Kiev Helps the Allies. How Many Motives?
The government of Ukraine has sent a military unit specializing in nuclear, biological and chemical waste disposal to Kuwait to assist in Iraq's post-war cleanup. The action -- approved by the Ukrainian parliament last month -- is an attempt by Kiev's foreign policy and national security elite to reverse the growing isolation of their country. It is also an attempt to improve ties with the U.S. after recent scandals that implicated Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in a conspiracy to provide military technology to Saddam Hussein. You could say that along with any other tasks in post-war Iraq, Ukraine's military unit will be trying to clean up the sullied image of its president.
President Kuchma has been under mounting international pressure from the U.S. and its NATO allies since last October. That's when the U.S. government authenticated a secretly taped conversation between the Ukrainian president and his arms export chief in which Mr. Kuchma gave his go-ahead for the sale to Iraq of the Kolchuga early warning radar system. A joint committee of American and British government experts that visited Ukraine last October determined that the Kolchuga system -- which has a range of 800 kilometers -- "would increase the threat to Allied aircrews . . . as well as to ground and maritime forces operating in the region." They determined that the system would allow "Iraq to passively track allied aircraft or geolocate ground and naval radar forces and provide enhanced early warning of allied operations in general."
Whether the radar sale to Iraq was actually completed is not established. President Kuchma's conduct nevertheless constituted a breach of trust in the eyes of the U.S. What followed was the cold shoulder from most European leaders and outright ostracism of Mr. Kuchma -- but not Ukraine -- by the Bush administration.
As importantly, the forensic authentication of the Iraq-gate tape by U.S. authorities lent credibility to the authenticity of some 1,000 hours of secretly recorded conversations spirited out of the country in 2001 by a former member of Mr. Kuchma's security unit. The recordings appeared to show Mr. Kuchma's involvement in high corruption and criminal harassment, including violence, against opposition figures, and implicated him in the disappearance that led to the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze.
Already unpopular with Ukraine's voters (with an approval rating at a meager 10%; and with less than 3% of voters saying they are ready to vote for him again), Mr. Kuchma is now a lame duck, forbidden by law from seeking a third term in elections scheduled for the winter of 2004. And the president's growing international isolation has been eroding support for him among Ukraine's oligarchs, for whom Mr. Kuchma no longer is able to open doors or promote Western investment.
Russia has skillfully stepped in to exploit the breach. Among other things, Moscow offered Mr. Kuchma political support by engineering his election in January as chairman of the Commonwealth of Independent States. In return, Russia has secured from Ukraine ever more advantageous trade and economic relationships.
Mr. Kuchma's dependence on Russia contributes to the unease within segments of Ukraine's political and economic elite, which rightly worries that Russia will seek to crowd them out in collaboration with oligarchs from Ukraine's Russian-speaking Eastern regions, now represented by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. Skirmishes among economic interest groups within the Kuchma camp are now increasingly frequent. When Mr. Yanukovich recently tried to take control of the country's oil and gas monopoly Naftohaz, the effort was rebuffed by a nervous Mr. Kuchma.
Increasingly, it looks like the broad coalition of economic oligarchs and regional leaders Mr. Kuchma has assembled is beginning to fray as the sunset of the president's political career nears. Some members of his coalition, including high-ranking government leaders, are conducting backdoor discussions with Mr. Kuchma's opposition.
Mr. Kuchma, a relentless and ruthless political warrior, is trying to turn the tide. On March 5th, just days before protests brought tens of thousands into the streets of Kiev to call for his ouster, Mr. Kuchma unveiled his third proposal for fundamental constitutional change. The first version, Ukraine's current constitution, created a presidential-parliamentary system with the balance of power residing in the chief executive. The second version, endorsed in an April 2000 plebiscite but blocked by parliament, would have concentrated nearly all power in Mr. Kuchma's hands.
Now Mr. Kuchma is telling the Ukrainian people that he wants a referendum to transfer most powers to the office of the prime minister, and create a second house in the national legislature, a regionally-apportioned senate, that would include formers presidents as "senators for life."
The new constitutional scheme reflects Mr. Kuchma's interest in protecting himself from future prosecution (as lifetime member of a newly proposed Senate, he would enjoy parliamentary immunity). By transferring most presidential powers to the prime minister, he would render nearly meaningless the highly likely victory of his opposition in the next election for president. And by creating a second legislative branch, he would help ensure that significant power remains with regional governors, all of whom have been appointed by Mr. Kuchma.
A poll released on March 8th showed presidential candidates who oppose Mr. Kuchma garnering a combined 61% of the vote, while candidates currently aligned with Mr. Kuchma were receiving only 23% support. Leading the pack is the former reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who polls indicate would win nearly 30% percent in the first round vote and easily win against any opponent in a runoff. A victory by Mr. Yushchenko in the fall of 2004 would, many believe, put Ukraine back on the track of democratic and corruption-free economic reform, provided he retains significant powers. Frustrated by relentless persecution, political dirty tricks and attacks in media tightly controlled by the ruling pro-Kuchma elite, many in Ukraine's democratic opposition see in Mr. Kuchma's latest maneuvers a grave threat to Ukraine's teetering democracy. The effort to rewrite the constitution, democratic reformers argue, would confuse voters, enhance the power of unelected regional bosses, and deny the opposition real power at a time when its likely presidential standard-bearer is almost certain of victory.
Mr. Kuchma may well be trying to turn the tables on his opposition rivals by creating a new constitutional order and diverting attention from his own alleged wrongdoing. Yet recent history shows that similar efforts by seemingly all-powerful authoritarian leaders to use the ballot box to demonstrate public support ended in failure and precipitated fundamental political change. We need only remember the repudiation in 1988 of the serenely confident Chilean President Augusto Pinochet in a plebiscite to give him another term in office and the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic, when he faced the voters in Yugoslavia's presidential election in 2000.
By facing the people in a public referendum aimed at preserving the power of the ruling elite, Mr. Kuchma risks similar repudiation. And this means that despite outright control of most media, and despite foreign policy initiatives to mollify an angry U.S. leadership, there are good reasons to believe Mr. Kuchma will fail. Ukraine retains enough of the characteristics of democratic politics that the voice of the people still matters. And the people of Ukraine are fed up with a corrupt -- and some say criminal -- regime.
Mr. Karatnycky is counselor and senior scholar at Freedom House and co-editor of Nations in Transit 2002 (Transaction Books), a survey of political change in the former communist bloc.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.