With parliament reconvening on September 4, the parliamentary election campaign getting officially underway in October and the vote scheduled for March 2002, Ukraine has begun a new political season. In several addresses recently, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has launched it, celebrated the country’s Independence Day and made aggressive moves to improve his image domestically and internationally. Why he has addressed all three in essence simultaneously seems clear enough. The fact remains that–despite an improved economy, and being seemingly unscathed by the corruption scandals of late last year and early this, at least to the extent that the non-Communist opposition has apparently abandoned attempts to unseat him–Kuchma’s popular approval ratings hover in the single digits.
On August 21, Kuchma gathered Ukrainian diplomats in Kyiv to instruct them how to sell the upcoming elections internationally. The campaign, he said, should presented as a struggle between reformers and “forces of the past”–certainly not as an offensive against a corrupt government. The elections, he pointed out, will be a serious test for Ukrainian democracy and the country’s European orientation. He invited international observers to the elections, declaring: “We have nothing to hide.”
In an interview with Washington Times the same day, Kuchma–taking a conciliatory tone–pledged that he would not run for a third term in 2004. The Ukrainian constitution stipulates a limit of two, but there have been fears that Kuchma might try to amend it to prolong his tenure. The president said that in the upcoming elections he would back the centrist forces, confirmed Ukraine’s European choice yet defended the rapprochement with Russia, arguing that Ukraine should not become “an anti-Russian enclave.” He also tried to quell international dismay at his having dismissed pro-Western Premier Viktor Yushchenko this past April by explaining that he had tried to arrange an eleventh-hour meeting between Yushchenko and his opponents on the eve of the Rada no-confidence vote, but that Yushchenko had failed to appear.
Then, on August 23, in his address marking Ukraine’s Independence Day (August 24), Kuchma went on the offensive. “Some people see democracy exclusively as an opportunity to vent their emotions on the authorities and the state,” he said. “Some reproach us for weakness and indecision, others for toughness and persecution of freedom and democracy.” He was willing enough to admit, however, that Ukraine still has much to do “to strengthen people’s trust in the authorities.” He also spoke at some length about the upcoming parliamentary elections, reiterating his opposition to the attempts of strong political parties to change the election law so that more seats in the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) should be assigned to party lists. He also did not miss the opportunity to mention the continuing economic growth (the GDP has soared by 10 percent since January 2001), an achievement that Pro-Kuchma parties are certain to exploit. Finally, Kuchma proclaimed European integration his main foreign policy goal. “We know that the West is somewhat disillusioned with us,” said Kuchma, adopting once again an apologetic tone. “But we should lay the blame for this entirely on ourselves.”
On August 25, addressing mining directors in Donetsk, Kuchma declared that Ukraine had overcome its current crisis. He did not specify the political or the economic, but apparently meant both. He complained that the opposition continued to criticize reforms, again failing to specify what exactly he meant. At the same time, he recalled that all Ukrainian regions had reported economic growth this year and that Ukraine had recorded the highest GDP growth in the CIS.
Kuchma’s tactics are clear: In the upcoming elections, the political opposition–whether left-wing, right-wing, pro-market or anti-market–will be presented domestically and internationally as an opposition to the course of Kuchma which has brought about a long-expected economic upturn. To reconcile the West with a notion that the governing elite, no matter how corrupt and unpredictable it is, should remain in power in Kyiv, Kuchma will continue to pledge adherence to democratic ideals and European choice (Ukrainska Pravda, August 21; Washington Times, August 22; UT-1, August 23; UNIAN, August 26).
ANOTHER PARTY FOR AZAROV?