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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 14:41 GMT
Ukraine's air of unrest
A protestor in Kiev
Masked protesters hand out anti-Kuchma leaflets
By Rob Parsons in Ukraine

I had a bad feeling about Kiev long before I got there. Granted, some of that had to do with the president of Ukraine's reputation.

People have been putting it about that he doesn't like journalists. There's even a story persistently doing the rounds that he has had one murdered - and it gets worse.

According to the story, which is believed by a lot of people, the journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, was subsequently burnt, beheaded, bathed in acid and buried in a wood.

Uneasy arrival
Independence Square in Kiev
The protesters are based in Independence Square

The feeling of impending doom intensified the closer I got to my destination. Our Aero-Svit Boeing 737 did not want to land. A wall of thick fog clung to Kiev's Borispol airport.

But the pilot was nothing if not stubborn. I should have realised when he declared in Moscow that a little bit of weather wasn't going to put him off. "We take off," he said, "come what may."

But that was the easy part - landing was another matter. Three times he tried, three times he failed. What should have been a one and a quarter hour flight lasted for over five. When we did at last touch down it wasn't in Kiev but in the Crimea, several hundred miles to the south.

Still, we got there in the end - arriving in the dead of a dank Ukrainian night. Tendrils of mist floated off the Dnepr river, and Kiev rose from the hills on the far bank, encrusted in snow.

Caught in limbo for hundreds of years between the imperial ambitions of Poland and Russia, Ukraine today is a country struggling to forge a sense of itself.

Janus-like, it looks east and west, beguiled by the wealth and dynamism of Europe, but tugged still by the cultural pull of eastern Slavdom.


Everyone has heard the tapes - including what appears to be a presidential fit of giggles when informed of the journalist's fate

An ethnic fault line runs down the length of the country - a quarter of the population is Russian - and finds schizophrenic reflection in Kiev, city of three million souls.

The capital is the driving force of Ukrainian independence, but Russian is the language most commonly spoken on its streets, albeit with a Ukrainian accent.

Sense of betrayal

The country cries out for enlightened leadership but finds itself burning with shame. Its people feel betrayed and with good reason.

Near my hotel in the centre of Kiev, on Independence Square, there stands a bedraggled collection of tents, banners and placards.

This is the focus now of political opposition to the administration of Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine since 1993 - and the man ultimately responsible for its reputation as a swamp of corruption, graft and crime.

My taxi from the airport passed them in the dim glow of the Kiev night. A few Ukrainian flags flapped yellow and blue on the icy wind. The beginnings of a wooden fence marked one of many attempts by the police to clear the protesters from the square.

The Gongadze affair has enraged a nation and shaken the arrogant confidence of its ruling elite.

On the record

At the crux of the matter is 300 hours of audio tapes secretly recorded by a presidential security officer in Mr Kuchma's office. Two months ago, he gave them to the Ukrainian parliament.
President  Kuchma
Mr Kuchma is under pressure to resign

On one tape, a foul-mouthed Mr Kuchma appears to order his security chiefs to arrange the disappearance of Georgiy Gongadze, the troublesome editor of an internet news site.

The tape was political dynamite. Gongadze's headless corpse had been found in a forest just three weeks before.

President Kuchma wriggled. The tapes were fake, he said, drooling honesty. But then he back-tracked. Yes, they were recorded in his office and, yes, it was his voice. But the tapes were an elaborate montage designed to blacken his name.

Dutch and Austrian experts who examined the tapes disagreed. Now the EU, among others, is calling for an independent investigation. Leonid Kuchma has his back to the wall.

You'd be pushed to find a single person who doubts his involvement in Gongadze's disappearance. Everyone has heard the tapes - including what appears to be a presidential fit of giggles when informed of the journalist's fate.

Protests

I walked down to the encampment early in the morning - 200 metres of bleary-eyed humanity was emerging from a row of tents that stretched along Kreshchatik, Kiev's main shopping street.

Unwashed and unshaven, their bodies steamed in the morning frost. At a table, a man ladled porridge from an iron cauldron. It is a ritual that has been performed every day for the past few weeks.

Mr Gongadze's wife Myroslava
Mr Gongadze's wife, Myroslava, is calling for a murder investigation
Photographs of the square-jawed Gongadze, smiling through layers of cellophane and bouquets of roses, hang among the tents. Slogans call for a Ukraine without Kuchma, and sprigs of fir tree are decorated with the national colours.

Anger has united a once fractious opposition. Among the placards, one proclaims Dynamo Kiev fans against Kuchma, another mountaineers for a free Ukraine.

Air of change

But there is a frisson of tension in the air. Many of the demonstrators wear black masks to avoid identification. Our camera attracts suspicion. "Who is he?" someone asks, pointing at me. "Maybe he's a government spy."

You sense that Ukraine is on the verge of something momentous - that it is about to decide between freedom of choice and the authoritarianism that has characterised its past.

There is talk of civil war and of Yugoslavia. Perhaps Mr Kuchma is the next Milosevic. One thing is certain though - President Kuchma will not retire with grace. He has far too much to lose.

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See also:

14 Feb 01 | Europe
Ukraine's 'censorship killing'
14 Feb 01 | Media reports
Ukraine's leaders appeal to the nation
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