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INTERVIEW-Opposition to join forces to oust Kuchma
By Yuri Kulikov

KIEV, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Ukraine's traditionally fragmented opposition will pick a single candidate to run in a presidential poll next year to rid the ex-Soviet state of Leonid Kuchma's "corrupt" rule, a leading opposition figure said on Tuesday.

Viktor Yushchenko, an ex-prime minister and popular leader of one of Ukraine's main opposition parties, said the ex-Soviet state needed to breathe fresh air after corruption and scandal have tainted Ukraine's reputation for years.

And the opposition, once made impotent by infighting and political intrigue between at least a dozen parties, would for the first time join together to present a united front to oust Kuchma, Ukraine's longest-serving president, from power.

"This is the most important thing -- for the opposition to consult and present a single candidate for the election in 2004," Yushchenko told Reuters in an interview.

"For the last couple of years, Ukraine has lived in a society dominated by oligarchs and business clans... A change has become the fresh air that people need to breathe.

"And of course there will be more persecution and threats (ahead of the election) but after that the necessity of democracy and the European choice will become more clear."

He said Ukraine should pursue European Union membership and take its place as an important country in Europe.

"I am convinced that a country which does not see itself in Europe...is a country without a future," he said.

Yushchenko, Ukraine's most popular politician according to opinion polls, has yet to say whether he will run for president in October 2004, when Kuchma has said he will step down after two terms in line with the constitution.

But most observers believe the modest former premier will throw his hat in the ring after becoming increasingly frustrated with Kuchma's rule, which has been tainted by charges of arms sales to Iraq in breach of U.N. sanctions.

The veteran leader, who Yushchenko once called his father figure, weathered months of opposition protests last year, as well as charges of being involved in the murder of a journalist critical of his rule and the arms charges.

But Kuchma has been forced to edge closer to former imperial master Russia as the West has distanced itself. Late last year he appointed a new government, including the man believed to be his chosen successor -- Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Yushchenko said Ukraine was now ready for change.

"In foreign affairs, Ukraine has lost the most important thing -- trust. I, like millions of other Ukrainians, realise that our country now has the lowest standing on the international stage," he said, adding he would tour western capitals to speak about his vision for Ukraine.

"Ukraine is tired of living in its current state."

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