The October 2004 election will end the controversial ten year rule of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The veteran leader of this nation of 48 million people is constitutionally required to step down at the end of his second term in office.
As things stand, it looks as if Viktor Yushchenko, the former premier and leader of the opposition right-of-center Our Ukraine bloc, has the best chance of succeeding Kuchma. He is the country’s most popular politician for the second year running, with about a quarter of Ukrainians ready to vote for him, according to various public opinion polls. Communist leader Petro Symonenko trails second behind Yushchenko in surveys.
The elites associated with Kuchma will try to prevent Yushchenko, Symonenko or any other opposition candidate from winning the election. To achieve this, they have overwhelming financial and media resources at their disposal. They can also rely on the sympathy of Moscow, which is wary of both the nationalist Yushchenko and the unpredictable Symonenko. What the governing elites do not have is either popularity or unity of ranks, without which it will be difficult to beat the strong opposition candidates in an honest election.
The need for unity is well understood, and the government has announced its intention to come up with a single candidate by autumn. But it will not be easy for rival groups in Kuchma’s entourage to come to an agreement. None of their leaders can boast high popularity at the moment, but each is very ambitious. The strongest among them, each backed by powerful regional oligarchic “clans,” are: Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych of the Donetsk group; National Bank Chairman Serhy Tyhypko, linked to the Dnipropetrovsk group; and the head of Kuchma’s office, Viktor Medvedchuk, of the Kyiv-based United Social Democratic Party (USDP). However their individual popularity ratings as would-be presidential contestants currently hover in the 3-9 percent range.
YANUKOVYCH FROM DONETSK
Viktor Yanukovych has been the only would-be candidate to receive Kuchma’s blessing. “I don’t want to use the word successor,” said Kuchma, when asked by the BBC on April 18 whether Prime Minister Yanukovych could become a presidential candidate if his cabinet’s action plan is successful. But “If this task is implemented, he stands a good chance of becoming not just a candidate.”
Yanukovych rose to prominence in 1997, when the former transportation manager became governor of the key Donetsk industrial region. Run by a powerful local “clan” of bureaucrats and businessmen who built their wealth trading in coal from state-subsidized mines and running local steel mills, it is home to one in ten Ukrainians and produces roughly one-fifth of the national GDP.
In the March 2002 parliamentary election, Yanukovych, combining administrative pressure with appeals to local patriotism, secured a victory in Donetsk for the Kuchma-backed For United Ukraine bloc. Donetsk was the only region in Ukraine to be carried by the bloc, but the victory in this densely populated area propelled For United Ukraine into third place among the competing parties.
In November 2002 Kuchma appointed Yanukovych prime minister in place of the politically weak technocrat Anatoly Kinakh. Yanukovych’s Donetsk cronies were given top positions in his cabinet, including first deputy premier, deputy premier for energy, finance minister, minister for liaison with parliament, and head of the State Property Fund. Despite initial apprehensions over the Donetsk team’s ability to run Ukraine, the economy under Yanukovych has so far been booming–GDP grew by 7.4 percent and industrial output soared 11.4 percent in January-April of this year.
Yanukovych was elected leader of the Donetsk-based Party of Regions in April. This party may become the core of the largest faction in parliament if Yanukovych’s most recent ambitious plan–to merge several pro-Kuchma factions under its umbrella–is successful.
But all of this may be insufficient to enable him to become the leader of the nation. First, Yanukovych’s popularity is confined to his home region. Although he has learned to speak fluent Ukrainian, the nationalist-minded western part of the country rejects him as a pro-Russian easterner. Second, he has to constantly watch the Donetsk clan’s powerful rivals in business and politics, especially Kuchma’s office chief Viktor Medvedchuk, who exerts much influence over Kuchma and who is known for his past attempts to make the Cabinet of Ministers his puppet. Third, rival presidential contestants will presumably draw voters’ attention to Yanukovych’s troubled youth: He twice served time in a juvenile correctional facility for unknown offenses.
TYHYPKO FROM DNIPROPETROVSK
The replacement of veteran banker Volodymyr Stelmakh by Serhy Tyhypko as head of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) last December raised many eyebrows. The replacement was obviously political, as the bank under Stelmakh had run like clockwork. Tyhypko simply needed a comfortable launch pad for his presidential campaign.
Tyhypko belongs to the Dnipropetrovsk group, which is linked to Viktor Pinchuk, a steel and media magnate and Kuchma’s son-in-law. Tyhypko is only 43, but his biography is impressive. A former Komsomol functionary, in the early 1990s he founded Privatbank, which would become Ukraine’s most successful private bank. In 1997 he became deputy premier for economic reform under another famous man from Dnipropetrovsk, Premier Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko resigned the same year amid accusations of corruption, but Tyhypko stayed in the government until 2001, when he left Yushchenko’s cabinet over policy differences. That same year Tyhypko was elected to parliament and became leader of Working Ukraine, the Dnipropetrovsk group’s political organization. Tyhypko twice tried, unsuccessfully, to become prime minister. The first try was in 1999, when Kuchma preferred Yushchenko, and the second was last year, when he was outmaneuvered by Yanukovych.
Tyhypko does not have many enemies, and he is one of the few Ukrainian political leaders untarnished by corruption allegations. He enjoys significant media support, as his ally Pinchuk controls several TV channels (STB, Novy, and ICTV) and Fakty i Kommentarii, a popular tabloid. But Tyhypko is a reticent banker rather than a public figure, so despite a brilliant career his popularity rating has hardly ever been higher than 2-3 percent. The absence of a well-developed political base is another major weakness; unlike Yanukovych’s Party of Regions or Medvedchuk’s USDP, Working Ukraine is a rather amorphous organization without a clearly defined ideology.
MEDVEDCHUK OF USDP
Kuchma has recently said Medvedchuk would not run for president, but Medvedchuk himself dodges this question in newspaper interviews. Many in Ukraine believe he will run. Medvedchuk has been one of Ukraine’s most influential politicians and wealthiest men for too long not to try. Medvedchuk founded a successful legal company, BIM, in the early 1990s, and he is linked to the Ukrainian Credit Bank, as well as to Ukraine’s showcase soccer club, Dynamo Kyiv, and to Slavutych, a gasoline trading company.
Along with his crony, Grygory Surkis, Medvedchuk was a consultant for the first Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, and later for Kuchma. In 1998 Medvedchuk was elected to parliament and became leader of the USDP. He played a major role in the Kuchma-inspired “velvet revolution” in parliament in early 2000, which dislodged the communists from their dominant position, after which he became first deputy speaker. In 2001 Medvedchuk masterminded the dismissal of popular reformist Premier Yushchenko, apparently on Kuchma’s orders. But in the fall of the same year the parliament, wary of Medvedchuk’s growing influence, voted him out of office.
In March 2002 Medvedchuk was reelected to parliament, and in June Kuchma appointed him his chief of staff. In that position Medvedchuk dispersed anti-Kuchma protests, tightened presidential control over television, and mounted an anti-western media campaign following the West’s accusations against Kuchma of selling hi-tech radar sets to Iraq.
Medvedchuk is hated by the opposition, feared by rivals in Kuchma’s own camp for his iron-handedness, and disliked in the West for his not quite democratic style. As a presidential candidate he will be handicapped by his image as an uncompromising and tight-lipped zealot. He is famous, but unpopular.
But Medvedchuk is wealthy and close to Kuchma. His party, the 350,000-strong USDP, is the best-developed political structure in Ukraine after the Communist Party. Two ministers, three regional governors, dozens of mayors and hundreds of local council members are found within the USDP ranks. Medvedchuk has unrivaled media tools: USDP-linked Inter and Studio 1+1 are Ukraine’s most popular televisions. Medvedchuk’s supporters include TET TV, the paper Kievskie Vedomosti, and many other national and regional outlets.
If the rival groups set aside their ambitions for the sake of a common goal, they may come up with a compromise candidate. Such a person should not be closely linked to either of the “clans.” He should also be experienced and untarnished by corruption so as to become popular at home and acceptable to the West, on which Kyiv pins its hopes for the future. He also has to be accepted by Moscow, whose political and economic interests in Ukraine are too significant to be ignored.
Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Security Council Secretary Yevhen Marchuk, and Transportation Minister Georgy Kyrpa may be among such hopefuls. Lytvyn, a former Soviet historian and Medvedchuk’s predecessor in Kuchma’s office, has drifted to the political center since the time when he headed the notorious pro-Kuchma For United Ukraine in the 2002 election. He is respected by the opposition, but remains quite loyal to Kuchma.
Marchuk, a former KGB man, must have old connections in Russia. A seasoned politician, he was prime minister in 1995-96 and finished fifth among thirteen contestants in the 1999 presidential race. Now, as the security chief under Kuchma, he spearheads Ukraine’s NATO integration effort. Kyrpa, a pragmatic manager from western Ukraine, is credited with making the rusting railways profitable and reviving passenger airlines. Kyrpa has some links to the USDP, but he is essentially independent and highly esteemed by Kuchma.
Popularity and power of persuasion are not among the strengths of the governing elite’s hopefuls. Their trump card is the infamous “administrative resources”–the power to command, judge, and sentence in a country without a well-developed system of checks and balances. It is President Kuchma who controls this lever, so the final choice of the governing elite’s candidate will largely depend on his will.
Oleg Varfolomeyev is an editor with BBC Monitoring in Kyiv.