By Natalia A. Feduschak, The Washington Times
Washington, D.C., Saturday, February 28, 2004
KIEV - The two men most likely to face off in Ukraine's critical
presidential elections this fall made a rare public appearance last weekend,
setting the stage for what promises to be a fierce battle for the country's
Rarely looking at each other, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and
opposition leader Victor Yushchenko sat side by side during the opening
session of a conference last Saturday, which brought together 200 leading
policy-makers from the United States and Europe to discuss Ukraine's role
in the world.
It was the first such high-level meeting of policy experts since Ukraine
became independent in 1991.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin
(Click on image to enlarge it)
Mr. Yanukovych blamed the opposition for blocking constitutional reforms
that would transfer power from the president to parliament in 2006.
Mr. Yanukovych said the changes are necessary for Ukraine's political
system to function more effectively.
"We will fight for a system of government in which the people will know
who is in power," Mr. Yanukovych said.
Many politicians complain President Leonid Kuchma has too much power
under the current constitution, which often puts him at loggerheads with
lawmakers. That system, they said, also has allowed government corruption to
Mr. Yushchenko welcomed the prime minister's presence at the conference,
saying it was the first time the government was willing to sit down with the
opposition to discuss differences.
Mr. Yushchenko, however, said the constitutional changes the government
is proposing are merely a ruse to allow Mr. Kuchma and his supporters to
keep their hold on power.
"[The government's] end goal is authoritarianism," Mr. Yushchenko said.
"The authorities have taken the road of conserving the government. We want
to disrupt this show."
Opposition leaders have conceded some changes to Ukraine's constitution
are necessary. They maintain, however, that changes should not be carried
out nine months before the Oct. 31 vote or at the current hurried pace.
Despite their divergent political views, Mr. Yanukovych and Mr.
Yushchenko don't harbor the same animosity toward each other as they do
toward Victor Medvedchuk, Mr. Kuchma's chief of staff.
Mr. Yushchenko has accused Mr. Medvedchuk of waging war on businessmen
and media outlets sympathetic to the opposition by using tax inspections and
other unseemly tactics. Politicians and observers here say Mr. Kuchma has
virtually ceded much of his power to Mr. Medvedchuk, whose brother now
holds a powerful post in Ukraine's tax authority.
Other conference participants warned the presidential elections must be
free and fair, and media restrictions and tactics used against the
opposition must stop if Ukraine is to integrate into Europe and world
"If Kuchma were smart, then he would decide that his best legacy is to
allow free and fair elections," former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K.
Albright, who was guest of honor at the conference, said in an interview.
"I think he should realize this is his last chance to really have a
With just over two months left before the European Union accepts new
member states, several conference participants called on the West for a more
proactive policy toward Ukraine. Borys Tarasiuk, who heads the Ukrainian
parliament's committee on European integration, said a new "Friends of
Ukraine" group composed of American and European statesmen would be
established to continue the dialogue with Ukrainians.
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