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Sharon LaFraniere: Scare Tactics On the Rise In Ukraine
Washington Post, Вільний Форум
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 17, 2002; Page A20
Scare tactics on the rise in Ukraine Kuchma government presses critics in legislature, media
KIEV [Kyiv], Ukraine -- Having built a multimillion-dollar enterprise over the last decade by making and selling shingles and tar paper, Volodmyr Shandra knows all there is to know about the business of roofing.
It's in the business of politics -- he is a new member of parliament and a critic of Ukraine's struggling president, Leonid Kuchma -- that the roof has come crashing down around his head.
The 39-year-old businessman was elected to the legislature in April as a member of the Our Ukraine faction, the leading opposition to Kuchma's increasingly autocratic rule. In July, he said, a friend passed along a message from a top official in Kuchma's government: If Shandra did not join the pro-Kuchma lawmakers, his factory would find itself in deep trouble.
Within a month, he said, a cadre of masked officers toting machine guns showed up at the factory in the western Ukraine city of Slavuta. They seized a dozen computers and 3,000 pounds of documents.
The factory was all but paralyzed during the critical summer construction season, he said, wreaking havoc with its clients and dealers. Now it faces a criminal investigation for supposed financial improprieties.
"I never imagined these things could happen," Shandra said.
Muscling legislators is just the most visible of a variety of hardball tactics that critics say have intensified here as Kuchma's government sinks deeper into scandal and loses popular support. Other methods include retaliating against insufficiently loyal businessmen and independent judges, and cowing the media.
"You get a sense of sustained pressure, across the board," said Markian Bilynskyj, director of field operations for the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. Democracy in Ukraine, he said, "has boundaries delineated by the people in power. Democracy is something that is to be permitted and distributed in doses."
Kuchma, who is scheduled to leave office in two years, says Ukraine is on its way to becoming a modern European democracy and just needs time to develop. His aides deny the government engages in censorship or uses law enforcement and the courts for political ends.
For the moment, the strong-arm tactics are helping Kuchma maintain his grip after opposition forces managed their largest show of strength to date, drawing tens of thousands of protesters to the streets in September. Following what critics describe as a campaign of threats and hefty bribes, a razor-slim majority of legislators last week pledged to work with the executive branch.
Television news coverage of Kuchma is now relentlessly positive: When he was humiliated at last month's NATO summit in Prague, for instance, Ukrainian media painted it as a diplomatic victory for the 64-year-old leader.
But some analysts say the real beneficiary of Kuchma's crackdown is its architect: Viktor Medvedchuk, the president's new and increasingly powerful chief of staff and one of Ukraine's richest oligarchs.
"There is a real sense that this administration is being run by Medvedchuk, and that he is performing a kind of dress rehearsal for when he becomes president," said Bilynskyj. "I don't think Kuchma is controlling all of this. But he is not stopping it."
The trend worries Western leaders, who once dreamed that Ukrainian democracy would flourish. With nearly 50 million people, a territory the size of France and an arsenal that includes missile and nuclear technology, Ukraine was judged worthy of grooming for a democratic future. It has been one of the top recipients of U.S. aid and political support.
But that may be changing. The United States has given Kuchma the cold shoulder since determining this fall that he signed off on a clandestine plan to sell powerful Kolchuga aircraft tracking stations to Iraq in clear violation of an international embargo. U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual said last month that the Kolchuga affair and other disagreements have led to "a crisis of confidence" in Ukraine's top leadership. Kuchma denies approving the sale.
His administration is powerless to silence American grumbling. But the growing list of incidents involving political opponents, businessmen and journalists suggests domestic critics sometimes pay a steep price.
Take Serhiy Danylov, whose printing house last February published 900,000 copies of a book about Yulia Timoshenko, a leader of the opposition to Kuchma. Now on his press is another book, documenting what he says is the punishment tax authorities have meted out since then: more than 100 visits to his office and warnings to his clients. His business nearly ruined, he has cut his workforce from 304 employees to 25.
"I can say that the [Soviet] KGB [secret police] in 1988 was much kinder than the tax administration of Ukraine today," he said.
Or consider Yevhen Chervonenko, a legislator who spent the last decade building an international trucking firm. He said his support for Viktor Yushchenko, head of Our Ukraine and the country's most popular politician, has so far cost the firm at least $1 million in business after tax police this year froze bank accounts and seized trucks.
"I was an adviser of the president. I was a minister," he said. "When I was there, they did not touch me. But since I began to support Yushchenko . . . I am being told I will lose everything."
Yushchenko says two dozen companies with financial links to legislators from his party have been targeted.
If harassing legislators seems brazen, however, even some of Kuchma's advisers said they were stunned when police arrested Konstantin Grigorishin, a 37-year-old Russian businessman with more than $370 million invested in Ukraine's energy, metals and machine-building industries.
In an interview in Moscow, Grigorishin said officers pulled him out of his car after he left a restaurant in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on Oct. 12, planted narcotics in his jacket and stuffed a gun in his back pocket. "They even buttoned the pocket," he said.
He blamed his arrest on Kuchma's aide, Medvedchuk, and Hryhory Surkis, who together with Medvedchuk leads the Social Democratic Party, the political arm of a business clan that controls much of Ukraine's wealth. For the previous two years, Grigorishin said, he had been trying to end a business partnership with the two men because of their financial demands.
Last summer, he said, they asked for $50 million to finance the party's parliamentary campaign. When he refused, he said, the two systematically took over his Ukrainian companies, one by one.
"I was told, 'We won't let you do business in the Ukraine,' " he said. "Surkis said, 'We will put you in the trunk of a car, drive you to the woods and bury you alive.' Medvedchuk said they would put me in jail."
Medvedchuk has denied any involvement in the businessman's arrest, saying he never interferes in law enforcement cases. Surkis dismissed Grigorishin's allegations as nonsense.
Grigorishin was freed after 10 days in jail after Viktor Pinchuk, his friend and Kuchma's son-in-law, intervened. A Kiev court later found his arrest and detention illegal.
Lawyers who have fought Kuchma's government in court say that although a fair verdict is possible, judges increasingly fear they will be penalized for political disloyalty. Yuriy Vasilenko, an appeals court judge, estimates that only 10 out of about 200 judges in Kiev are truly independent. "As soon as a judge takes an independent stand, a complaint will be filed with a judicial directorate or another body," he said.
Former district court judge Mykola Zamkovenko considers himself a prime example.
In March 2001, he released Yulia Timoshenko from jail, striking down fraud and bribery charges brought by Kuchma's prosecutors. Two months later, police illegally raided his house.
In July, Kuchma fired him for incompetence. He now faces criminal charges of abusing his position and forgery.
"When I was making the decisions they liked, they were silent," Zamkovenko said. Now, he said, "They are using me to scare off the other judges."
Television journalists say they -- and their stations, which are mostly controlled by pro-Kuchma oligarchs -- also face repercussions if they do not follow the government's increasingly strict line. While certain topics were always taboo, now opposition leaders such as Yushchenko are simply banned from the air, said Andriy Shevchenko, a leader of the new union of journalists.
And for the first time, permitted topics are now outlined in faxes from the presidential administration. Kiev Post, an independent, English-language newspaper, published a copy of the government's media directive from Sept. 13, three days before a planned opposition protest that turned into one of the largest ever held here.
"Please cover the day's events in the following order in all this evening's news bulletins," it said. High on the list was a judge's ban on holding the protest in Kiev's center and a union leader's recommendation that workers not participate.
Serhiy Vasyliev, Kuchma's aide for information, said the directives are only suggestions. "Some journalists interpret them as instructions because they come from the president," he said recently. "But that is wrong."
Shevchenko said the proof is on the screen. For instance, he said, no television network has aired a single minute of now notorious tapes on which hours of Kuchma's private conversations are purportedly recorded.
That could be why so few Ukrainians know the story of Alexei Podolsky, a 45-year-old former member of parliament.
On June 6, 2000, as Podolsky finished printing a sheaf of anti-Kuchma leaflets here, he said, he was abducted by three men and driven 78 miles to the rural area of Sumi, where he was severely beaten.
Before the assailants left him in a grove of trees, he said, one of them warned him: "If you continue, you will pay with your life." When he returned to Kiev, he said, he found his front door burned.
Months later, Podolsky said, he read about his own abduction and beating in what purports to be a transcript of yet another secretly taped conversation in Kuchma's office. The transcript was posted on the Internet site of Oleksandr Zhyr, a leader of an anti-Kuchma party.
"The day before yesterday, he ended up all the way in Sumi [Sumy] oblast, the one that distributed. And they gave it to him there in such a way," said a man whom Zhyr identified as then-Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko.
Then Kravchenko told Kuchma about the burned door, according to the transcript.
"(Both laughing,)" the transcript says.
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