Charismatic Opponent of Ukrainian Leader Jailed


As Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma faced a deepening political crisis over claims that he plotted a journalist’s disappearance, one of his main opponents, former Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was arrested Tuesday.

Kuchma has been struggling desperately to shrug off the scandal for several months, ever since audiotapes surfaced linking him to the disappearance of Georgi Gongadze, an Internet journalist critical of authorities. The reporter’s headless corpse was found in November.

The pressure on Kuchma has risen in recent days, however. On Sunday, thousands of protesters marched in the streets of Kiev, the capital, under the slogan “Ukraine Without Kuchma.”


Tymoshenko is the most charismatic of the disparate opposition leaders who have united against Kuchma--a coalition that encompasses socialists, nationalists and reformers who would be unlikely to pursue broader common goals beyond their war against the president.

Tymoshenko helped initiate last week’s move by opposition parties to unite in a Forum for National Salvation and press harder for Kuchma’s departure. He fired her last month after she was indicted on smuggling and forgery charges.

Analysts saw Tymoshenko’s arrest as an effort by the authorities to deal a body blow to the opposition coalition.

The scandal embroiling Kuchma blew up after a former bodyguard released purported recordings of him demanding that his interior minister “drive out” Gongadze.

“I’m telling you to drive him out. Give him to the Chechens; undress him. Leave him without his pants,” says a voice on the tapes that resembles Kuchma’s.

Kuchma has denied any involvement in Gongadze’s disappearance, but two members of parliament have confirmed that voices on the tapes are theirs.


Kuchma, Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko and parliament Speaker Ivan Plyushch released a joint statement Tuesday accusing the opposition of psychological warfare and resolving to “repel destructive political groups.”

“One cannot but see that certain groups trying to set off mob rule by using flagrant provocation and to compel the authorities to use force pose a real threat to Ukraine’s national security,” the statement said.

Ukraine, as a recipient of substantial U.S. aid, has been cultivated by the West as a counterweight to Russian power, but Kuchma’s political crisis has him groping for Russian support.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin flew to Ukraine on Monday to meet with Kuchma at Yuzhmash, the rocket production plant that Kuchma headed for six years before becoming Ukrainian prime minister in 1992. He became president in 1994.

The two leaders signed a raft of agreements on energy and space technology, which analysts saw as a sign that Kuchma is turning Ukraine closer to Russia.

Putin said the so-called “Tapegate” scandal is indicative of the internal political conflict normal in a democracy: “It would be incorrect for us to comment on the issue.”


The charges against Tymoshenko date back to 1996, when she was head of United Energy Systems, a large private energy firm.

“When Yulia was told that she would be taken into custody, she handled it really well,” said Tymoshenko’s spokesman, Petro Yakobchuk. “She said that she was prepared for it, that she is not guilty of anything and that the whole case is of totally political nature.”

Political analyst Yulia Mostova, of the Kiev newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli, said Tymoshenko’s arrest was a preemptive strike by the authorities because she had begun to emerge as a powerful opposition leader.

“Kuchma’s own position is getting shakier and shakier by the day, so the authorities decided to launch a counteroffensive and hit the newly formed opposition at its very heart,” Mostova said.

“This arrest will be a moment of truth for the opposition, and if it doesn’t break under this heavy blow, the president’s chances of political survival will be seriously undermined,” she said.