Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 168

Verkhovna Rada Chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko, who seeks the presidency of Ukraine, represents the interests of the country’s Soviet-bred, Russian-oriented chiefs of state and collective farms. Tkachenko is the informal leader of the Peasants’ Party–the political organization of such chiefs, and is one of the champions of economic and possibly also political re-unification with Russia. On the latter point, Tkachenko’s views are shared by Communist leader Petro Symonenko, who is also a candidate in this presidential election.

The Russian orientation of these farm bosses represents a political outgrowth of economic interests, reflecting their Soviet-era experience. The Ukraine they knew had functioned as a bread-basket for the Russian Federation. The government in Moscow guaranteed cheap fuel and other inputs for Ukrainian agriculture and an unlimited market for the substandard produce of that agriculture. The farm chiefs’ grip on local political power and their graft opportunities were also guaranteed by this self-perpetuating system, which seemed to obviate the need for reform.

Tkachenko typifies and speaks for this social group. Incapable of adapting to modern economics and to the requirements of the international market, these farm leaders–and probably some peasant voters under their influence–hope to restore the old arrangements through “integration” with Russia. Tkachenko and his think-alikes need–and urge–Russia to join with Ukraine in a single, self-contained economic system, one isolated from the competitive pressures of the international economy. They have a vested interest in a rollback of Russia’s market reforms. Their Russian orientation brings them close to the Russian communists, not the government.

Educated voters, particularly the Kyiv intelligentsia, tended until recently to ridicule Tkachenko as a rural simpleton. He does not speak well or correctly in either Ukrainian or Russian, and sometimes comes across as childishly boastful. Tkachenko himself had until recently disclaimed any presidential ambitions, occasionally even alluding to the modest level of his education as an impediment to such ambitions.

Born in 1939 to a peasant family in the Cherkassy Region in central Ukraine, and trained as an agronomist, Tkachenko rose in the Communist Party’s agricultural bureaucracy before moving into the government as agricultural minister of the Ukrainian SSR in 1985-1990 and of independent Ukraine in 1991-1992. In 1991 he ran for president, but bowed out in favor of the eventual winner–Leonid Kravchuk–and left government to head an agricultural conglomerate in his native region. That company, Land and People, achieved dubious renown for borrowing US$70 million from the United States under government guarantees and defaulting on the loan. Tkachenko did not have to face judicial proceedings, but the loan story lingered in the memory of the media and is still exploited by Tkachenko’s political rivals.

A co-founder of the Peasants’ Party in 1992, Tkachenko was the first deputy chairman of the Verkhovna Rada from 1994 to 1998 as a protege of that body’s chairman, Oleksandr Moroz, the archrival of President Leonid Kuchma. Tkachenko’s Peasant Party and Moroz’ Socialist Party formed the Socialist-Peasant Bloc, in an often-confrontational opposition to the president. That bloc won only thirty-five seats in the 450-seat chamber in the 1998 elections. Yet Tkachenko managed to win the parliamentary chairmanship after twenty rounds of balloting and by the slimmest of margins. He owed that success to the Communist Party and personally to Symonenko, who ultimately bowed out of the contest in Tkachenko’s favor–and in return for the lion’s share of parliamentary leadership posts going to the communists. Tkachenko and other leftists may well regard that deal as a paradigm for the current presidential election.

Tkachenko, despite being one of the leaders of the leftist opposition and holding the second most powerful post in the country, avoided direct confrontation with Kuchma prior to the campaign. At the same time Tkachenko almost ostentatiously abandoned his earlier deference toward his protector Moroz. This factor may complicate the left’s efforts to come up with a mutually agreed joint candidate. Tkachenko’s electoral program, billed “National Program for Ukraine’s Revival,” proclaims–like Symonenko’s (see the Monitor, September 1)–the goal of “socialism with a human face in a “Slavic union” with Russia and Belarus. Tkachenko’s model would “combine the accomplishments of socialism and the best [elements] of a market economy.” If elected president, Tkachenko promises:

–heavy reliance on Russia, first, as the source of fuel and raw materials for Ukraine’s economy and market for Ukrainian products, and, second, as Ukraine’s main partner in opposing and potentially counterweighing Western institutions, such as NATO, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund;

–curtailment of foreign borrowing and legislative curbs on foreign investment;

–continued public ownership of land, as opposed to its privatization;

–protection of Ukraine’s agriculture and industry from international competition and state subsidies for the “strategic” economic sectors;

–cautious market reforms in other industrial sectors and development of small business; and

—an enhanced state role in the banking sector.

Tkachenko thus proposes a state-run economy with some stringently controlled “market” elements, closely integrated with neighboring Russia; in effect, an impossible dream of returning to the Soviet economic system of the late 1980s.

In spite of his calls for a union with Russia and Belarus and a recent appeal for amending the constitution to confer an official status on the Russian language, Tkachenko’s rating in the partly russified eastern and southern regions, except Crimea, is mediocre at best. The Russian issue, unlike in 1994, seems low on the agenda at this stage of the campaign. Tkachenko is unpopular in the nationally minded Ukrainian west. His electoral base is centered in the agricultural areas of central and northern Ukraine.

Yet Tkachenko has some means at his disposal to compensate for a modest rating in opinion surveys. As parliamentary chairman, Tkachenko is the only opposition candidate who has access to state-run mass media and power levers, commanding the Verkhovna Rada’s apparatus and influencing local Radas. As former minister and agricultural apparatchik, Tkachenko is, on the one hand, well-connected in the corridors of power and, on the other hand, can reach the docile rural electors, prone to vote for whomever their farm directors would ask. He is likely to divert a portion of electorate from Kuchma, with whom he competes for control over power levers in the countryside, and from Moroz, a moderate Red who also reaches out to rural voters. In the latest polls, Tkachenko trails the incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, the pack of leftists–Moroz, Symonenko and the radical red Natalya Vitrenko–and the “left-of-center” candidate with nationalist connections, Yevhen Marchuk (Holos Ukrainy, May 27, August 18; Pravda Ukrainy, July 7; Den, July 29, Aug 20; Intelnews and Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 31; Kievskie vedomosti, September 4; UNIAN, July 16, 19, Aug 28, September 1, 2, 4; see the Monitor, July 8 and 13, 1998, September 8, 1999).