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Ukraine's Critical Period; Choice of Democracy, Authoritarianism Confronts Former Soviet state.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: EUROPE)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Ukraine's Critical Period; Choice of Democracy, Authoritarianism Confronts Former Soviet state.(WORLD)(BRIEFING: EUROPE)


Byline: Natalia A. Feduschak, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

KIEV - After two years of scandals and accusations of government corruption, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the country he leads have entered what many here say is the most critical period in Ukraine's 11-year post-Soviet history.

At stake is whether Ukraine evolves into a full-fledged democracy that successfully integrates into Europe or moves toward authoritarian rule.

"Ukraine doesn't have a healthy political model," said Victor Yushchenko, the reformist former prime minister who is the country's most popular politician. "We have a crisis of authority that has turned into a parliamentary crisis. The government can't understand it is the people who choose the government. This is extraordinarily dangerous, and leads to an oligarchic and clannish form of government."

In the past two years, Mr. Kuchma, who was elected in 1994, has been plagued by charges that he approved the sale of a high-tech radar system to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions, called for the death of an Internet journalist on secretly recorded tapes and allowed government corruption to flourish.

"The first condition of finding a way out of the crisis is that all political forces should sit down and begin a political discussion," said Mr. Yushchenko, who leads Ukraine's largest political grouping in parliament and is the leading contender for the 2004 presidential elections. "What Ukraine needs are systemic changes," he added. "Everything else is details."

When Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union, its future looked bright. With a strong industrial and agricultural base, the country was expected to shift from communism to democracy and integrate into Europe.

Unlike those of many of its neighbors, though, Ukraine's leaders made the mistake of not introducing systemic changes that would allow democracy to flourish. So though the economy has continued to grow, an independent press and fair elections have not taken root, allowing government, as Mr. Yushchenko put it, "to work under the carpet."

This situation has given rise to a parliamentary stalemate, calls for Mr. Kuchma's resignation, and Ukraine's further isolation from the West.

The president's most immediate challenge is to disprove that he gave the go-ahead for the sale to Iraq of the early-warning Kolchuga radar system. On recordings secretly made by a former bodyguard who was given political asylum in the United States, Mr. Kuchma is said to be heard approving a $100 million sale of four radar systems through a Jordanian intermediary.

The Kolchuga system silently tracks aircraft and ground vehicles by detecting and triangulating their radio signals. Western officials worry it could threaten aircraft in the event of military action against Iraq.

The 90-second recording, purported to have been made July 10, 2000, also disclosed a method of shipment: hiding the radar equipment in crates typically used to export Ukrainian trucks.

Mr. Kuchma has repeatedly denied that he authorized any such sale. Ukrainian officials say the tape is a fake. The FBI has certified the conversation as genuine. Washington recently suspended $54 million in direct government aid until the Kolchuga question is resolved.

Seeking to prove his innocence, Mr. Kuchma opened Ukraine to a team of 13 inspectors from the United States and Britain who visited the sites where components of the Kolchuga system are produced. Their report, issued two weeks ago, was inconclusive.

Investigators could neither prove nor disprove that the system was in Iraq but indicated that Ukraine had not been as forthcoming during the investigation as had been promised.

Washington and London have requested more information about the system and want to question several more people.

Mr. Kuchma said he was willing to accept officials from other countries, such as Russia and Austria, for further investigation.

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