Viktor Yushchenko to hold "tough conversation" with country's top business leaders

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was to meet Friday with the country's top business leaders to discuss post-Soviet privatization deals that the government claims were unfair. But Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov told Ukraine's Inter television late Thursday that about 30 business leaders had been invited for what he predicted would be a "tough conversation."

"We're not going to say you stole anything, but we are going to say that privatization took place in an atmosphere of very low competition," Yekhanurov said.

He said business leaders would be asked to voluntarily pay more money for businesses they bought at below market prices under former President Leonid Kuchma. Yekhanurov said he expected strong support.

Yushchenko last month canceled the controversial re-privatization program begun under former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in which dozens of murky privatization deals were being challenged through the courts. The president, however, has continued to maintain that some of the backroom deals ripped off the state, and called for agreements to be reached with the current owners.

Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, who became one of the main targets of Tymoshenko's investigation, had long lobbied for such an agreement, even as he challenged the legality of the government's efforts to strip away some of his most profitable holdings.

"We'll find a judicial formula of agreement so that no one can approach the owners in several years and say again: "Pay more,"' Yekhanurov told Inter.

The controversial re-privatization drive had been blamed for spooking investors and hurting Ukraine's economy. Yekhanurov, who is seen as more business friendly, has said his goal is to build a more trusting and partnership-like relationship with Ukraine's big industrialists.


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