Ukraine: Business as Usual

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Dave Crouch reports from Ukraine's capital Kiev about how much has changed for people since the uprising last year.

Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution' was a contest of millionaires against billionaires. Now that the millionaires are in power, it's business as usual - a huge disappointment to the crowds who demanded genuine change.

So president Viktor Yushchenko's initial talk of 'nationalisation' of industries sold off for a pittance to the billionaires quickly changed to 're-privatisation'. Now the government says it only wants owners to make additional payments to the state. Prime minister Tymoshenko initially promised to nationalise 3,000 companies. Three weeks later she said, 'There will be no laws about nationalisation [and] forget about re-privatisation.' Tymoshenko has already gone to the IMF for help with reforming the economy.

There might be some exceptions, such as the mighty Krivorozhstal steel plant owned by Forbes-listed billionaires Akhmetov and Pynchuk. Recently a Russian businessman has also tried to grab back the Dynamo Kiev football club from its owners, who were closely linked to the old regime.

But the general direction is clear. In the government itself three of Yushchenko's big business backers - Poroshenko, Chervonenko and Zhvaniya - now have cabinet posts. Initially the government promised that businessmen turned politicians would have to sell off their business interests. But none of them have done this. Poroshenko has publicly stated his reluctance to do so: 'I am ready to do this, but I'm not certain the others will do so too.'

Under the old regime of president Kuchma, businessmen cynically used the government to make fortunes. But here too little has changed. So in February a scandal erupted around a minister and his wife's business interests. The minister of justice, Roman Zvarych, blocked a cabinet decision to halt oil exports from Ukraine; he did this just at the very moment when his wife's company was attempting to get 3 million tons of oil across the border. The deal was worth tens of millions.

Another main reason for the mass street protests last year was the way the government rigged the media through censorship and corruption. A strike by journalists helped smash through the censorship, and the government promised to introduce BBC-style public service broadcasting, which would have been a big step forward.

But Yushchenko has now backed off from this promise. There is a general election next year, and the cabinet has made it clear that it wants to retain direct control over the main state broadcaster as a valuable weapon in the election campaign.

The government has also flirted with anti-Semitism. Vice prime minister Mykola Tomenko announced that culture should become Ukrainian and that he'd 'had enough of the Kobzons and the Tabachniks'. Kobzon and Tabachnik are well known performers who supported the old regime's presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych - but they are also Jewish. Tomenko singled out the only two Jewish people among Yanukovych's prominent supporters, a fact also overlooked by the western media.

Yushchenko has begun to withdraw Ukrainian troops from Iraq, a promise made by both candidates in the elections last year. But there are reports that the troops will go straight to another outpost of imperialism - Kosovo. Yushchenko talks about Iraq as 'a zone of Ukrainian interests'. Despite opinion polls showing overwhelming opposition, he says he wants Ukraine to join Nato as soon as possible.

Transcripts of the 'round table' negotiations that took place between the two sides during the revolution show that Yushchenko was desperate to get the crowds off the streets and prevent them seizing parliament. But it is also becoming clear that he struck a deal with the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, to guarantee him immunity in return for a peaceful handover of power. This was a betrayal of one of the revolution's key demands - for Kuchma to be punished for his regime's crimes.


Corruption

A grisly murder case is threatening to open a Pandora's box for Ukraine's new rulers. The headless corpse of anti-corruption journalist Georgy Gongadze was found in a ditch outside Kiev five years ago. Weeks later secret tape recordings made by president Kuchma's personal bodyguard revealed that Kuchma and his ministers had discussed 'crushing' the journalist and 'taking care of' him.

The murder crystallised public disgust at Kuchma's regime. It sparked mass demonstrations, which were put down by riot police. The government kept up a stream of lies about the case, while witnesses were intimidated, lost their jobs or fled abroad.

With the new government now in power, people want answers -the case is a litmus test for Ukrainian democracy. But Yushchenko's handling of it suggests he is reluctant to dig too deep into the murder, which could also implicate figures in his leadership.

In early March a key witness in the case, general Kravchenko, killed himself just hours before he was due to give evidence. Many Ukrainians believe the government pressured Kravchenko to kill himself so he would take his secrets with him to the grave.

There had been a public fanfare about bringing him in for questioning several days before he committed suicide. Several MPs had warned he was a suicide risk and should be taken in for his own safety.

'His death was necessary to many,' was the headline in a popular newspaper - Kravchenko had 'buried with him the answers to many unpleasant questions' for the new government.

Several figures in Yushchenko's leadership were members of Kuchma's cabinet when Gongadze was murdered and may have awkward questions to answer about the case.

One of these people is Volodymyr Lytvyn, the speaker of parliament, who can be heard on the secret tapes suggesting that Kuchma get rid of the journalist. But a few weeks ago Yushchenko invited Lytvyn to join him in leading an electoral bloc at next year's general elections.

The secret tapes could be 'a weapon of mass destruction' for the government, says the authoritative liberal newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya. Yushchenko was prime minister under Kuchma. No one knows if he himself is on the tapes, and if so what embarrassments they may reveal.

The government has arrested two police officers and charged them with Gongadze's murder. But the case cannot be closed until the people higher up who ordered the killing are brought to justice.