By Pavlo Kutuev
When asked during the climax of Tapegate (the scandal over the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze in the autumn of 2000) whether he was considering resignation, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma replied that he would step down in October 2004, when his tenure in office came to an end. That is, no sooner. Subsequent events of 2001-2002 have demonstrated his ability to survive unfavorable circumstances and outmaneuver his regime’s opponents.
Despite a critical opposition and growing international pressure (due to his alleged involvement in a second scandal–the sale of “Kolchuga” radar to Iraq), Kuchma has managed to preserve the institution of the presidency as the critical and dominant player in Ukrainian politics. No matter the growing and remarkable resemblance of happenings in Kyiv to the Byzantine court. On these grounds it can be argued that Kuchma’s second presidential midterm was more a success than a failure. He has held his ground under strong attack from domestic and foreign opponents. He and his entourage have managed so far to keep the system of political, economic and social power they have been building over last decade intact. Its key feature: a regime that severely restricts the autonomous public sphere, making politics the concern of a limited group of people. The formal dimensions of democracy have been preserved, but the participatory character of a liberal polity has been rejected.
Kuchma’s “reinvention of government” includes the almost total eclipse of media autonomy. A survey by the presidential administration, undertaken to prove to the Council of Europe that freedom of speech does exist in Ukraine, found fewer than seventy in a sample of 1,000 media outlets were willing to offer any criticism of Kuchma and his policies. With such a compliant media, it was not difficult for Kuchma to transform his humiliation at the NATO summit in Prague this past November into a personal domestic triumph.
As far as the economic underpinnings of the regime are concerned, the ruling circles left the majority of the population to its own devices, while giving the class of political capitalists unrestricted access to public coffers and allowing the nascent middle class–a potential bedrock of the political opposition to the regime–to nurture a vision of the Western lifestyle, seeking employment with Western companies and living off grants from Western governments and foundations. Inhabiting that niche, liberal intellectuals do not pose an imminent threat to the regime and can hardly become an ideological mouthpiece of dissent that could bring about a systemic change. Another reason for the conspicuous lack of a mass movement to unseat Kuchma is protest fatigue: People are disillusioned with social movements that have repeatedly failed to achieve their goals over the past decade.
The appointment of two of Ukraine’s toughest politicians–Victor Medvedchuk and Victor Yanukovych–to key posts within the executive, as head of the presidential administration and prime minister respectively, is an act of defiance, not surrender, and reflects Kuchma’s readiness to fight instead of bowing to domestic and international pressures. Furthermore, Kuchma reinforced his power by reinstating his loyal and ruthless lieutenant Yury Kravchenko, deeply implicated in Tapegate as interior minister, to the critical position of head of the State Tax Administration.
Kuchma’s effective cadre policy has been complemented by coordinated action from the pro-presidential majority in the parliament. By forcing the resignation of National Bank Governor Volodymyr Stelmakh, a supporter of opposition leader Victor Yushchenko, on December 17, the majority delivered a heavy blow to the opposition, since the bank has a wide range of powers, including the right to place banks under its management and hence harass pro-opposition financial institutions. Replacing Stelmakh with Labor Ukraine’s Serhy Tygypko may jeopardize the fragile achievement of exchange rate stability, and create additional opportunities for the financial machinations of tycoons allied with Kuchma. By threatening to strip the four opposition factions of the eighteen committee chairs they previously held, pro-presidential forces in the Verkhovna Rada gained an important bargaining chip they have already used to solicit the opposition’s consent to the government draft of the 2003 budget.
The change of leadership at the National Bank may be a turning point in Ukrainian politics–demonstrating once more that the malleable Victor Yushchenko is unfit for the bare knuckles fight that Ukrainian politics has come to resemble. Yushchenko’s penchant for Western style politics–based on predictable behavior, accepted rules of the game and negotiation–has failed him time and again, but he has repeatedly refused to radically alter his strategy.
Yushchenko failed to capitalize on his status as the most eligible political bachelor in Ukraine and transform the diverse “Our Ukraine” into a single party in close cooperation with the other three oppositional forces–communists, socialists and Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc. The small social democratic faction in the Rada has turned into a David outmaneuvering the Yushchenko-Goliath. They control seven ministries, five parliamentary committees, the deputy speaker of the Rada, and–last but not least–a significant number of regional governors.
Kuchma and his entourage can be modestly optimistic as far as the rest of his term is concerned. Yushchenko has been effectively cornered, and having blessed an unconstitutional “coalition” government, Kuchma has alleviated himself of responsibility for its actions while ensuring his direct control over the cabinet’s policy. Prime Minister Yanukovych’s position is akin to that of the British queen–he reigns but does not rule–for Kuchma’s right-hand men Mykola Azarov and Yury Kravchenko are firmly in charge of the critically important fields of finance and taxation.
Tapegate coupled with Iraqgate has ruled out the possibility that Kuchma could run for a third term. (Although the constitution limits the president to two terms, Kuchma’s first term began before the adoption of the constitution in 1996 and thus might have been ignored under different circumstances.) Thus, a Russian “scenario” to choose his successor is quite possible. In the unlikely event of sanctions from the U.S.-led West, angered by Ukraine’s alleged supply of advanced weapons to Iraq, Kyiv might tilt towards an orientation-cum-dependency on Russia, though Belarus shows that this option comes at a heavy cost to the country’s political and economic sovereignty.
An important question is whether Kuchma will succeed in picking a viable successor, and establishing something akin to Yeltsin’s “Family” regime under which the successor’s authority and autonomy of action are significantly circumscribed. Given that institutionalized distrust is a generic feature of Kuchma’s regime, with a sort of Ukrainian “republic of fear” among his lieutenants, any potential successor will be caught between patron mistrust on one side and the equally dangerous jealousy of less lucky contenders for the highest office on the other.
The opposition may also hope for the lame duck effect to set in: a steady erosion of Kuchma’s authority over regional bosses and tycoons. Another chance for opposition might be created by the rivalry in the pro-presidential camp between the most powerful factions, for example Medvedchuk versus Yanukovych.
To sum up, Kuchma’s strategy has been beneficial for the ruling regime, but detrimental for society at large in terms of debasing democratic procedures, curbing media freedom, and shutting out the regime’s political opponents from the oversight of decision making. Only united action by the opposition can hope to reverse the tide. To accomplish this task, Yushchenko has to make a clear choice and start acting accordingly. Otherwise, the opposition is doomed to fail and lose the trust of people who cast their votes for them.
Pavlo Kutuev is an associate professor of sociology at the University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Kyiv, Ukraine.