Ukraine votes leader an `F'

SUN JOURNAL

Kuchma: Parliamentary elections are widely seen to repudiate the Soviet-trained president's policies and could also prevent barriers to any prosecution.

April 10, 2002|By Katya Cengel | Katya Cengel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KIEV, Ukraine - Anyone wondering about the feelings of ordinary Ukrainians toward President Leonid D. Kuchma need only consider the results of the parliamentary elections:

Despite his tight control of the press, despite the enormous power and resources of his administration - which he is accused of putting at the disposal of his supporters - and despite numerous charges of double-voting and ballot-rigging, Kuchma allies could capture only 12 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections held March 31.

Ukraine, it seems, is ready to live without Kuchma, the man who has wielded power the past eight years.

Ukraine Without Kuchma was once only the name and seemingly quixotic slogan of a fierce but splintered opposition movement that began to coalesce in winter 2001. Now, it might describe the future.

Embroiled in scandal, assailed by low ratings, Kuchma's one hope in recent months has been to secure a pro-presidential parliament that would enable him to choose his successor in the 2004 presidential elections. That would stave off prosecution, which could well follow him from office.

Instead, the country elected a parliament that is more pro-reform than pro-president. As one political insider put it, if the elections are Kuchma's report card, he failed.

The failure might prove costly. Without the protection of a self-appointed successor, Kuchma could face charges that might include not only corruption but also orchestrating murder and the illegal selling of arms when he steps down.

How did this man, once dubbed the "silent deputy," end up ruling an infant democracy and then find himself on the Committee to Protect Journalists' 2001 list of the world's top 10 enemies of the press?

Little is known of Kuchma's formative years. His biography has been polished just as the stammering Ukrainian in which he voiced his inaugural speech has smoothed into fluency.

Although born in Ukraine, like many brought up during Soviet times, Kuchma's native tongue is Russian. Ukrainians love to speculate that he did not even vote for independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and even Kiev's most astute political analysts do not know the truth.

Leonid Danilovich Kuchma was born in the northern Ukrainian region of Chernihiv in 1938. His father's death during World War II helped him win a spot at Dnipropetrovsk State University in east-central Ukraine, where he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1960.

He went to work at Pivdenne Design Bureau of the Pivdennyi Machine Building Works - the world's largest space-industry complex. He quickly rose through the ranks, and by 1986 was director-general of the complex, which employed close to 40,000 people, and fast on his way to becoming manager.

His reign at Pivdenne, then one of the world's biggest missile producers, coincided with the Soviet Union's push for a missile defense system and put him in close contact with the country's leaders.

But, as happened in other former Soviet republics, it was involvement in the Communist Party that provided the most powerful thrust to power. From 1975 to 1982, Kuchma was secretary of the Communist Party at Pivdenne, and during the decade before the Soviet Union collapsed, he was a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee.

He was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 1990, appointed prime minister in 1992 and elected president in 1994.

"Kuchma is a typical Red director formed during the 1970s," says Mikhailo Volynets, chairman of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine and a deputy of the popular opposition Timoshenko Party.

During his first five-year term as president, Kuchma tried to distance himself from his past. He pursued closer ties with the West, especially the United States, which became the country's largest foreign-aid donor.

But while giving lip service to democracy he continued to rule with an iron fist. He did little to promote a self-sustaining democracy, says Anatoly Grutsenko, who ran the analytical service at the president's National Security and Defense Council from 1997 to 1999. Instead of supporting parliament, he openly criticized it and portrayed it as a destabilizing force.

"He did not establish real checks and balances between the authorities and the people," Grutsenko says.

As a result, corruption flourished and a clan of business tycoons rose to power. The best-known of these oligarchs is Pavlo Lazerenko, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1997 and is accused of using his position to steal millions of dollars from the Ukrainian people.

While the oligarchs grew rich, the economy slumped. Unemployment rose and pensions shrank. In 1999 Kuchma was re-elected as the lesser of two evils: His main opponent was a Communist.

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