Thousands of Ukrainian demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Kyiv, and other regional centers today in the second mass protest in eight days against the country's president, Leonid Kuchma.
Kyiv, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Thousands of protesters gathered around the Ukrainian parliament today in the second of what opposition politicians are saying will be a series of mass demonstrations demanding the resignation of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
Around 5,000 people filled the grounds of the parliament building in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and blocked surrounding streets. Similar demonstrations also took place in other major cities around the country.
The demonstrations have been called by the leaders of parliament's four largest opposition parties: the largest pro-Western party Our Ukraine, the Communists, the Socialists, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. (Tymoshenko is a wealthy businesswoman, former deputy prime minister, and Kuchma's most outspoken critic.)
The protesters accuse Kuchma of corruption and wreaking havoc on the country's economic health. They say the Ukrainian president was involved in the disappearance and murder two years ago of opposition journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. The opposition also holds Kuchma responsible for alleged fraud in parliamentary elections last March.
The demonstrators reflected the strange alliance of disparate ideological forces unified against the president. Red Communist flags and Soviet-era Ukrainian flags fluttered alongside the blue-and-yellow flag of independent Ukraine.
Elderly former Soviet officers turned out in their old uniforms weighed down with Soviet medals. Ukrainian nationalists, who usually enjoy trading insults with the Communists, stood by silently as their traditional rivals -- including one elderly woman holding aloft a portrait of Stalin -- sang the Communist "Internationale."
As the protests were being held, opposition leaders addressed parliament. Their speeches were broadcast by loudspeaker to the demonstrators outside. Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko explained the protesters' demands. "The fundamental demand of those demonstrating is that Kuchma should beg the forgiveness of the Ukrainian people and should swiftly resign from his position as the man chiefly responsible for the misery of the Ukrainian people," Symonenko said.
Symonenko said Kuchma had brought economic ruin to the country because of his dealings with corrupt businessmen and described Kuchma's government as a "fascist junta that represses its own people."
The opposition is calling for an emergency debate in parliament on what Symonenko calls "the political crisis" in Ukraine, and it wants to begin an impeachment process against Kuchma. Symonenko said calling fresh parliamentary and presidential elections is a key priority for the country.
Opposition parties gained the majority of the popular vote in March elections but did not manage to win control of parliament from pro-Kuchma factions.
"What we mean is that a date must be announced to hold early presidential elections, to look into the procedure for impeaching the president, to introduce changes in the constitution to transform the system from a president-dominated parliamentary system to one where parliament takes the lead role, and to rule on a new parliamentary election system based on a completely proportional voting system," Symonenko said.
Socialist Party member and organizer Volodymyr Romaneschenko, who came to Kyiv by bus with other demonstrators from Ukraine's Mykolayey region, said that there had been attempts by the authorities to prevent protesters from reaching the capital by stopping buses or announcing that train tickets to Kyiv had been sold out. But Romaneschenko said he believes the demonstrations are having an effect and will continue. "The demonstrations have been successful because the [Kuchma] government has compromised itself again. They lie, saying one thing and doing another. They said they would allow people to go freely to the demonstrations, but that has not happened. If it had, there would be a million people out on the streets," Mykolayey said.
Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko also addressed parliament. Opinion polls consistently rate the former prime minister the country's most popular politician and indicate Yushchenko would become president if elections were held now. "What is the essence of Ukraine's political crisis? It's very simple: People voted one way in the parliamentary elections, but the government consists of something else [altogether]. That's the essence of Ukraine's crisis. That's Ukraine's problem," Yushchenko said.
Yushchenko warned that the crisis will swell and could trigger a financial crisis in the country within months. The only solution, he said, was for parliament to assert its authority against the presidential administration -- commonly called Bankovska, because of the street where it is located. Yushchenko said parliament must reflect the will of voters who cast ballots in the March parliamentary elections. "As long as parliament, dear friends, does not become a real parliament but remains a branch of Bankovska, we will not emerge from this crisis. Either parliament will resolve this crisis or it will be resolved on the streets and in city squares and every day, the demonstrations will grow stronger. So either we have the intelligence and political ability to solve these problems [at the government level] or they really will be settled on the streets," Yushchenko said.
Yaroslav Hodynok is a spokesman for the youth wing of Ukraine's right-wing Rukh Party, an Our Ukraine member. He said unlike similar demonstrations last year, the current demonstrations are having an impact. He said the past week's protests are likelier to succeed because they have the support of groups from across the political spectrum. "Last year's demonstrations were not successful. There wasn't the unification of such ideologically different groups as the Communist Party and Rukh -- they are plus and minus. And it's rare anywhere in the world to see cooperation between such opposed forces of political polarity, which in this case have found common cause for the removal of the president and for early political elections," Hodynok said.
He admitted that it felt strange working together with the Communists, a party he said he hopes never to see return to power. But he said he was confident the opposition alliance would last until Kuchma is removed. "I have stood against the Communist Party and I continue to be against the Communist Party because of all the people they killed. But at the present time, there's a bigger enemy for Ukraine -- more frightening than Stalin [or] Lenin -- and he needs to be removed," Hodynok said.
The demonstrators are angry and frustrated that Kuchma's administration has prevented much of the media, including all the country's television channels, from reporting on the protests. The government exercises direct control over the state television channels and private channels obey its instructions as well, fearing the loss of their broadcast licenses.
Last night, Symonenko, Tymoshenko, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, accompanied by around 200 of their supporters, forced their way into the studios of state television Channel 1 and demanded airtime to broadcast a statement.
Television staff refused to allow the group to broadcast their statement. A blank screen was shown instead of the nightly news and other programming was canceled.
The Kyiv city prosecutor opened a criminal case against the trio of party leaders and some of their supporters. The party leaders all have immunity from prosecution as members of parliament. It is unclear whether the authorities will proceed with cases against their supporters.
Last week police broke up a tent camp set up by protesters outside government buildings. A Kyiv court ban on protests in the center of the city, made prior to last week's demonstrations, remains in effect. But today the police made no attempt to enforce the ban and kept a low profile over the course of the day's peaceful protests.