Demonstrators in Donetsk hound Yushchenko,
resulting in cancellation of Our Ukraine congress
by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
KYIV - Wide-scale demonstrations and harassment, some bordering on violent - which many experts said were in all probability organized by local and regional leaders - successfully stopped an effort by Viktor Yushchenko's political organization, Our Ukraine, to hold a congress in the city on October 31.
Exactly a year before presidential elections, and in what may be a preview of things to come, Mr. Yushchenko and a score of fellow lawmakers who belong to his political movement, as well as at least 12 foreign diplomats and hundreds of delegates were hooted and hounded throughout the city as they tried to hold a previously scheduled meeting of their organization.
Our Ukraine delegates and guests were blocked from leaving the airport and denied their meeting hall. All the while they faced mobs of students and pro-Russian political activists, incited by money and liquor, and bent on hooting, chanting and pushing them around, according to Our Ukraine representatives. In the end, they could only hold a rally outside the hotel where they were to stay.
"I saw one of Ukraine's reservations," said Mr. Yushchenko upon his return to Kyiv the next day in a reference to the way Donetsk residents had so willingly adhered to demands by political forces to demonstrate against Our Ukraine and its leader.
Mr. Yushchenko, the country's most popular politician, called for a government inquiry into why local officials did not stop the placement of ads on at least a dozen advertising billboards portraying him in Nazi regalia adorned with swastikas.
The city is the political power center of the Regions of Ukraine Party and its most renowned member, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yushchenko and Mr. Yanukovych are considered the prime potential contenders for the post of president in next year's national elections.
The German Embassy issued a statement criticizing the events in Donetsk and noting that the way the city greeted the Our Ukraine organization did not help to enhance Ukraine's democratic image and did not bode well for a successful election year.
Another person who witnessed the events in Donetsk was Ralf Vaksmut, the head of the Ukrainian office of the Konrad Adenauer Fund, an organization dedicated to developing democracy. Mr. Vaksmut prefaced remarks he made at a roundtable in Kyiv on November 3 on legal preparations under way for the presidential elections by warning that the Donetsk incident was not a good sign for Ukraine.
"What happened in Donetsk last Friday greatly disturbed me. It happened exactly one year before presidential elections," said Mr. Vaksmut. "It begs the question: what will happen as the election nears?"
Regions of Ukraine representatives and city and oblast officials insisted they were not complicit in organizing the disturbances and underscored that the Our Ukraine delegates should not criticize local law enforcement officials, but should thank them for helping to avert what could have been a bloody scene.
They denied they had a hand in organizing the unruly mobs of students who stayed away from classes en masse and in providing them beer and vodka, or in calling out the various pro-Russian party members who shouted, "Our president is Putin, our president is Yanukovych," and "The Ukrainian language is not needed."
Local leaders explained that the large, organized turnouts were a spontaneous outburst of Donetsk political activism.
Raisa Bohatyriova, Regions of Ukraine faction leader in Ukraine's Parliament, said on November 3 that Our Ukraine brought the problems upon itself and called its plan to hold a congress in Donetsk, where Mr. Yushchenko suffers his lowest ratings, "a provocation" from the outset.
"What does such a political force expect when it illegally begins the fight for the office of head of state prematurely?" she asked.
According to Ukrainian law, declared candidates for the presidential elections are not allowed to begin their campaigns for another several months. However, Mr. Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine organization insisted that the purpose of the trip to Donetsk was to hold a routine congress of the political organization.
Ms. Bohatyriova also criticized comments by foreign diplomats as "sparks that set the situation aflame."
Problems started in Donetsk on the eve of the congress when the first of the Our Ukraine delegates arrived in the eastern Ukrainian city only to find they had been locked out of the Yunist (Youth) Palace, the hall they had rented for their congress. The problem was seemingly resolved after the head of the oblast council arrived with armed guards and opened the doors.
That evening several hundred members of the Slavic Party, the Congress of the Russian Community and the Russian Movement of Ukraine gathered before the Donetsk Oblast Center to demonstrate against the Our Ukraine congress. They chanted slogans such as "Out of Donbas, Banderite Spies" and demanded that the local government ban the meeting.
The next morning Our Ukraine delegates arrived at the meeting hall to find it filled with more than 2,500 students who blocked their entry to the place, according to a report by National Deputy Mykola Tomenko in Ukraina Moloda.
The story reported that a tussle took place between the students and several Our Ukraine lawmakers as they attempted to get in. Meanwhile, another 4,000 students and anti-Yushchenko activists stood outside, blocking streets to the building while law enforcement workers stood idly by.
Ukraina Moloda noted that students told reporters they were ordered to take part in the demonstrations or else "face problems with their classes." In return, they were given beer and vodka to make their effort worthwhile.
Mr. Yushchenko's delegation, which had arrived from Kyiv to Donetsk knowing how events were shaping up, was barred from leaving the local airport by state militia officers, who stated that they could not guarantee the group's safety due to demonstrations taking place just outside. The group exited, nonetheless, only to find hundreds of protesters barring their way and a semi-trailer truck blocking the road.
After circumventing the barricades, they first went to the meeting hall and then traveled to meet with oblast leaders. Finally, Mr. Yushchenko and fellow party officials decided to hold an impromptu rally in front of the hotel where they had reserved rooms and postpone their attempt to hold their congress in Donetsk.
Speaking at the rally, Mr. Yushchenko blamed President Leonid Kuchma for allowing the series of event in Donetsk to occur and stated that he refused to take personal blame for spurring them on. Back in Kyiv, the Our Ukraine leader said he would return to Donetsk.
He also called the Verkhovna Rada to form an ad hoc investigative committee to determine to what extent local and state officials had planned and carried out the attack on the Our Ukraine congress and demanded that the head of the State Security apparatus and the minister of internal affairs report on what they knew.
When fellow lawmakers, a majority of whom belong to the pro-presidential and pro-government faction, failed to support the proposal to hold hearings on the Donetsk incidents, the Our Ukraine faction blocked sessions of the Verkhovna Rada on November 4 and 5 by surrounding the chairman's dais and disrupting the proceedings.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 9, 2003, No. 45, Vol. LXXI
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