A Decade Of Kuchma: Success Or Degredation?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 52

Ten years ago this month, Leonid Kuchma defeated the incumbent, Leonid Kravchuk, in the second round of Ukraine’s second presidential election. Kravchuk had won in the first round of the December 1991 first presidential election, which coincided with the referendum on state independence.

This week the Ukrainian media has been reviewing the Kuchma era as he approaches the end of his second term in office in September. Not surprisingly, discussions surrounding Kuchma’s presidency are impossible to divorce from the election campaign.

If, as a Ukrainian citizen, you are positive about the last decade, you may be tempted to vote for Kuchma’s candidate, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. If you are negative, then you are likely to vote for the opposition. This division has been reflected in the media, with the opposition describing the last decade as “the history of degradation” (Ukrayina moloda, July 10). Meanwhile, the pro-Kuchma media (especially television) promoted a positive spin.

Kuchma’s major anniversary interview aired on “1+1” (July 11), the primarily Ukrainian-language television channel controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the presidential administration. Kuchma used the occasion to praise Ukraine’s stability and lack of inter-ethnic or religious strife, a subject common among all the presidential candidates. This argument is frequently used to imply that only centrists can maintain a stable Ukraine as they act as a “buffer” separating Eastern and Western Ukraine, Communists and anti-Communists. Kuchma praised the “evolutionary way” and castigated his left-wing and right-wing opponents for wanting a “revolution.”

Kuchma also reviewed his accomplishments in building the foundations for a national economy. He reiterated that when he was first elected, the country was on the verge of economic disaster and possible disintegration (Ukrayinska pravda, July 8). Kuchma then praised the economic growth of the last four years, a claim that forms the basis of Prime Minister Yanukovych’s election attempt this year.

What Kuchma very conveniently forgot to mention was that he himself was Prime Minister in 1992-93, the period of hyperinflation. President Kravchuk, who oversaw the economic disaster of the early 1990s, today is the head of Medvedchuk’s Social Democratic United Party parliamentary faction.

Kuchma also ignored the huge social consequences of the past decade’s “transition.” Social issues will play an important role in this year’s elections. In 2002, 73% of Ukrainians feared unemployment, 71% a rise in prices, 65% unpaid wages, and 51% famine (Suchasnist, April 2004). The Parliamentary Ombudsman for Human Rights has estimated that 5-7 million Ukrainians have been forced to seek work abroad. The Ukrainian population has also shrunk by 5 million, a demographic disaster similar to that of the 1933 famine and World War II.

As for civil society, Kuchma is treading on even thinner ground. Western and Ukrainian surveys do not show any major advances in civil-society activities during the past ten years. Any growth of civil society has been in the face of official hostility and Soviet-style suspicion that NGOs are linked to Western intelligence agencies. Polls show that Ukrainians have become increasingly atomized during the last decade, further hindering the growth of civil society. Ukrainians have turned away from the government and now place their faith in their family (from 87% in 1994 to 97% today), friends (38% to 52%), and the Church (36% to 43%) (Suchasnist, April 2004).

The Freedom House Nations in Transit publication annually surveys all 27 post-communist states. Since the evaluations began in 1997, Ukraine’s scores for electoral process, independent media, governance, constitutional-legislative-judicial framework, and corruption have all dropped.

Kuchma’s recent claim that “All the legal foundations needed for free mass media to function had been created” throughout independent Ukraine (Kyiv Post, July 1), is a judgment directly at odds with the views of the opposition, Western governments, and think tanks. Independent media in Ukraine has the worst ranking in the Freedom House Nations in Transit, at 5.5 out of 7 (with 7 being the worst ranking).

Kuchma and the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vasyl Baziv, have praised the president’s role in state building, including the adoption of the 1996 constitution (Ukrayinska pravda, July 9). Again, what they both failed to remember was that Ukraine’s semi-presidential system was a compromise with parliament. Kuchma’s draft would have created a Russian-style super-presidential system.

Trust in state institutions is very low. A survey by the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology found that people trusted astrologists more than state institutions! (Suchasnist, April 2004). Astrologists polled at 16% while only 13% trusted the president.

Two areas that Kuchma ignored in his 1+1 TV interview were — not surprisingly — the rise of oligarchs and the growth of corruption. Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn told a recent Agrarian Party congress that, “Ukraine is close to becoming a totally corrupt country ruled by oligarchs and party-clan groups” (Kyiv Post, July 1). What Lytvyn neglected to mention was that the oligarchs and corruption had grown on Kuchma’s watch and when he — Lytvyn — was head of the Presidential Administration from 1997 to 2002.

In Prime Minister Yanukovych’s first speech as a presidential candidate, he also denounced the ineffectiveness of countless decrees and programs designed to fight corruption (Ukrayinska pravda, July 5 and 12). It is doubtful that a Yanukovych victory would change anything. Kuchma’s 1994 promise to reduce the size of the shadow economy came to naught; ten years later it still accounted for half of GDP. Likewise, despite Lytvyn’s criticisms of oligarchic clans, the Agrarian Party he leads will be supporting the head of Ukraine’s largest Donbas clan — Yanukovych — in this year’s elections.

The twin issues of oligarchs and corruption will remain major themes in this year’s presidential election. Opinion polls show that Ukrainians believe that the “mafia, organized-crime world” is the most influential group in society (Suchasnist, April 2004). The left and right opposition candidates will denounce the oligarchs and corruption. Meanwhile, the authorities praise the rise of a “pragmatic and patriotic” “national bourgeoisie” that has allegedly come to realize that Ukraine’s era of “wild capitalism” is over (temnik.com.ua, July 12)