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Sunday, 11 February, 2001, 16:57 GMT
Eyewitness: Among the Kiev protesters
Protesters burn effigy of Leonid Kuchma
Protests against Mr Kuchma have gained wide appeal
By Kevin Bishop in Kiev

In the cold Sunday mist on Kreshatik, Kiev's main central thoroughfare, a hundred or so protesters gather round an impromptu tent city, queuing for porridge and hot tea.

Scarves wrapped around their faces to shield them from the biting wind, they come from all walks of life.


What sort of country is it where a journalist is killed for exposing the truth

Miroslava Gongadze
Pensioners, housewives, students, Dynamo Kiev football supporters. Their common goal - the resignation of their president.

One noticeboard carries a photograph of a handful of mountaineers on a snowy peak.

They hold a banner with a simple message: "Ukraine Without Kuchma".

Tent city

They call him the Redhead here.

Leonid Kuchma
Mr Kuchma: Fighting for political survival
Ukraine's embattled President Leonid Kuchma is fighting for his political life as the murky scandal involving the death of an internet journalist gathers pace.

In the tent city, flowers wrapped in cellophane are placed under a photo of Georgiy Gongadze, the Georgian-born editor-in-chief of Ukrainskaya Pravda, whose campaign to discredit the president led to his disappearance last September.

Three months later a headless corpse was found buried in a shallow grave in woods near Kiev.

The Prosecutor's Office here have declared themselves "99% certain" that the body is that of Gongadze.

In her nearby office, Mr Gongadze's wife, Miroslava, is resigned to the fact she will not see her husband again.

Secret tapes

Surrounded by photographs of Georgiy with their two young children, she accuses the investigators of incompetence in their search for his killers.

"Maybe he battled too hard at times," she told me. "But what sort of country is it where a journalist is killed for exposing the truth?"

Georgiy Gongadze
Georgiy Gongadze: Almost certainly killed
The truth behind his murder, however, is far from clear.

Ukrainian society has been shaken over the last two months by a series of tapes which apparently implicate the president and two of his ministers in Mr Gongadze's disappearance.

In recordings riddled with crude profanity, the voice - which Western experts have confirmed as that of the president - is heard to say:

"I'm telling you, drive him out. Throw him out. Give him to the Chechens... strip him [expletive deleted], leave him without pants."

The recordings, which were made by a former presidential bodyguard who has since fled into hiding abroad, have been played and transcribed widely in the media here.

The bodyguard says there is more to come.

And there's certainly an appetite for more.

Walking through the snow-covered streets of Kiev, I catch snatches of conversation.


We should bring back the rule of law to our society

Serhyi Horovati, independent MP
The tapes, Gongadze and the violence that has marred many of the demonstrations over the last months is on everyone's lips.

On the slippery steps to the Kiev Teatralnaya metro station, a middle-aged lady, bundled heavily against the cold, giggles as she sells apples to a young couple.

"You save these. You'll be able to make a nice cake to celebrate when Redhead goes!"

Hard times

In the nine years since independence, Ukraine has struggled to find its feet in the post-Soviet order.

Anti Kuchma protest
Calls are mounting for Mr Kuchma to go
Dominated economically by Russia to the north and east, Mr Kuchma has until now presided over a country that has been dogged by inflation, industrial collapse and poverty.

Luckily for him, the opposition here has been divided and prone to internal squabbles.

It seems ironic, then, that at a time when the economy is at last showing the first signs of a turnaround, the president's opponents are beginning to unite to seek his downfall.

Serhyi Horovati is an independent MP and leading member of the newly-created Forum for National Salvation, an umbrella grouping of politicians, intellectuals and public figures.

He fears that, if Mr Kuchma remains, next year's parliamentary elections will be at best a sham, at worst cancelled.

The Forum's main hope is that Ukrainians continue to take to the streets to voice their anger at the system.

Mr Horovati sees echoes here of last year's revolution in Serbia.

"We should unite to achieve our goal .We should get rid of that regime headed by Kuchma, which we call a criminal regime. We should bring back the rule of law to our society."

Long haul

For now, though, it is too soon to talk of a popular uprising in Ukraine.

Anti-Kuchma protesters
Protesters have braved all weathers
The demonstrations are angry and vociferous, and Mr Kuchma has shown signs of taking notice by sacking the hated head of the secret service here.

But the levers of state control are powerful and still in the hands of the president.

This could be a long struggle.

On Kreshatik, the campaigners for a Ukraine Without Kuchma bed down for another night in the cold fog.

They will be here, they say, until the murk of scandal and political corruption has been lifted from their country.

See also:

11 Feb 01 | Europe
Analysis: Kuchma under pressure
10 Jan 01 | Europe
Headless journalist 'identified'
29 Nov 00 | Media reports
Death, lies and audiotape - Ukraine-style
19 Sep 00 | Media reports
Outspoken Ukraine journalist missing
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ukraine
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