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Viktor Yushchenko's government is moving fast to break with Ukraine's recent past - perhaps too fast
In the past week Ukraine's leaders have annulled the privatization of a key steel mill, stripped the perks of ex-president Leonid Kuchma, and implicated Kuchma and his allies in a high-profile murder. One of those allies, ex-Interior Minister Yury Kravchenko, was found dead just before investigators were due to question him Friday. It was apparently a suicide. This vigorous post-Kuchma sweep - and especially Kravchenko's death - are raising questions of whether Yushchenko can, or should, keep up the pace. Ukraine's new leaders needed to clean house to satisfy protesters who huddled in sleet and slush to push the Kuchma crowd from power, and the western mediators who helped end last year's election standoff in Yushchenko's fafvor. He was wise to start with bold moves to prove his independence. But reviewing a decade of privatizations and unsolved criminal investigations would require immense presidential stamina and broad political backing. Yushchenko needs his energies and allies for more pressing projects, like reviving Ukraine's economy. And the purging process runs several risks. It could scare off foreign investors by throwing property rights into question. It could turn into a machine for personal vendettas, particularly for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on corruption charges under Kuchma and has led the offensive against him. If the campaign goes too far too fast, it could frighten the democratic European allies Yushchenko so needs. Most seriously, it could plunge Ukraine into the post-revolutionary extremism that has corrupted many an eager reformer, by replacing one clannish and intolerant regime with another. Russians are drawing parallels with their own history, some smugly, some empathetically. Some recall the horrors of the Civil War or Stalin's purges. A more apt comparison is with the anti-Communist fever that gripped Russia immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved. Laws were overturned, resulting in a vacuum that exacerbated corruption and cleared the way for new elites to assume control over the country's wealth. The Communist Party was banned, then reinstated. The backlash against communism led to bloodshed over parliament in 1993, and fueled an opposition that stymied Boris Yeltsin's reforms for the rest of the decade. The thrashing of the old regime alienated the millions of Russians whose party cards were a lifeline, and Yeltsin's economic reforms alienated the rest of the population by leaving them broke. Millions of Ukrainians, including many who voted for Yushchenko, benefited from the Kuchma system in ways large or small. Some won lucrative privatization deals, others won a janitorial job from a pro-Kuchma factory director. Yushchenko can't jail them all, and he can't afford to scare them off politically. He needs to find a way to punish selectively but fairly, if he can. Even in Yushchenko strongholds in western Ukraine, employees at state agencies are on edge, fearing they could be replaced by new faces untainted by the former administration. Successful business owners - most of whom had to pay some tribute to Kuchma-era officialdom to function, much less to prosper - nervously joke about settling down abroad. Unless Yushchenko makes clear what the new rules are and how much past infractions will matter, the jokes may turn serious. Because even if Ukrainian executives prefer Yushchenko's policies to his predecessor's, many of their business practices wouldn't stand up to a rigorous legal review. The renationalization, and eventual re-privatization, of the Krivyrizhstal steel mill was an obvious place to start. Ukraine's biggest metals producer was sold last year to Kuchma's son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and friendly magnate Rinat Akhmetov for what nearly everyone says was a pittance. But now the government must find the $800 million to pay them back, and then find a new buyer rich enough to pay the $3 billion it's believed to be worth. The ease and speed of this case will be a key test of how far Yushchenko's team can go to reconsider other privatizations. Reviving the probe into the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was also a logical, if controversial, step for the new government. The killing was the first event to mobilize public opposition to Kuchma's leadership, and the clumsy investigation confirmed Ukrainians' distrust of law enforcement. But the tapes that form the core of the case against Kuchma could have consequences far beyond the Gongadze case. If authenticated, they could implicate him and other top officials in illegal arms sales, illegal campaign financing and intimidation of opponents. Pursuing all these charges risks dividing the country more deeply than last year's election. Depriving Kuchma of perks may be as far as Ukraine's new leaders can go. Kuchma himself may slow the tempo of the government's house-cleaning by permanently extending his vacation in the Czech Republic, choosing self-imposed exile over scrutiny at home.
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