Ukraine’s presidential election on October 31 could determine whether the country’s future course follows Poland toward the West, or Belarus toward the East. President Leonid Kuchma, standing for re-election, visited Poland in late June in search of support for his pro-West policies, and Polish President Aleksandr Kwasniewski was happy to provide it.
Kwasniewski openly endorsed Kuchma, crediting him with “developing an independent state, opening Ukraine to the world, [and] entering into active relations with NATO and the United States while maintaining peaceful relations with neighboring countries.” Kuchma in turn stressed a common Ukrainian-Polish goal of “preventing another division of Europe” along the Polish-Ukrainian border. Kuchma is concerned that Poland’s eventual accession to the European Union, and the introduction of stringent EU border controls, will inhibit trade and travel. Poland is asking Brussels to grant special facilities for Ukraine to anchor that country to Europe.
Kuchma and other Ukrainian officials expressed disappointment with Western neglect. To Polish audiences they cited the failure of the Group of Seven rich industrial countries to fulfill a 1995 pledge of financial support for the closure and replacement of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a $3 billion project. They complained as well about EU restrictions on Ukrainian exports and G-7 refusal to treat Ukraine’s external debts as leniently as Russia’s.
It is not surprising that Kuchma faces domestic opposition. It may be surprising that he is favored to prevail. According to the IMF, Ukraine’s gross domestic product at the end of 1998 was less than 40 percent of what it was at the time of independence in 1991, a worse performance than Russia or Belarus. Agricultural output is down about 50 percent. The average monthly wage is about $40, most of which goes for food. With prices up over 10 percent in the first five months of the year, the government in late June imposed price controls on bread, wheat and rye flour, sugar, vegetable oil and other basic foodstuffs. The price controls expire at the end of July, and the government has no authority to extend them without parliamentary consent.