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Masses in Ukraine Rail Against Leader

Protests: 'Away with Kuchma!' is the cry at some of the largest such rallies in ex-Soviet state.

September 17, 2002|From Times Wire Services

KIEV, Ukraine — Tens of thousands of protesters took to Ukraine's streets Monday in some of the largest such demonstrations in years, demanding that President Leonid D. Kuchma resign or call early elections.

In Kiev, the capital, about 20,000 protesters from several opposition groups blocked the downtown area for hours, shouting, "Away with Kuchma!"

Many marched to the presidential administration building, where they set up tents in heavy rain as night fell. They vowed to stay until Kuchma--accused by opposition leaders of corruption--steps down.

It was one of the country's biggest demonstrations since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Political tensions have been rising steadily since parliamentary elections in March in which opposition parties won the bulk of the vote.

The demonstrators represented the full spectrum of Ukrainian politics, from Communists to progressive reformers. All claimed Kuchma's government is so corrupt that democratic rule and economic development have been smothered.

"I'm here because of the unemployment, lack of money and ... the bleak future for my children and grandchildren," said Tetiana, an unemployed woman from the depressed eastern region of Luhansk.

Kuchma did not respond to the protests. He was in Austria, pressing political and business leaders to support Ukraine's distant hopes of joining the European Union.

The demonstrators in Kiev, ranging from students to pensioners, defied a court order to mass in a main square. Police did not interfere.

"Today is a great day for Ukraine. Thousands of people came here to show they do not want to remain slaves," Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the most charismatic opposition leaders, told the crowd.

The demonstration was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the disappearance of investigative journalist Georgi Gongadze. The October 2000 discovery of a beheaded body, believed to be Gongadze's, touched off months of protests against Kuchma. Opposition groups accused him of being involved in the journalist's death, which Kuchma denies.

Similar demonstrations took place in other cities across Ukraine. In the second-largest protest, 12,000 people took to the streets of the western city of Lviv.

Kuchma was elected in 1994 and reelected five years later. His term ends in 2004, and the constitution prohibits him from running again.

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