Leonid Kuchma Weathers Unrest, Again

Ukraine: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Protests Ukraine
An elderly man shouts "Down with Kuchma!" amid a massive protest outside the presidential offices in Kiev, Sept. 25, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

It’s called Ukraine, but a more appropriate designation might be “the land that time forgot.” Since it gained independence a little more than 10 years ago, Ukraine has experienced nearly continuous political gridlock. Short-lived cooperation agreements between the strong-arm president and legislature are followed by calls for the president to step down. When they’re not serving as ministers in government, legislators are jailed and harassed. Journalists are killed.

The situation would be farcical if the consequences weren’t so grim. Poverty is widespread. The average salary is half what it is in Russia. The incidence of HIV and AIDS ranks among the highest in the developed world.

Thousands played out a well-rehearsed scene on Sept. 16, gathering in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine to call for the resignation of the president, Leonid Kuchma. The action, known as “Arise, Ukraine!,” was scheduled to coincide with the disappearance two years ago of Heorhii Gongadze, editor of the newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda. Kuchma has been accused of involvement in Gongadze’s disappearance and subsequent death.

Protesters erected a tent city near the presidential offices, but it was quickly torn down by police. Participants in the demonstration included representatives of every opposition faction, including the moderate party Our Ukraine, headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Until the last minute, Yushchenko had urged negotiation with the president.

The wide ideological range represented at the demonstrations led some participants to speak in rather grandiose terms of a political breakthrough. Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz told Ukrayinska Pravda that Arise, Ukraine! “was a dazzling manifestation of a tendency toward consolidation in Ukrainian society, a unification of leftists, rightists, and centrists that we have not seen before” (Sept. 23).

Unprecedented or not, the demonstrations failed to loosen Kuchma’s grip on power. Indeed, Yushchenko’s decision to align himself with the hard-line opposition may have had more to do with desperation than recognition of any shared interests with Kuchma’s opponents. The president’s appointment earlier this year of business leader Viktor Medvedchuk to head his administration is seen by some observers as part of a plan to groom a pliant successor and proof that Yushchenko’s nonconfrontational strategy has failed.

President Kuchma’s term—his last, according to the terms of the Constitution—ends in 2004. As Kuchma’s man, Medvedchuk would serve as his protector against future criminal prosecution. Yushchenko enjoys greater popular support than Medvedchuk, but Medvedchuk as a presidential candidate could draw on the resources of the incumbent.

Politically, therefore, Ukraine could follow the model of Russia, where former President Boris Yeltsin, a one-time catalyst for reform, ultimately became an impediment, presiding over the looting of the state by the new business elite. Like Yeltsin, critics charge, Kuchma has cut procedural corners in an effort to outmaneuver opponents on the left and right—but for no greater aim than personal power. Medvedchuk would be Kuchma’s Vladimir Putin.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In theory, close historical links to the West (owing to western Ukraine’s pre-Soviet rule by Austria-Hungary and Poland), together with a longer tradition of private land ownership and cultivation, were to have contributed to a relatively speedy transition to democratic government and a free-market economy.

Instead, Ukraine has performed rather poorly among post-communist states, showing less impressive results than even Russia, its big brother to the north. Real gross domestic product per person was in decline throughout the 1990s. Legislation to facilitate private enterprise and foreign investment has been hobbled by divided parliaments lacking convincing majorities. The divisions have been largely between left and right, and they coincide roughly with the political differences between eastern Ukraine, which has a large population of Russian-speakers, and a more nationally conscious western Ukraine.

Disease has followed poverty. In the mid-1990s, this country of some 49 million was hard hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, estimating that there were nearly half a million adults infected with HIV in 2001, described Ukraine as “the most affected country in the region and, indeed, in all of Europe.”

The one area in which Ukrainian leaders had some notable success is in foreign relations. In this regard, Kuchma and his predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk, have followed a rather consistent security policy that strives to ensure independence from Russia. After long and tense negotiations, Ukraine reached agreement with Russia in 1997 on a division of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet. The same year, the two countries signed a bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, in which Russia for the first time recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia ratified the treaty in 1999. The Ukrainian leadership’s occasional embrace of Russia has been tempered by cooperation with NATO and European institutions.

The last time Ukrainians gathered in massive numbers to demand Kuchma’s ouster was in the winter of 2000-1. The impetus then was the disappearance of Heorhii Gongadze and allegations that Kuchma had ordered his killing. If ever there was a moment when Kuchma’s days seemed numbered, this was it. At this time, too, protesters erected a tent city in Kiev, and demonstrators from leftist, centrist, and rightist parties joined together in calling for Kuchma to step down. A former presidential bodyguard, Mykola Melnychenko, produced recordings that purported to capture Kuchma telling officials, including Interior Minister Yurii Kravchenko, to get rid of Gongadze. Somehow, Kuchma weathered the storm.

When elections to Ukraine’s parliament, the Supreme Council, were held this past March, Kuchma’s United Ukraine bloc fared poorly in the contest where seats are chosen by party list (11.8 percent of the vote, 35 seats). By contrast, the Our Ukraine bloc led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko garnered 23.6 percent of the vote and gained 70 seats. In the end, however, Kuchma succeeded in cobbling together the largest bloc in parliament, if not a majority, by winning over deputies elected from single-mandate (nonparty) constituencies. Efforts by opposition parties to form a government coalition that better reflects the new parliament have gone nowhere.

The most recent demonstrations are more than a commemoration of the Gongadze’s disappearance or a reprimand to those who killed him. They are an expression of frustration at the political status quo.

“A massive action like the one conducted on Monday [Sept. 16] by several opposition parties and blocs certainly enlivens a country’s political life. It lends a distinct character to political dialogue and takes the temperature, as it were, within the active part of society,” wrote Mykola Nesenyuk in the centrist Kiev daily Den (Sept. 18).

“The announcement by leaders of three political forces of an action under the loud banner ‘Arise, Ukraine!’ should have been a demonstration of real force; it should have shown the real position of those politicians who, after the March parliamentary elections, remain dissatisfied with their place in the system of government. Yet if we follow the logic of those in the opposition who now declare that the election results were falsified, then they ought to have called upon Ukraine to rise up immediately after the Central Election Commission announced its decision—five months ago, that is.”

Novoe Vremya, a Russian newsweekly, was even more dubious of the opposition’s ability to effect any real change. Mikhail Globachev cited Chairman Mao’s observation that a revolution must stand on two legs—not on one or one and a half. “This metaphor by the great leader who loved poetry is quite relevant with respect to recent events in an East European country far from his homeland,” Globachev continued. “For a start, the Ukrainian opposition, which is exceptionally diverse and hardly united, must, if it seeks to do more than declare its existence yet again, seriously undertake to develop the network of support that it now lacks” (Oct. 6).

Not that the scale of the Sept. 16 events, or a follow-up protest on Sept. 24, wasn’t impressive or well organized. Activities under the banner of “Arise, Ukraine!” were held throughout the country. There were even protests in Romania and the United States. “The unification into a troika of the organizers—the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the socialists, and the communists—along with Our Ukraine, headed by Viktor Yushchenko—was obviously the sensation of the current political autumn,” Holos Ukrayiny, the parliamentary newspaper, reported (Sept. 19). “Before the eyes of thousands of demonstrators who gathered on the capital’s European Square, the leader of Our Ukraine signed all the stern appeals approved by the All-Ukrainian Assemblies.

Correspondents from Holos Ukrayiny provided details of parallel demonstrations throughout the country. There were few reports of violence outside the capital.

In Kiev, law enforcement officials descended upon protesters’ tents in the early morning of Sept. 17, setting upon them with tear gas and clubs. According to reports, some 50 perople were arrested. Yuliya Tymoshenko declared: “The people who attacked us were armed like they were preparing for war.” Den’s Mykola Nesenyuk trenchantly noted: “The single significant result of the action was the last-minute addition of Viktor Yushchenko…. He probably remembered that a year and a half ago he signed a document in which the participants in such events were described in unpleasant terms, so the leader of Our Ukraine managed to say something abstractly oppositional about dialogue and round-table discussions.”

Like Yushchenko, Kuchma is conflict-averse. He was attending the European Economic Summit in Salzburg during the demonstrations. Asked by Vienna’s Der Standard about charges of corruption and mismanagement, he answered: “You can’t ask the question that way. On Monday there were a mere 30,000 demonstrators from a population of 50 million.” Kuchma added: “In our country, everyone is entitled to his opinion.”

Den’s Mykola Nesenyuk dryly observed: “The single significant result of the action was the last-minute addition of Viktor Yushchenko…. He probably remembered that a year and a half ago he signed a document in which the participants in such events were described in unpleasant terms, so the leader of Our Ukraine managed to say something abstractly oppositional about dialogue and round-table discussions.”

The Waiting Game
On Sept. 24, 50 deputies entered the presidential administration building, demanding a hearing with Kuchma so they could deliver a resolution from Sept. 16 calling for his resignation. At first, Kuchma refused. The next day, facing the threat that they would stage a hunger strike, he relented, sitting down with Yuliya Tymoshenko, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, and Our Ukraine’s Yurii Orobets. Nothing came of the meeting.

Yushchenko’s efforts at “conciliatory” opposition have been no more effective. Without power or the willingness to mobilize large numbers of supporters, moderation has proved to be little more than a synonym for capitulation. In an interview in Den with Iryna Kukhar and Alina Dyachenko, Andrii Ermolaev, a social scientist, charitably called this a “soft form of struggle.” He went on: “[I]f the communists and socialists are historically accustomed to a struggle by capturing the Winter Palace, then the solid bourgeois always settles things in restaurants. And Yushchenko, who is terribly afraid of the street but is obligated to go out there, will settle things in just this way.

“As regards the [more committed] opposition, it will shout from the podiums about the crisis of government, putting forward facts that actually attest to the power of the government.”

Serhii Teleshun of the Commonwealth Foundation told Den “[Our Ukraine’s] tactic is ‘the swinging pendulum’—the attempt to fall within the government’s system of interests but also one’s own: That is, in order not to lose the support gained during the elections, they want to reach an agreement with the powers that be. But the situation cannot continue like this for long. … If Our Ukraine goes into the opposition, then a portion of its supporters will significantly grow, but it will not get access to the executive branch of government. And, on the other hand, if it enters the government, its supporters will decrease, but its future potential as a political force will increase, which may be interesting in presidential elections.”

If Yushchenko is at risk of wearing out supporters with his game of the swinging pendulum, Kuchma runs no such danger. In the face of scandals that would have toppled most leaders, he has successfully played soft and hard with the opposition, keeping them off balance for most of his presidency.

In early August, as preparations for Arise, Ukraine! were getting under way, Kuchma struck a warning blow to the opposition. The newly appointed prosecutor-general revived embezzlement charges against Tymosehnko in connection with her former post as head of United Energy Systems. Tymosehnko claimed this was another effort by Kuchma to remove her from politics. When charges were originally brought against her two years ago, the scandal surrounding Gongadze was at its peak. This prompted speculation that Kuchma was attempting to deflect attention from his alleged link to the journalist’s disappearance.

On Aug. 24, Kuchma came after the opposition again, but this time with a carrot. While he has long favored a strong presidential republic, he now proposed switching to an entirely proportional electoral system (thereby strengthening parties) and giving more power to Parliament in naming government ministers.

The skepticism of commentators regarding the opposition’s ability to effect change has been borne out by more recent events.

On Oct. 8, a pro-Kuchma majority in Parliament declared its existence. Comprising slightly more than half of the Supreme Council’s 450 members, it included renegades from Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Timoshenko Bloc. Its long-term chances for survival remain in doubt. It is significant, however, that in the wake of such a massive protest, the president, not the opposition, should be able to claim a concrete victory like this.

At the same time, there has been more bad news for Kuchma—again, regarding recordings in his office. The same series of tapes made by his former bodyguard have implicated him in the decision to sell a radar system to Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions. Whether the system was actually ever delivered has yet to be confirmed. What has been confirmed, according to news reports, is the fact the recordings in which Kuchma discusses the sale are authentic and unaltered. This news lends credibility to claims made about recordings in which Kuchma is said to speak about eliminating Gongadze.

And yet what should be a coup for the opposition could well end up being but another footnote in Ukraine’s recent history. Kuchma has consistently proved himself better equipped at weathering a scandal than the opposition is at exploiting one.