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Ukraine: Opposition Turns Up Heat On Kuchma Over Tragedies

After last weekend's air-show disaster in Ukraine, the political opposition was quick to pin the blame on President Leonid Kuchma. RFE/RL takes a look at that disaster and others, including this week's coal-mine explosion that killed 20 miners, and asks whether this blame is fairly placed or an attempt by Kuchma's detractors to politicize what are genuine national tragedies. If so, could the strategy potentially backfire?

Prague, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Even by the standards of Ukraine -- a country that sees more than its fair share of mining accidents and other tragedies -- this week has been harrowing, to say the least.

Last weekend, a jet fighter plowed into a crowd of spectators at an air show in Lviv, killing 83 instantly and claiming another victim today when a woman died of her injuries.

The day of mourning for those victims was barely over when the next disaster struck. On 31 July, an explosion ripped through the Zasiadko coal mine in eastern Ukraine, killing 20 miners. Tomorrow will be another national day of mourning.

The Zasiadko tragedy follows two other deadly accidents in Ukraine's mines recently that claimed the lives of another 41 miners.

Ukraine's opposition groups say President Leonid Kuchma is to blame. They charge that the string of disasters is a result of endemic carelessness and incompetence that is fostered from the top by an inefficient and corrupt presidential administration.

After the air-show disaster, the leaders of three opposition parties criticized Kuchma, saying he was directly responsible for this and other catastrophes. The statement was signed by Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, the Socialist Party's Oleksandr Moroz, and Yuliya Tymoshenko of the eponymous bloc.

They said the responsibility for the tragedies lies with "a system headed by a person not occupied with state issues but with defending the interests of clans close to him and with strengthening his personal power."

They said Kuchma has not learned any lessons from previous tragedies, such as last October's air disaster, when a Ukrainian missile accidentally downed a Russian civilian airliner, killing 78 people on board. The Ukrainian authorities denied responsibility for the disaster for several days.

After this week's coal-mine explosion, Tymoshenko's party again urged Kuchma to resign and called for a special session of parliament.

So is the opposition justified in pinning the blame for the recent tragedies on the country's leadership?

Lidia Wolanskyj, publisher of the Kyiv journal "Eastern Economist" says "yes," to the extent that the president's spending policies have led to underfunding with respect to the army and the mines. "The army is so underfinanced, they have a lousy budget as it is and they're not even getting what little they're supposed to be getting. There's no doubt that the actual state of the army is very much the fault of the leadership of the country. It's certainly not the fault of the generals. They don't make the budgets and they don't control the money flow," Wolanskyj said.

Whether this week's events and the criticism that followed will affect Kuchma is another question.

Wolanskyj said it could well erode his support base in western Ukraine. But the opposition's strategy could still fall flat as people grow tired of seeing politicians of all stripes use the Lviv tragedy as an opportunity for self-promotion.

Kuchma responded quickly to the air-show disaster, firing several members of the military top brass. Several top officers are also under criminal investigation. Yesterday, he promised to punish those directly responsible, not, he said, "the little men."

Also yesterday, he ordered a safety review of the country's mines and promised to close down those deemed unsafe. Kuchma said, "Neither Ukraine nor I needs coal that much."

Admittedly, he said much the same thing nearly a year ago following another deadly explosion at the same mine. "Who needs this coal? If we don't have the equipment to ensure safety, we should not mine these [deep] seams," he said at the time.

Kuchma's responses to this week's disasters have at least created a sense of "vigorous activity" that might be enough to defuse the situation for him, said Stuart Hensel, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. "[The opposition parties] don't have much to run with on this because Mr. Kuchma has responded fairly quickly and because the link to Mr. Kuchma isn't as strong as it might be. So the greater risk to the opposition is that they'll come out with these declarations blaming Mr. Kuchma and that it will all peter out and that Mr. Kuchma is very likely to merely ride this out," Hensel said.

Hensel said the opposition apparently hoped it could build up steam ahead of renewed protests against Kuchma, which it has promised for the autumn.

It's not clear exactly what's in the works, though street protests and fresh attempts to impeach Kuchma are two likely scenarios.

Hensel said the various opposition parties -- which span the political spectrum -- have a poor track record when it comes to cooperation, though this time they appear to be more coordinated.

However, any attempts to oust Kuchma will face difficulties, as he will be able to rally lots of support among pro-presidential groups in the hung parliament.