Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 189

President Leonid Kuchma, seeking reelection for a second five-year term, is the only market-oriented candidate who stands a good chance of winning Ukraine’s presidential race. Candidates in the national-democratic camp are weak and disunited (see the Monitor, August 27, September 17).

Leonid Danilovich Kuchma was born in 1938 in northern Ukraine’s Chernihiv region into a peasant family. His father was killed in battle as a Soviet soldier during World War II. In 1960–on graduation from Dnipropetrovsk University with a degree in mechanical engineering–Kuchma began a 30-year career with the Dnipropetrovsk-based Pivdenmash (Russian: Yuzhmash) design bureau and factory, the leading producer of strategic missiles in the former Soviet Union. He was the technical supervisor of many missile launches at Soviet military testing grounds, including a three-year supervisory stint at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and served as the general director of Pivdenmash from 1986 to 1992. In a parallel career, Kuchma headed Pivdenmash’s Communist Party organization and ultimately the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee’s department for the military industry. Elected to the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet in 1990, Kuchma left the industry in 1992 to enter politics.

Kuchma served as prime minister in 1992-93, a period of political and financial instability. He resigned that office after just eleven months, protesting the parliament’s refusal to vest him with additional economic powers. He went on to organize the Inter-Regional Bloc for Reforms in the Ukrainian parliament, foreshadowing his two-pronged effort later as president to promote reforms within the constraints of the existing political setup and to encourage the industrial-bureaucratic leadership of the country’s russified regions to stay loyal to the newly independent Ukrainian state.

In the 1994 presidential election, Kuchma defeated the incumbent Leonid Kravchuk in the runoff with 52 percent of the vote to Kravchuk’s 45. Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine, supports Kuchma in the current election campaign. Ukrainian national-democrats, who were a strong factor in the 1994 election, opposed Kuchma, whom they considered a representative of the interests of eastern Ukraine’s industrial lobby–“the Red directors.” Kuchma did in fact owe his election to the electorate of the eastern and southern regions, industrialized areas historically oriented to Russia. Candidate Kuchma promised to upgrade the status of Russian language, strengthen economic ties with Russia, fight official corruption and accelerate economic reforms.

Of those goals, only economic reforms were consistently pursued during Kuchma’s first term, albeit without much success. At the same time, Kuchma has conducted a pro-Western foreign policy. As a result, his popularity in the eastern regions has dropped. He now figures lower in the polls than either Petro Symonenko or Natalya Vitrenko–the Communist and radical-fringe leftist candidates, respectively–in those regions. By the same token the president is probably the most popular leader in nationally-minded western Ukraine, which had voted heavily against him in 1994.

The Kuchma presidency by and large failed in its economic policies during the first term. Reform measures were, as a rule, too little and too late. The setbacks are partly attributable to the weaknesses of Kuchma’ successive governments, the shortage of Ukrainian economists and managers with modern training–a shortage which Kuchma has repeatedly bemoaned–and the Red forces’ dominance of parliament ever since Kuchma became president. The Kuchma presidency managed to stop the four-digit inflation and stabilize the national currency–albeit at the cost of accumulating huge arrears on wages and pensions as well as multibillion-dollar external debts.

Under Kuchma, Ukraine–not unlike Russia and other post-communist states–fell into the traps of official corruption on a massive scale and a concentration of economic and political power with “oligarchs,” who often pursue their own interests at the expense of reforms. Compared to Russia’s “oligarchy,” Ukraine’s is weaker and less personalized, centering mainly on interest groups in which the regional factor plays an important role. Yet certain individual oligarchs are close to the president, politically influential and back him in the current campaign. Kuchma has been much criticized from both the right and the left for his reliance on them (see the Monitor, September 28).

Kuchma has made several election promises. First, to continue economic reforms. Second, to complete administrative reform, introduce a bicameral parliament–one of whose chambers would be packed with pro-presidential members–and reduce the state apparatus. Third, to give more power to local governments. Fourth, to switch eventually from conscription to a professional army. Fifth, to create 1 million new jobs and pay wage and pension arrears within six months. Sixth, to preserve Ukraine’s constitutionally mandated status as a nonaligned country.

In the eyes of domestic supporters and most observers in the West, Kuchma represents stability and continuity. Many Western observers, however, also believe that the flip side of Kuchma’s presidency is the hesitancy on economic reforms, a tolerance of corruption and a misconception of democratic institutions as mere tools of government (see the Monitor, May 6, July 19). Throughout his reelection campaign, Kuchma has identified two principal adversaries: the poor state of the economy and the leftist forces bent on a “Red revanche.” Those forces are represented by Symonenko, Vitrenko, the Verkhovna Rada’s Chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko and–of a somewhat less Red hue–the Socialist leader and former parliamentary chairman Oleksandr Moroz (see the Monitor, August 6, September 1, 3, 14). The Red candidates are capitalizing on Kuchma’s shortcomings, particularly in the economic sphere. They are targeting the protest electorate. Kuchma’s first priority is to thin those ranks. The current government is frantically working on this task in the final stage of the campaign, trying to reduce the wage and pension arrears which piled up during Kuchma’s presidency. In most of the recent opinion polls, Kuchma runs first, trailed by Vitrenko, Symonenko and Moroz in that order (Rabochaya gazeta, September 3; UNIAN, September 13; Inter TV, September 22; Fakty i kommentarii, September 24).