Europe's fourth-largest country, Ukraine, could be spinning into chaos as the government unravels and a growing opposition movement takes to the streets to unseat scandal-tainted President Leonid Kuchma.
The outcome of the power struggle could determine whether Ukraine drifts back into Russia's economic and security orbit - its place for most of the past 350 years - or finds a way to join Europe as an independent state.
A crisis that has been brewing for months suddenly went critical last week. Powerful Communists in parliament teamed up with parties representing "oligarchs," the nation's wealthiest businessmen, to pass a vote of no confidence in the liberal, pro-Western prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko.
Mr. Yushchenko, the country's most popular politician, has been a key, if careful, supporter of the embattled president. Opposition groups now look to him to unify and mobilize disparate forces against Mr. Kuchma.
"I would forecast a very hot springtime in Kiev," says Roman Manekin, an independent Moscow-based expert on Ukraine. "This is a battle between two wings of the Ukrainian elite, neither of whom want the people to take the stage," he adds. "But the crisis could reach a boiling point very soon. Kuchma clearly has no long-term prospects, and it seems unlikely he will serve out his term," which ends in 2003.
At stake is not merely the fate of Ukraine's tenuous market reforms, which had been showing some progress under Yushchenko's leadership, but also the former Soviet country's determination to tilt Westward. Strategically wedged between Russia and the rest of Europe, Ukraine has had an "enhanced relationship" with NATO since 1997 and is a major recipient of US aid.
This coziness has not pleased Moscow. Russians regard Ukraine as the cradle of their culture and statehood, and it was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Nationalists, in particular, see potential benefits in the political row next door. "Yushchenko was the most anti-Russian prime minister Ukraine has ever had," says Kiril Frolov, an expert with the Moscow-based Institute of CIS Studies, a Russian nationalist think tank. "Now that he's gone, there is an historic opportunity to radically improve Ukrainian-Russian relations."
Kuchma, for his part, has been moving to improve ties. The idea of closer links, even reunification, is popular in Ukraine, especially in the heavily Russian-speaking east of the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin has obliged with political support for Kuchma. During a visit in February, Mr. Putin signed a raft of security and economic agreements that would seem pull Kiev more firmly into Moscow's orbit than at anytime since the USSR broke up in 1991.
But political realities on the streets of Kiev may swiftly upset such calculations.
Kuchma has been under fire for months. A diverse but growing protest movement accuses him of complicity in the murder of an opposition journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless remains were discovered in November. Regular street demonstrations to demand Kuchma's resignation have swelled to tens of thousands since a senior Socialist politician revealed 300 hours of tape recordings, allegedly made in the president's office, that appear to show Kuchma planning Mr. Gongadze's disappearance.
Kuchma, a former Soviet rocket-factory director, does not deny that the obscenity-spouting and often raging voice on the tapes is his. But he insists that crucial passages were altered by his enemies. A two-month study of the recording by the prestigious International Press Institute in Vienna ended in March, with experts unable to say whether alterations had been made.
While in office, Yushchenko effectively ran interference for his boss. Though some analysts believe Kuchma cheered the removal of the prime minister - his prime rival - Yushchenko's departure leaves the president politically isolated, with only security forces continuing to back him.
Ukraine's most popular politician, Yushchenko is a strong and capable figure who won the public's trust by paying wage and pension arrears. He was also highly regarded by Western governments for his apparent commitment to fight corruption and break the monopolistic stranglehold of a few super-rich "oligarchs" on Ukraine's stagnant and impoverished economy.
Though he has agreed to stay on for up to 60 days as head of a caretaker government, there seems little doubt Yushchenko will now throw his considerable weight into the opposition camp.
He sounded distinctly like a president-in-waiting on Friday, as he urged supporters to look beyond the Kuchma era. "The idea being discussed now with various leaders is how to forge democratic forces in Ukraine, which would be mainly oriented at a unifying notion and not against somebody," Yushchenko said. "I'm convinced that we have the possibility to gather a broad front of those people who for various reasons remain diversified and fragmented. They would gather only for the sake of a democratic Ukrainian idea."
Yushchenko is probably the one person who could unite the burgeoning "Ukraine Without Kuchma" movement, which has been hobbled by lack of any outstanding leader or unifying ideology. He quickly received the endorsement of the opposition's best-known figure, former deputy prime minister Julia Tymoshenko, who was arrested by Kuchma in February on embezzlement charges that she denies.
"I would like to see a person who is honest, professional, and the people's true choice. Viktor Yushchenko has those characteristics," Ms. Tymoshenko said. "I want Ukraine to have a president it would not be ashamed of."
On Saturday, Tymoshenko proposed a public referendum on whether the president should step down, the first step toward a possible transition of power.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor