Johnson's Russia List
21 November 2003
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A CDI Project
November 20, 2003
Kleptocratic, totalitarian habits
By David A. Mittell Jr.
David A. Mittell Jr. is a member of The Journal's editorial board.
IN TRYING to describe the inept and greedy antics of Ukrainian politicians
in the 12 years of national independence, one recalls the after-dinner
speaker's line: "Like the man who inherited a harem, I think I know what to
do, but I'm not sure where to begin!" In Ukraine's case, the place to begin
is with the country's second president, Leonid Kuchma.
Mr. Kuchma is an old communist -- a Russian-speaking former factory manager
in the manufacturing city of Dnipropetrovsk. People who knew him there have
told me he wasn't a particularly good factory manager, but was a patient,
persistent cultivator of influence. When, by 1994, the flower of Ukraine's
founding president, Leonid Kravchuk, had wilted in a collapsing economy and
the loss of the life's savings of millions in Moscow's banks, the Kuchma
political sprig was well grounded. He was elected with wide popular
support, in 1994, and to a second, constitutionally final term, in 1999.
In his first term, Mr. Kuchma governed with restraint and even tact -- for
example, declining to send troops into Crimea when a demagogic Russian
secessionist became governor. The hothead was soon gone after being blamed
for Crimea's economic woes.
Mr. Kuchma sought good relations with both Russia and the United States.
Critics accused him of only wanting two cows to milk, but his courting of
Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton was in Ukraine's interest: A conciliatory
policy toward Russia and Ukrainian Russophones helped assure that the
latter would accept Ukrainian nationality in the critical years between
1995 and 2000, when the economy was at its worst.
Mr. Kuchma "talked the talk" of economic liberalization and, to a lesser
extent, "walked the walk" -- particularly during the prime-ministership of
Viktor Yushchenko, a banker with a reputation for honesty. Mr. Kuchma
appointed Mr. Yushchenko in February 2000 in the hope of getting Ukraine's
Western debt restructured. He removed him, with a parliamentary alliance of
communists and oligarchs, after just 14 months. But in his short tenure Mr.
Yushchenko promulgated reforms that have seen Ukraine's GDP grow by 20
percent since 2000.
What must fairly be called the Kuchma/Yushchenko economic reforms caught
the attention of Bill Clinton, who was the first, and to date only,
American president to understand that the best U.S. policy toward Russia
entailed promoting a strong Ukraine. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to
George H.W. Bush had seen it the other way around, regarding Ukraine -- a
nation of 50 million -- as an afterthought to cultivating the current
Soviet or Russian strongman. Mr. Clinton put Ukraine ahead of Russia as the
fourth-largest recipient of American aid in the world.
During his rise, Leonid Kuchma studied Ukrainian and also learned about
capitalism. However, he has apparently been unable to shed the
kleptocratic, totalitarian and possibly murderous habits of a lifetime.
The most notorious episode was the murder of Internet journalist and
persistent Kuchma critic Giorgy Gongadze in September 2000. On
authenticated tapes, the president is heard spouting profanities about
Gongadze, demanding that he be kidnapped, "thrown out to . . . Chechnya . .
. left without his pants." Mr. Kuchma would lamely explain that these
comments, with their obscenities, were spliced from his speeches.
A second set of presidential tapes surfaced last year. On these, the
president is heard approving the sale of an air-defense system to Iraq.
This did not ingratiate Ukraine with the Bush administration, which cut off
aid except to non-governmental institutions.
A mark of how far Mr. Kuchma's stature has fallen with his countrymen is
the recent "quarrel" with Russia over a new Russian causeway near the tiny
Ukrainian island of Tuzla, in the Kerch Strait, which separates the
countries. Mr. Kuchma rushed home from a state visit in Brazil to order
Tuzla fortified. But it is almost universally believed that he and Vladimir
Putin concocted this "national-security crisis" in order to enable Mr.
Kuchma to change the constitution and run for a third term next year.
Currently, Viktor Lushchenko is an undeclared presidential candidate. While
he is widely admired, his political bona fides are suspect. Three weeks
ago, old fat communists protested his appearance in Donetsk, near the
Russian border. To me, who cannot understand most of his Ukrainian words,
his televised response to the question of his candidacy looked equivocal.
Meanwhile, President Kuchma has floated a constitutional amendment creating
a strong prime minister, with the inference that Mr. Luschenko or someone
else would assume a weak presidency, while he would hold on to power as
prime minister. So it goes.
There is often ambiguity in the intrigues of Ukrainian politics, and one
cannot exclude the possibility that history will be kinder to Leonid Kuchma
than to his allegedly recorded voice. What is certain is that he has
presided over a corrupt, demoralized polity, in which most Ukrainians have
little faith. At this point, his greatest contribution to his country and
to his place in history would be to preside over a 2004 presidential
election in which he takes no part.
20 November 2003
Charts for a Political War
A year before presidential elections, the nature of the campaign is already
clear: political warfare with plenty of guns on show.
by Ivan Lozowy
Ivan Lozowy is a TOL correspondent based in Kiev.
KIEV, Ukraine--Storms are often preceded by a calm that makes the fury of
the storm all the clearer. So it is in Ukrainian politics. The favorite for
next year's presidential elections, Viktor Yushchenko, had been quietly
touring the regions when, on a routine stop in the eastern city of Donetsk,
the political animosities that dominate Ukrainian politics exploded with
the force of a gale.
Met in Donetsk by crowds of drunken youths--as well as masked militia,
toting machine guns--a political convention that planned to anoint
Yushchenko as a presidential candidate was disrupted, and a political storm
Yushchenko reacted angrily, beginning a vituperative public exchange with
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose hometown is Donetsk. Yanukovych, he
claimed, had organized the effort at intimidation in Donetsk. In
retaliation, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine faction, which controls 104 seats out
of 450 in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament), blocked key sessions
of the Rada, demanding justice.
Yanukovych responded strongly, claiming Our Ukraine should have better
gauged the political climate in Donetsk--and should have brought along
sufficient supplies of Pampers diapers.
In the midst of the squall, the call for a halt to electioneering prior to
the official start of the presidential election campaign by Raisa
Bohatyrovia, a Rada deputy, had a forlorn ring to it. The opening bell of
the campaign has already been rung, 10 months before the campaign was due
to begin, in August 2004. And the events of the past few weeks are a good
indication of what to expect between now and the vote, in October 2004.
A look at the events in Donetsk reveals the current balance, mood, and aims
of the country's political forces. It may also may chart the course and
character of the pre-election period, as well as the results of the
THE DONETSK INCIDENT
In the 2002 general elections, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine coalition received
a mere 2.7 percent of the vote in the Donetsk region, a key oblast in the
heart of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. In contrast, Yushchenko's
coalition won overwhelming victories in the western Ukrainian-speaking
regions, with for example, 75 percent of the vote in Ivano-Frankivsk, 70
percent in Ternopil, and 64 percent in Lviv.
It was therefore a bold move for Our Ukraine to nominate Yushchenko for
president at a convention in Donetsk.
The convention was planned for 31 October--and some were willing to oblige
with a Devil's Night reception. On arriving at Donetsk airport with several
dozen members of parliament, Yushchenko was confronted by gates that had
been welded shut. The purpose, it transpired, was to force his delegation
out through an exit thronged with youngsters holding anti-Yushchenko placards.
When he finally reached the center of Donetsk, Yushchenko found the city
festooned in billboards depicting him in a Hitler-like pose under the
slogan "For the nation's purity."
By now, Yushchenko is becoming used to being insulted as an
ultra-nationalist Ukrainian. Inter TV, a television station controlled by
Viktor Medvedchuk's party, took to referring to the Our Ukraine coalition
as Nashisty in the run-up to the 2002 general elections, playing on the
words "Nasha Ukrayina"--Our Ukraine--and fashisty. It was a card pulled
straight from the Soviet pack: the Soviets always tried to equate Ukrainian
nationalism with fascism.
In Donetsk, Yushchenko found himself accompanied by 10 masked men from the
Alpha division of Ukraine's secret service. Though they were ostensibly
there to protect Yushchenko, he viewed them as an attempt to intimidate
him. The crowd, however, saw the presence of black-clad gunmen armed with
automatic weapons as an incitement by Yushchenko, and their passions
flared. Not even Kuchma goes around with such prominent and
The hall rented for Our Ukraine's convention, the Yunist Palace of Culture,
had been filled since morning by young people. (They had reportedly been
trucked in from technical training schools, and plied all day with beer and
vodka.) Yushchenko was forced to hold an impromptu outdoor rally in front
of the Shakhtar Hotel, across the street from the Yunist Palace of Culture.
Yushchenko was incensed. When he met with the mayor and governor of
Donetsk, he accused them of organizing the hostile reception for Our
Ukraine. Back in Kiev for a press conference, Yushchenko then pointed the
finger at the militia, labeling the Interior Ministry "an instrument of
But he also pointed to a mastermind beyond Yanukovych, beyond the
government, and beyond the militia. Although Yushchenko refused to name
names, he referred to an "orchestrator in Kiev whose name is known."
Everyone knew who he meant: Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of President Leonid
A TALE OF TWO VIKTORS
Yushchenko and Medvedchuk had clashed before. It was Medvedchuk who first
threw down the gauntlet when, in the spring of 2000, he publicly declared
that he would make sure Yushchenko would be removed from his post as prime
minister. Yushchenko was. In his turn, Yushchenko fought for--and
won--Medvedchuk's ouster as first deputy speaker of parliament.
The animosity between the two has been obvious in the three and a half
years since then. Indeed, Medvedchuk's hostility to Yushchenko was probably
his greatest asset in the eyes of Kuchma, who appointed Medvedchuk head of
his administration--a position that some observers say makes him the de
If it was Medvedchuk who chose Donetsk as the place to seriously challenge
Yushchenko's presidential aspirations, his choice was astute. When it comes
to elections, Donetsk is Ukraine's Texas. With over 2.5 million voters,
this oblast is an industrial powerhouse, and is always dominated
politically by the Donetsk clan, which is headed by Renat Akhmetov,
chairman of the Donbas Industrial Union. One of the Donchany, as members of
the clan are known, is Prime Minister Yanukovych.
And there is little doubt that Medvedchuk did play a role in the Donetsk
incident and events in other regions. The presidential administration has
become well-known for issuing temnyky, or secret instruction memos to media
and local officials. A leaked temnyk that surfaced in the local press after
the Donetsk showdown indicated that Medvedchuk's right-hand man, Yuriy
Zahorodniy, had instructed local officials on how to minimize the impact of
Yushchenko's regional visits.
With the plot he scripted for Donetsk, Medvedchuk achieved several goals.
Firstly, he placed a stumbling block in Yushchenko's path, by creating bad
publicity for him: Yushchenko was painted as a man would could tear Ukraine
apart. Secondly, and most importantly, he headed off possible cooperation
between the Donchany and Yushchenko--a nightmare scenario for Kuchma and
Medvedchuk. That nightmare had seemed possible: Yushchenko and the Donetsk
clan (particularly First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov) have been in
contact since the formation of the Donetsk-dominated Party of the Regions
Since the Party of Regions is viewed as the political avatar of the Donetsk
clan, its contacts with Our Ukraine all but dried up the moment Yushchenko
(unwisely and apparently based on insufficient evidence) accused their man
Yanukovych of being behind the events in Donetsk.
The Donetsk incident was also a form of pay-back by Viktor Medvedchuk.
Several weeks earlier, the Our Ukraine faction in the western city of Lviv
made a concerted effort to oust Medvedchuk's younger brother, Serhiy, who
serves as the top tax official in the Lviv oblast.
BOOMERANGS IN AN ONGOING POLITICAL WAR
Despite the furor he caused, Medvedchuk's plans have backfired. Before his
visit to Donetsk, Yushchenko's election campaign had been struggling and
desultory, with a full year to go before presidential elections. Two weeks
earlier, Yushchenko had been prevented from holding a meeting in a town
hall in Luhansk. The press barely noticed.
If bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, Yushchenko has gained
from the added attention. Moreover, Ukraine has a tradition of favoring the
underdog. Since the Soviet era, the population has often chosen to align
itself against the official line: whoever is being trodden on by the
powers-that-be must be alright. The events in Donetsk--described by the
internet newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda as a "declaration of war"--also helped
consolidate the opposition. Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of a opposition
grouping more radical than Our Ukraine, and Oleksandr Moroz, leader of the
Socialist Party, both joined Yushchenko in condemning what they saw as the
government's role in the incident.
Although the events that Medvedchuk set in motion have gone (at least
partially) awry, Yushchenko's opponents have not backed off. Instead, they
have gone into overdrive.
The Communist party, at the national level, has complicated ties with both
Kuchma and other opposition parties. At the local level, however,
Yushchenko has many Communist opponents who are more sympathetic to the
president--which was recently evident at a campaign stop..
Visiting Sumy, the center of an oblast in central-northern Ukraine, a day
before a visit by Yushchenko, a group of Our Ukraine deputies came upon
local Communists busily painting slogans accusing Yushchenko of being a
fascist. The Interior Ministry's press service claimed the visiting
deputies were drunk and mistaken.
The militia's spokesman, though, overlooked the fact that one of the
deputies had videotaped the encounter. (It was, incidentally, evident from
the film that it was the local Communist activists who had been mixing
business with a little liquid pleasure.)
Yushchenko's opponents in Sumy did not confine themselves to graffiti. They
churned out leaflets referring to Yushchenko's "Satanic affairs" and
calling for him to be "buried alive."
These insults were just the beginning of Yushchenko's campaign woes: When
Yushchenko visited the Crimea, the local authorities organized a parallel
demonstration, which drew much of the media's attention away from
Yushchenko. Newspapers in Donetsk and Mykolayiv that have provided
favorable coverage to Yushchenko and his bloc have been refused printing
services at their regular print shops. And the presidential administration
has been active in a battle to remove a prominent member of Our Ukraine,
Wolodymyr Yavorivsky, from his post as head of the National Writer's Union.
Yushchenko himself recently claimed that assassins had been instructed to
This has not gone without some apparent retaliation. In Lviv, unknown
hooligans vandalized a Russian bookstore and the local Party of the Regions
office, leaving behind graffiti claiming the acts were revenge for the
events in Donetsk and Sumy.
A STAGE SET FOR A BLOODY DENOUEMENT
While Medvedchuk is on the warpath, Kuchma may be hedging his bets. Long
fearful of Yushchenko, Kuchma weighed in on the side of the Donetsk clan
when he claimed that western Ukraine, Yushchenko's power base, is
disrespectful of ethnic Russians who, according to Kuchma, predominate in
Kuchma was already pushing constitutional changes that would limit
Yushchenko's power if he were to become president. In the first week in
November, Ukraine's Constitutional Court (which is heavily influenced by
Kuchma) backed the president when it ruled that the constitution could be
changed in 2006, to allow parliament--rather the people--to elect the
president. Now cleared as constitutional, the changes need to be voted on
by parliament. If the change is accepted, a Yushchenko victory in 2004
would give him the presidency for just two years.
Even if not everything is foreseeable, some writing on the wall is chiseled
in stone. Kuchma and his team, it seems, are prepared to hold on to power,
apparently at any cost. Future provocations and acts directed against
Yushchenko and his bloc will only increase in intensity. But if he can hold
out against the onslaught, Yushchenko stands a good chance of retaining his
lead in the polls right up to election day in October 2004.
Yushchenko, who in the past has been criticized as too timid, has
apparently said farewell to his illusions, stating that "a dictatorship is
breathing down our neck." From now on, Yushchenko would do well to remember
that some believe all's fair in love and war.
After all, in the 1999 presidential election campaign, a Kuchma ally
accused the president's main rival, the Social Party's Oleksandr Moroz, of
organizing an assassination attempt. With precendents like this, an ugly,
possibly dangerous war lies ahead.