analysts tend not to put much stock in Kuchma's words, seeing them as an attempt to shore up his political support rather than a demonstration of political will. The derisive reaction in the independent press to Kuchma's directive last week that all schoolchildren and students must study a 72-page parliamentary address he recently gave urging the country to embrace the West is evidence of this. "On 12 June, the president issued a directive that, in its tone, would be more suited as an order from the Communist Party's Central Committee on propaganda measures aimed at popularizing his speech. They are above all trying to make a big ideological campaign out of this," Strikha said.

The months ahead will give Kuchma an opportunity to prove his critics wrong. But having been let down so many times before, few in Ukraine are willing to take him at his word.

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