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World Perspective | UKRAINE

Signs of Compromise in Kiev

Embroiled in scandal, the president now seems to be trying to appease critics. A key foe is freed from jail.

March 31, 2001|MARY MYCIO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KIEV, Ukraine — After months of hanging tough in the face of increasingly strident calls that he leave office, Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma appears to have decided on a different tack: appeasing his critics.

In the last few weeks, he has fired his interior minister and his chief of security and has authorized a key aide to open discussions with the opposition. And, unexpectedly, a key political opponent has been freed from prison, at least temporarily.

Some here in the Ukrainian capital see the release of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on bail as the most important signal yet that Kuchma is looking for a compromise.

Tymoshenko, a controversial and charismatic former deputy prime minister, was arrested Feb. 13 on grounds that she had not shown up for questioning after her January indictment on charges of smuggling, forgery and tax evasion. Tymoshenko has said she considers the accusations purely political.

In court last week, a disheveled but poised Tymoshenko showed no signs of having lost any of her fire. "My arrest was intended to isolate me from my colleagues in the opposition," she contended.

Announcing the decision to free her, Judge Mykola Zamkovenko said he took into account Tymoshenko's "political authority." The decision won a loud round of applause from the packed Kiev courtroom.

Her freedom might be short-lived, however. A report early today by the Interfax news agency said she had been put under police guard late Friday at a hospital, where she was being treated for an ulcer. Hours earlier, she had given a television interview in which she sharply criticized Kuchma and called for new presidential elections.

The president has said he would never negotiate with "people who want my resignation." Nevertheless, Kuchma announced Wednesday that he has designated four people--including his security advisor, Yevhen Marchuk--to lead talks with the opposition.

Tymoshenko's release had been one of the demands set by the National Salvation Forum, a coalition she spearheaded to coordinate opposition to Kuchma. The beleaguered leader became engulfed in this former Soviet republic's worst scandal when secret tape recordings appeared to implicate him in the September disappearance of journalist Georgi Gongadze. A decapitated corpse that was later determined to be Gongadze's was found in a forest.

In addition to calling on Kuchma to step down and asking for constitutional changes reducing the president's powers, the opposition has demanded the dismissal of officials it accuses of involvement in Gongadze's death and the alleged ensuing cover-up.

Last month, Kuchma fired Leonid Dercacz, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. On Monday, he fired Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, and there are rumors that the country's chief prosecutor, Mikhailo O. Potebenko, will be dismissed soon as well.

Despite Western pressure, however, Kuchma has refused to recognize the Forum and other opposition groups, saying that he "can't even call them human."

Observers are divided over whether the president is signaling a change of heart with Tymoshenko's release.

"Since he hasn't said so publicly, we can't consider it true," Forum member and lawmaker Taras Stetskiv said.

Lawmaker Yuri Karmazin, a moderate in parliament, disagreed. "The president is consistently satisfying all the demands, though he isn't admitting it," he said.

But analyst Mikhailo Pohrebinsky, of the Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies, sees more pragmatic reasons. "The longer Tymoshenko stayed in jail," Pohrebinsky said, "the more she came to be seen as Joan of Arc."

Tymoshenko was in opposition to Kuchma from 1997 until he named her deputy prime minister in January 2000. She became an opponent again after he fired her last month.

Posters of the photogenic politician behind bars with the caption, "I haven't given up. Have you?" have became a regular part of anti-presidential protests.

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