School leads charge for change in Ukraine

Protests: Lviv University law students and professors say their country is fed up with widespread corruption.

December 03, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - Leaving their law books behind, the law professors and students of Lviv University began traveling here last week from western Ukraine by train, bus and car. Day after day, they have marched along the capital's snowy streets, banged empty oil drums and shouted themselves hoarse.

And in that way they have shaken the country's government and challenged many of the old assumptions about how the country should be run.

"How do you like our revolution?" law professor Roman R. Posikira shouted, throwing up his hands as he wove through the immense crowd of flag-waving protestors in Independence Square.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Dec. 3 editions about political turmoil in Ukraine implied that a law student at Lviv University, Ivan Tsar, made payments to some of his instructors in exchange for grades. In fact, Tsar said he has never personally made such payments.
The Sun regrets the errors.

This is what they have accomplished so far: Raised grave doubts about the fairness of Ukraine's Nov. 21 presidential election; eroded the credibility of Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, who claimed victory; eroded the credibility of the current president, Leonid D. Kuchma; embarrassed Russian President Vladimir V. Putin; and, most important, emboldened themselves.

Ukraine's Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the validity of the election. Supporters of the opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, say Yanukovych won only because of state-sponsored fraud. The court could nullify the election and demand a new one, a course that Putin yesterday sternly warned against.

The success so far of the protests is due partly to efforts of Posikira, 31, a professor of constitutional and administrative law, along with hundreds of other faculty members and students from the law school at the 343-year-old Lviv University.

Lviv-trained lawyers have helped organize the protests, oversee the picket lines and serve as campaign advisers to Yushchenko. Three are arguing the opposition's case before the 18-member Supreme Court, which itself includes three Lviv law graduates.

The allegations of election-rigging, lawyers from Lviv say, crystallized anger at the corruption that corrodes almost every level of society, from traffic cops to cabinet ministers. And it exhausted their own patience with rulers who did not seem to realize that the Soviet Union is history.

The story of the law school professors and students arriving on the streets of Kiev is about rising expectations bumping up against old realities. It is about a continuing struggle for power between old communist-era elites and an emerging middle class, a struggle that may be repeated in coming years in capitals across the region.

The elections shook Lviv and its university for reasons rooted in history and geography. Western Ukraine, including Lviv, is Catholic, Ukrainian-speaking and historically westward-looking. Eastern Ukraine is Orthodox, Russian-speaking and historically part of the Russian empire. Lviv came within Moscow's orbit only when the Red Army wrested it from Poland in 1939, and after World War II, anti-Soviet partisans in the region waged a 10-year guerrilla war.

On election day, Nov. 21, reports poured in of fraud at the polls. The next morning, Lviv University's 12,000 students and hundreds of faculty members voted to strike. The first protest rally was led by the university's rector; the university senate then voted to rescind an honorary doctorate awarded years ago to President Kuchma.

Vanya Tsar, a fourth-year law student there, came to his profession and the protests almost as a matter of course. His father had worked as a lawyer for a state-owned enterprise, a company that Tsar declined to name. Last year, the elder Tsar began to openly criticize his bosses.

"He was asked to do illegal things," said the son. "And he's a man of principle. So in the end, he was asked to tender his resignation."

Lviv University offered no sanctuary from corruption. Some professors, Tsar and other students say, were demanding bribes of $10 to $100 to award good grades after each test. Tsar considered kickbacks and payoffs as inevitable as his tuition bills - until protestors flooded the streets of the capital.

For a week, Lviv students and faculty attended rallies at the university and huddled around televisions. "We think that if Yanukovych, God forbid, becomes president, he will be Putin's puppet," Tsar said. "If Yushchenko becomes president, we will become a European country, in fact and not just on the map."

He hesitated joining the protests in Kiev. His parents, fearing violence, begged him not to go. But last Sunday at 3 a.m., he caught one of the dozen buses hired by Yushchenko forces to travel between Lviv and Independence Square. For the first time, Tsar saw a chance for Ukraine to change in fundamental ways. "I know it's a dream, but I want everyone to follow the law."

He rode with 16 other students, singing patriotic songs. After 12 hours, the bus reached the capital,

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