Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 3

Ukraine’s elections: “A war of compromising information”?

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

Visiting the U.S. in October 1997, former Ukrainian prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko made two striking remarks. First, he claimed there was no democracy in Ukraine and that officials at the Ukrainian embassy in the U.S. had tried, on orders from President Leonid Kuchma, to prevent him from meeting with leading members of the Ukrainian diaspora.

Lazarenko’s second remark concerned the upcoming elections in Ukraine in 1998-99. They would, he predicted, be "a war of compromising information [kompromat]." (1)

Lazarenko’s first remark provoked a strong denial from Kyiv. But his assertion that the forthcoming elections would be "a war of kompromat" met with no reaction at all. The evidence to date suggests, however, that many of those involved in Ukraine’s upcoming elections will choose compromising information as their preferred electoral weapon. Indeed, charges have already been leveled against Lazarenko. Ukraine’s acting prosecutor-general, Oleh Lytvak, told a news conference on January 23 that the former prime minister was under investigation on charges of embezzlement and foreign currency violations. (2) And Serhii Holovaty, former justice minister and initiator of the anti-corruption program "Clean Hands," has said that he intends to run as a presidential candidate in order to tell Ukrainians for whom not to vote. If Holovaty is as good as his word, Ukrainians should find out many interesting things about their present and future leaders.

Compromising information already plays an influential role on the Ukrainian political scene. Leonid Kuchma, for his part, has used a wide variety of tactics to keep himself in political power. His short premiership (October 1992-May 1993) is chiefly remembered for his incessant demands for extraordinary powers. Five times, he threatened to resign if parliament did not grant such powers. Kuchma relied on a primitive but effective tactic known to comparative anthropologists, following Claude Levi-Strauss, as "shaman — sickness." The shaman tells the tribe it is threatened with a horrible disease that only he can cure. Kuchma would draw a catastrophic picture of the Ukrainian economy and assure his listeners that he was the only person with the formula to rescue the situation. This won Kuchma a reputation for being a man of the people who was always being obstructed, either by the Communists or by the recalcitrant parliament.

After he was elected president, Kuchma briefly abandoned these tactics and tried to play the role of a reformer-president. But when his October 1994 reform program failed, Kuchma reverted to the role of a misunderstood shaman whose innovative ideas were rejected by a new, but no less obstructive, parliament.

Kuchma understood that dissolving parliament would not change the balance of political power. He also saw that he would not succeed in quickly improving the economic situation and raising living standards. Letting economic reforms slide, Kuchma set about removing potential competitors from his entourage. He sacked three prime ministers in quick succession — Viktor Masol, Yevhen Marchuk, and Pavlo Lazarenko — as well as many members of his own campaign staff. Compromising information was the weapon of preference in these personnel reshuffles within the presidential administration.

In a recent newspaper interview, Volodymyr Radchenko, chairman of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said his agency would not provide the president with compromising information on his political opponents. Radchenko said it was immoral to buy compromising information of a political nature. He did however agree that a large number of private intelligence agencies have sprung up in Ukraine, which would be likely to agree to collect such information. (3)

What Radchenko did not mention was that, in the years before the breakup of the USSR, Directorate "Z" (Defense of the Constitutional Regime) of the Ukrainian KGB was actively engaged in collecting information on the members of the Ukrainian People’s Movement for Perestroika (Rukh) and members of the Democratic Platform in the CPSU, who were trying to liberalize the party from within. This directorate was under the control of Yevhen Marchuk, who later became the chairman of the Ukrainian KGB, was one of Kuchma’s prime ministers, and is now a presidential candidate. What happened to all the information gathered at that time, and who has access to it now, no-one is saying.

Meanwhile, the Kuchma administration is actively creating state bodies parallel to the SBU, trying to split the SBU and to install Kuchma’s people there. A Center for Political Analysis and Planning has been set up under the presidential administration. Headed by Gen. Igor Smeshko and overseen by Kuchma aide Volodymyr Horbulin, the center parallels the constitutionally-sanctioned SBU and amounts to a secret chancellery working for the president.

The president can also turn for information to the Interior Ministry. The police have the widest-ranging network of agents in Ukraine, and are closer to the underworld than the SBU. The present Interior Minister, Yury Kravchenko, has been dependent on Kuchma since the president came to his interior minister’s defense when the latter was accused of corruption by the newspaper Kievskie vedomosti.

One may conclude that, during the forthcoming elections, both President Kuchma and other Ukrainian politicians and parties will be able to call not only on private intelligence services but also on information from their own people in the law enforcement agencies. What effect this will have on the voters is another matter. Since independence, Ukrainians have lived through it all and it is no longer possible to scare them. Probably only one event — the beloved national soccer team "Dinamo (Kyiv)" playing for the European Championship — still has the power to excite Ukrainians.


1. For details of his visit, see Prism, November 21, 1997

2. UNIAN, January 23, 1998

3. Zerkalo nedely, November 15-21, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.


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