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Thousands Demonstrate in Ukraine, Urge Early Election - 2003-03-09

Ukraine's political opposition has staged its first nationwide, anti-government rally of the year, drawing thousands into the streets. The opposition accuses President Leonid Kuchma of corruption and abuse of power, and is calling for early elections.

Ukrainians turned out in force Sunday to take part in the nationwide anti-presidential rally.

Protesters in the capital, Kiev, marched in wide columns down the main boulevard, carrying banners reading, "Down with Kuchma," and "No to Dictatorship." Protest actions also are being held in other regions of Ukraine.

President Kuchma denies the opposition charges and has survived numerous opposition attempts to oust him from office, including weeks of protests last fall that started strong, but fizzled out just as quickly.

Sunday's march was led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, the country's leading politician, who heads the Our Ukraine Bloc.

Mr. Yushchenko's participation in last year's anti-government protests was deemed vital to ensure the opposition's success. However, Mr. Yushchenko failed to definitively commit to the cause, opting instead to call for continued negotiations with the government.

Mr. Yushchenko's forces were joined Sunday by those of Yulia Tymoshenko, a leading anti-Kuchma lawmaker, who used to serve as Mr. Kuchma's deputy prime minister. Communists and Socialists also took part.

Sunday's demonstration also differed from earlier anti-government protests in that police were noted to be scarce.

Last September, after first standing on the sidelines, police swooped in under the cover of darkness to disband makeshift tent camps set up by the opposition on the steps of parliament. Scores of anti-government demonstrators were beaten and arrested.

There were no immediate reports of unrest on Sunday.

The opposition's action comes just days after President Kuchma again raised the possibility of constitutional reforms that would transfer many executive powers to parliament. The reforms, presented to parliament Thursday, are believed to be aimed at striking a blow against the opposition ahead of the demonstrations.

The Ukrainian president raised similar suggestions just before last year's protests, prompting the opposition to formulate new goals because parliamentary changes had been one of the opposition's key demands of the Kuchma government.

Presidential elections are not due in Ukraine until 2004, and Ukraine's constitution bans Mr. Kuchma from serving a third term. But some critics have expressed concerns that President Kuchma's proposed constitutional reforms could just be a guise to hold onto power.

The opposition accuses Mr. Kuchma and his officials of widescale corruption, illegal arms dealing, vote fraud and involvement in the killing of a leading opposition journalist. Mr. Kuchma has denied all the charges.

Political tensions have been simmering in Ukraine since parliamentary elections last March. During the elections, the opposition won most of the popular vote, but failed to secure control of parliament from pro-Kuchma forces.

Ukraine's political opposition says it will continue its latest protest action until Mr. Kuchma steps down or calls early elections.