Rule of Law Put to Test in Kiev Mayor's Assault

KIEV -- Ukraine's new reform-minded government faces its first major test of its commitment to the rule of law -- as opposed to the law of the street -- with the country's police chief under investigation for allegedly assaulting the capital's mayor.

Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky accuses Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko of punching him in the face and groin after the two argued during a government agency meeting last week.

"Such beastly behavior disgraces Ukraine," Chernovetsky said in a statement after the Jan. 18 scuffle.

Lutsenko begs to differ. He says he slapped Chernovetsky's face but contends it was the mayor who initiated the fight by first publicly defaming him, then kicking him in the knee.

"I slapped Chernovetsky' face -- all the governors saw it," Lutsenko said on a television talk show. "I am not going to apologize, because I believe it is an absolutely base thing to do -- to defame a person for something he didn't do.

"And it is absolutely low to kick someone in the knee under the table because I know who does that -- convicts in prison do that."

The Kiev Prosecutor's Office said Friday that Chernovetsky suffered minor injuries and that a criminal case has been opened "in connection with the other participant in that event."

If convicted, Lutsenko could be sentenced either to up to one month of community work or up to one year of internal exile.

Tempers run high in Ukrainian politics, with politicians frequently resorting to acid words and fistfights regularly breaking out in the parliament.

Critics say the current incident will be a peculiar test for the pro-Western government of Yulia Tymoshenko, who has promised to turn Ukraine into a law-abiding European nation. It will show to what extent Lutsenko, who has begun a massive campaign to combat crime and corruption, is committed to his own election slogan "There is one law for all."