Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 8

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s second and last term–a stint of good intentions and mediocre results–is coming to an end. Ironically, in the Western mind Kuchma’s Ukraine stands for corruption and poverty–the two things he pledged to battle back in 1994, when he was elected for the first time. Kuchma replaced Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, who was forced to call early elections after a series of mining protests.

Current antigovernment protests threaten to cut short Kuchma’s own term, which expires in 2004: An early election is one of the main demands of the Communists, the Socialists and Yulia Tymoshenko’s right-wing populists who have brought the people to the streets. Former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, a moderate politician and objectively Kuchma’s strongest rival, hesitated to join the protesters until the very last moment, wary of the outcome. But early elections would probably benefit him, a darling of the West, who is also at the peak of his popularity at home.


Even without early elections, Yushchenko looks a clear favorite for the next race. Rivals are nowhere to be seen for the moment: The Communists are not as strong as they used to be, and the ruling elite, torn apart by internal rivalries, does not look capable of coming up with a viable replacement for Kuchma. Ill-wishers may continue mocking the tongue-tied Yushchenko, calling him a “messiah,” jeering at his sentimentality and love of bees and folk traditions, yet for two or so years he has remained Ukraine’s most popular politician.

Asked in early March 2001 “who would you vote for, if presidential polls were held today?” by the Kyiv-based Razumkov polling center, 23.7 percent of those polled named Yushchenko; Communist leader Petro Symonenko came in second with 11.2 percent. Answering the same question in late May 2002, 25.9 percent named Yushchenko–an enviably stable popularity with a nation known for its cynical perception of politics. Even more revealing was a Sotsiopolis poll from early July, according to which 27.3 percent wanted Yushchenko and 6.5 percent Symonenko (only 1.8 percent favored the incumbent Kuchma).


Yushchenko came to politics from banking. Taming hyperinflation, successfully introducing the national currency, and preventing a financial crisis after the Russian market collapse in 1998 were among his achievements as head of Ukraine’s central bank in 1993-1999. Several right-wing parties offered him support in the 1999 presidential race, but Yushchenko refused to run. At the end of that year, Kuchma nominated him and parliament endorsed him as prime minister. Thus the rivalry began.

Yushchenko’s sympathizers say that of all Ukraine’s premiers, he was the most successful. Under him, the economy began to grow after a decade of decline and he managed to restructure Ukraine’s multibillion-dollar debt to the West. This is true, though positive economic trends had already been reported under his predecessor Valery Pustovoytenko, and the economy has continued to grow under his successor Anatoly Kinakh.

Yushchenko’s real achievement was that he showed that Ukraine’s economy can and has to work according to market rules. His team waged war on privileges for selected companies, slashed barter trade and vowed to open privatization to equal competition. Trying to revamp Ukraine’s most lucrative and simultaneously most corrupt industry–energy–they trod on many toes. Yushchenko became the main enemy of energy oligarchs linked to the very top. Yushchenko’s strategy made Kuchma apprehensive, his popularity made him jealous. Kuchma unseated Yushchenko in April 2001.

A couple of months later, Yushchenko launched a coalition aiming to win the parliamentary election on March 31, 2002. This coalition, Our Ukraine, carried the nationwide proportional constituency. Yet Kuchma’s forces took the upper hand in single-seat constituencies, where the other half of the 450-seat parliament was elected. This was the first Ukrainian parliamentary election decided not between Communists and their opponents, but between two capitalist elites–the older, post-Soviet one, associated with Kuchma, and the new, more pro-Western and liberal one, many of whose representatives ran under Yushchenko’s banners.


Rivalry between Kuchma and Yushchenko is not personal. Notably, Yushchenko once even described Kuchma as his “father”–an event Yushchenko’s opponents still mock and his sympathizers recall with embarrassment. This is a rivalry between two generations of Ukrainian elite, in which the younger one is set to take the upper hand, but the old one is still very strong.

The director of Dnipropetrovsk-based Yuzhmash–the Soviet Union’s main rocket factory–Leonid Kuchma was catapulted into the presidential chair by “red directors” from Ukraine’s heavily industrialized east. He was called in to protect rusting metallurgy, machine-building and chemical giants from foreign competition and restore ties to Russia, on which they heavily depended for raw materials and whose market they were rapidly losing after independence. This was a time of legal vacuum, when Soviet laws were dead and national legislation was young. Bribes were opening important doors and personal connections worked better than market laws. State bureaucrats, nouveau riches, and criminal bosses often worked hand in hand. This is where oligarchs, on whom Kuchma would lean to neutralize political rivals in late 1990s, came from.

But times are changing. National laws began to work, “red directors” became owners and managers of privatized enterprises, the communist threat disappeared, oligarchs lost much of their former clout, and the country is opening up to the world. But representatives of the old elite, who are accustomed to wild-capitalism thinking, are entrenched in top positions. They owe them to Kuchma, who enjoys an almost limitless authority to appoint and dismiss, according to the constitution of 1996. They will stay as long as their president does.

The young sharks of capitalism who see Yushchenko as their future president did not inherit factories and mines from the Soviet Union. This is a generation of those who had to start new businesses in a new country. The core of this elite is a national bourgeoisie handicapped neither by Russian ties nor by Soviet experience, thus oriented more toward Europe and better prepared to work in market conditions and an international environment.

The absence of binding interests in Russia has made this new elite a natural ally of the nationalists. Two wings of the nationalist Rukh party and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists are among the pillars of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. Unlike the post-Soviet elite, who came mostly from Russophone eastern and southern areas, Yushchenko recruits support mostly from western and central areas, where industry is not as developed as in the east and not as dependent on the Russian market, but where national sentiment has always been strong.

The abundance of radical nationalists among Yushchenko’s ranks makes Russophones fear infringement of their cultural and linguistic identity if Yushchenko comes to power. Support for Our Ukraine in the March 31 parliamentary election was lowest in the Russian-speaking east and Crimea. Russia, afraid of losing its influence on Ukraine, is also understandably wary of Yushchenko’s economic and cultural nationalism. Moscow makes no secret of its dislike of Yushchenko. In the election, it openly sided with Yushchenko’s rivals.

But Yushchenko is not a convinced Russophobe, as many pro-Kremlin media portray him. He is instead a pragmatist. He believes that it would be silly to break any profitable economic links to Russia, but maintains that Ukraine’s future is with the EU. While Kuchma apparently hesitates, Yushchenko is clearly against Ukraine’s joining the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Community, which would hamper Ukraine’s progress towards the EU. Yushchenko’s team is also more outspoken about Ukraine’s plans for joining NATO.


It would be pointless to deny rivalry between Kuchma and Yushchenko and the elites they represent. But it would be equally wrong to portray antagonism between them as insurmountable. It is not ruled out that Kuchma may appoint Yushchenko as prime minister again, and many of Yushchenko’s people are ready to work under Kuchma. Pro-Kuchma factions and Our Ukraine are set to cooperate in parliament, as there are no fundamental differences between their views on Ukraine’s future, especially the economy. Both elites profess a market ideology. But the younger one is less corrupted by the Soviet past and better prepared for change. It is also more pragmatic in foreign matters, thus more West-oriented.

Yushchenko’s coming to power may exacerbate the language dispute and somewhat complicate relations with Russia. At the same time, this may be a chance for Ukraine to seriously come to grips with pervasive corruption and old-fashioned economic thinking, and become more decisive about its European choice.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is an editor with BBC Monitoring in Kyiv.