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President of Ukraine Sacks Government

Critics say Kuchma's shake-up is a ploy to deflect attention from scandals such as his alleged sale of a radar system to Iraq.

November 17, 2002|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- Beleaguered Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma, accused by the U.S. of approving the sale of early warning radar to Iraq, on Saturday fired his country's prime minister and government.

Kuchma has been embroiled in successive political scandals in recent years. His decision to replace the prime minister, Anatoly Kinakh, with a tough regional governor was seen by analysts as an effort to stave off his current political problems and regain control.

Kuchma has dismissed other prime ministers or prominent ministers amid similar crises.

The Ukrainian leader told Russia's Interfax news agency that Kinakh and his government were incapable of solving the country's social problems.

He named a powerful regional governor, Viktor Yanukovich, as his candidate to head the government. Yanukovich, 52, is governor of Donetsk, Ukraine's heavily industrialized eastern region, the site of huge Soviet-era coal mines, steel smelters and chemical plants.

After Saturday's move, analysts were speculating that Yanukovich is now well placed to succeed Kuchma as president in elections due in 2004. Kuchma is not eligible to run.

The government's removal was widely expected after parliamentary factions last week put forward Yanukovich's name for the job along with those of several other candidates.

Critics characterized the Kinakh government as weak and indecisive, while Kuchma attacked it last week for inadequate funding of Ukrainian culture.

In an earlier speech, in August, the president had called on the government to increase wages, pensions and medical assistance.

"Time has gone by but practically nothing has been done," Kuchma told Interfax on Saturday.

Yanukovich, a close Kuchma ally, is regarded as a tough and ruthless leader who will boost Kuchma's ailing position.

The president was severely damaged when U.S. officials accused him of approving the sale of a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq for $100 million in breach of U.N. sanctions, an accusation he denies.

The accusation was based on tapes allegedly made by a former Kuchma bodyguard in the president's office.

The U.S. accepts the tapes as genuine and has suspended $54 million in aid to Ukraine. Kuchma had already been hurt by allegations that he played a role in the murder of a Ukrainian investigative journalist several years ago. Allegations that he ordered the journalist's killing also surfaced in the secret tapes.

Kuchma has recently faced mass protests calling for his dismissal, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization snubbed him last week, declining to invite him to a key meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at this week's alliance summit in Prague, the Czech capital.

Kuchma acknowledged Friday that U.S. officials had pressured him to stay away but announced Saturday that he would attend anyway.

One prominent Ukrainian opposition figure and Kuchma critic, Yulia Timoshenko, contended that Kuchma had dismissed the government in order to deflect attention from his problems.

"Kuchma is trying to create a decoy to distract the public's attention from the scandal connected with the illegal arms trade and the fact that world leaders shun him," Timoshenko said in a statement. "If there is a resignation that could improve the situation in Ukraine for the better today, it is only the immediate, voluntary and unconditional resignation of Kuchma himself."

Political analyst Yulia Mostovaya, who is based in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, maintained that Kuchma, under severe political pressure, is trying to consolidate power by forging an alliance between two powerful political clans -- one headed by Yanukovich, the other by a popular opposition politician and former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko.

"It is quite possible that Yanukovich may succeed in splitting the opposition ranks and winning Yushchenko and his faction over to his side, a political and economic tandem which could become virtually invincible in Ukraine," she said.

Mostovaya said Yanukovich is associated with one of the most powerful political and financial clans in Ukraine, known as the Donetsk clan.

"Kuchma decided to drop Kinakh -- who has always been pretty weak as a politician and as an economic manager -- and replace him with Viktor Yanukovich, a man who proved many times that he is capable of pursuing a very tough, unscrupulous and even ruthless line as a politician and regional governor," she said.

She said Yanukovich has a reputation as a man who would not hesitate to take tough measures to resolve the country's problems.

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