On November 16 Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma dismissed his prime minister, Anatoly Kinakh, replacing him with Donetsk Governor Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich’s nomination now goes to the fractious parliament: If approved, he will be the seventh premier in eight years. Yanukovich is a powerful regional boss, and Kuchma is bringing him in an effort to shore up his eroding presidency and perhaps ensure a smooth transfer of power when Kuchma’s term ends in 2004.
In the meantime, led by an unscrupulous Kuchma, Ukraine may be turning into an international pariah. The days are gone when the West sympathized with Kuchma as a leader combating diehard communists at home and making pro-Western overtures under imperious Russia’s nose. Those threats legitimized Kuchma in the eyes of the West, despite pervasive corruption and violations of democratic freedoms, despite reports of dubious arms deals in Africa and the Balkans. But the communists are no longer strong, Russia is Westernizing and Kuchma’s flaws have become all too evident.
The tape scandal, which erupted in late 2000 after Kuchma bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko publicized recordings he had made in the presidential office, was the turning point. First to be revealed was Kuchma’s involvement in the disappearance and murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze (other segments implicated him in crimes and violations ranging from election fraud to ordering attacks on opposition politicans). Second were the suggestions that Kuchma had approved the sale of sophisticated radar technology to Iraq, something U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual predicts has “serious moral consequences,” and that prompted the Bush administration to freeze Kyiv-bound financial aid. A cornered Kuchma pretends that he does not understand why the West is so unfriendly. Meanwhile, anti-Americanism has become commonplace in Ukrainian media.
At the height of the scandal, Kuchma committed two blunders. First, he got rid of a pro-Western prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko. Second, he imprisoned Deputy Premier for Energy Yulia Tymoshenko, a vocal presidential critic, on corruption charges that prosecutors failed to prove (a court later ruled to release her).
Washington and the EU did not hesitate in voicing their concerns over the sad fate of Ukrainian reform. Western leaders decreased their contacts with Kuchma to a minimum. Western media supplied almost every mention of Ukraine with a sentence or two reminder that this was the country whose leader stood accused of murder. Kuchma denied all accusations.
Meanwhile, anti-Americanism has become commonplace in Ukrainian media. As recently as August 2001, in his independence day address Kuchma had humbly acknowledged “We know that the West is somewhat disillusioned with us, but we should lay the blame for this entirely on ourselves.” But he changed his tune as the external pressure increased. In an NBC interview back in December 2001, Kuchma had complained that Freedom House and Radio Liberty were “slinging mud” at him. “We know who finances Radio Liberty–the U.S. Congress,” Kuchma said. Apparently aware that he had gone too far, he hurried to add, “But I absolutely rule out any involvement of the Congress or the State Department.”
While Kuchma stopped short of accusing the West of deliberately undermining his authority, the media controlled by his team did not. Calling a stockpile of rudimentary mistrust of the West developed by decades of Soviet propaganda into play, pro-Kuchma newspapers, radio and especially television unleashed a pointedly anti-Western–that is, more precisely, anti-American–campaign. The message the editors paid by the state and government-linked oligarchs have been conveying to the Ukrainian public is this: “The tape scandal is a Western plot against Kuchma, who the United States wants to replace with pro-American Yushchenko.”
The U.S.-led war on terrorism that followed September 11 had given Kuchma an opportunity to improve relations with the West. Ukraine pledged support for the coalition and opened its airspace to NATO aircraft en route to Afghanistan. Early this year, Kuchma declared Ukraine’s intention of NATO membership and came up with a detailed plan to join the EU.
But the tape scandal and its sensational revelations would not go away. In February 2002, private U.S. expert Bruce Koenig determined that Melnychenko’s records were genuine. Furthermore, the illegal activities in which Kuchma was implicated were international as well as domestic. In a conversation with the then director of the Ukrainian state arms trading company Ukrspetseksport, Valery Malev, to cite the most egregious example, Kuchma gave the go-ahead to the sale of Kolchuga radar sets to Iraq.
The Kolchuga is a mobile and compact Soviet-designed system capable of detecting objects that emit radio signals, while remaining invisible itself. In Iraqi hands, the Kolchuga would seriously complicate operations for the U.S. military, should Washington launch air strikes against Baghdad.
In mid-September, U.S. officials said they had authenticated the recording of Kuchma approving the sale of Kolchuga to Iraq. Retribution came swiftly. Washington announced that US$55 million in assistance to Kyiv had been stopped pending a review of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Kyiv asked Washington to provide it with additional verification. Washington replied that there was no need: The records were authentic. This was a bucket of cold water for Kuchma.
The change in the West’s attitude to Kyiv, Kuchma argued, was illogical. “Prior to the tape scandal, everyone in Ukraine and Europe said that Ukraine was on the right path. Then, all of a sudden, it turned out that we weren’t, that we’re following a different one, and I don’t understand which,” Kuchma told Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and EU Foreign Policy Commissioner Javier Solana in Warsaw on October 16 this year.
Most of the revelations revealed in Mylenchenko’s tapes, no matter how dismaying to the West, were domestic concerns. The Kolchuga sale, a flagrant disregard for the UN and its sanctions against Iraq, was another matter. With it, Kuchma surrendered his legitimacy.
Kuchma understands that with his action Ukraine is facing its most serious crisis since independence. Yet, forced into a corner, he does not resign or apologize, but instead castigates the West. Denying for the umpteenth time that he sanctioned the Kolchuga sale, Kuchma blames the United States for alienating Ukraine. “I am sorry that the level of strategic partnership we had at the time of the Clinton administration disappeared in a twinkling of an eye,” Kuchma complained on October 8 in Kyiv. “I can honestly say that it was not Ukraine’s fault.”
Kuchma-controlled media have intensified their anti-American campaign, accusing the United States of backing the opposition to unseat Kuchma. They interpret the visit of U.S. and British experts to check the availability and manufacture of Kolchugas in Ukraine as an attempt to steal intellectual property, and portray the campaign against Iraq as a manifestation of innate American wickedness.
So far, the propaganda has borne no fruit. Ukrainians are refusing to share the views and concerns of the ruling elite. Yushchenko’s pro-Western bloc won the parliamentary election in spring 2002 and opinion polls show that he is a favorite in the next presidential race. Kuchma’s own approval ratings have slipped to single digits. Opinion polls show a steadily growing trust in Western values among Ukrainians.
But this trend may not last. Propaganda is a strong tool in skilful hands. Since the appointment of reputed oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk as the head of Kuchma’s office in June 2002, Ukrainian media have become visibly less free. Those linked to him have long demonstrated a pronouncedly anti-American slant. All leading television is controlled by pro-presidential forces.
Oleg Varfolomeyev is an editor with BBC Monitoring in Kyiv.