Ousting Kuchma Won't Be Easy
In parliamentary elections in March, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for political parties sharply critical of Mr. Kuchma's rule. And this opposition to the president has not abated. An opinion poll conducted this month showed 71% would like Mr. Kuchma, embroiled in mounting allegations of corruption and criminal behavior, to resign, and 52% go further and believe he should be impeached. Only 14% wanted him to stay in office.
Mr. Kuchma's failure to convincingly rebut allegations of criminal misconduct and his efforts to block independent parliamentary inquiries have contributed to the erosion of his popularity.
A series of recent misfortunes have only further eroded Mr. Kuchma's standing. A tragedy at an air show in the Western city of Lviv in July, in which a plane crashed and killed 76, including 23 children, was the result of carelessness by its military organizers and human error by air force pilots, but has only added to the president's woes. It was the latest in a series of accidents involving Ukraine's deteriorating military sector.
The air show disaster was followed just days later by an explosion in a mine that claimed 35 lives in the coal mining center of Donetsk and emphasized the deteriorating industrial infrastructure inherited from the Soviet period. In the last year, mine fatalities have taken 189 lives, and over 3,700 miners have died in accidents in Ukraine's mines since the country's independence in 1991.
While he is a welcome visitor in Moscow, President Kuchma's relations with the U.S. and Europe are strained these days. Secretly recorded tapes of presidential conversations suggest Mr. Kuchma was seeking to sell Iraq an anti-aircraft radar system. While the tapes have been authenticated by a private U.S. voice analysis expert who once worked as a forensic analyst for the FBI, they have not yet been examined by any official Ukrainian or international institutions. The other person heard on the tape--the former head of Ukraine's Arms Export Agency--died in a suspicious automobile crash.
Relations with the U.S. were set also set back after Mr. Kuchma blatantly lied to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. He had personally pledged to her that Ukraine would stop its sale of weapons to Macedonia's Slavic government, which has been fighting ethnic Albanian rebels, but the arms sales continued unabated.
One would think that Ukraine's economic growth--5.8% in 2000 and 7% in 2001--would at least help the president. But most Ukrainians rightly identify this growth with the policies of the reform-minded Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, whom President Kuchma forced from office in April 2000.
Presidential elections are scheduled for mid-2004 and Mr. Yushchenko, who is highly regarded in Europe and the U.S., is far ahead of any potential rival. But with Mr. Kuchma's popularity in such steep decline, Mr. Yushchenko appears unwilling to wait till the elections and is creating a broad coalition of reformers, Communists, social democrats, and civic groups to force the president's resignation. Still it remains to be seen whether the opposition can unite and how effective the politics of street protests will be in forcing an early vote.
President Kuchma continues to command extensive power and he is a cunning political infighter who makes ample use of the factionalism and personal rivalries within the opposition. Indeed, while parties that back him were overwhelmingly rejected by voters, the president succeeded in using a variety of inducements and pressures to elect his loyal former chief of staff as the speaker of the new parliament. He did so by pressuring a wide array of independents.
There are four major factors that explain Mr. Kuchma's grip on power. The first is Ukraine's current constitution, which invests the president with excessive executive powers. The president has at his disposal a vast array of unchecked administrative resources and uses this largesse to reward political loyalists, while shutting out opponents.
A second factor is Ukraine's messy transition from communism to a market system. Because a lion's share of the country's economic magnates are believed to be guilty of tax evasion and corruption and have benefited from inside information in the privatization program, they are subject to pressure and blackmail from the president and the tax inspection service he tightly controls. As over a quarter of the new parliament is made up of businessmen, they are especially susceptible to intimidation.
The third factor is the president's control of the media, most of which is owned by the state or by politically loyal economic oligarchs. The last factor is more nuanced. President Kuchma has a sense of limits; he has been unwilling to step over the line between limiting democratic practices and outright authoritarian repression.
Taken together, these factors make it difficult for even the most concerted opposition to dislodge him from power. But with new presidential elections looming on the horizon and with the constitution barring Mr. Kuchma from making a third run, there is considerable evidence that some of Mr. Kuchma's current allies are hedging their bets.
One sign is the president's new offer to redraw the constitution and weaken his executive powers. The proposal, made in his Independence Day speech, reflects the desire of Mr. Kuchma's circle to transfer power to parliament in the event that a popular reformer like Viktor Yushchenko is elected. Another sign is behind-the-scenes conversations between economic magnates formally allied to Mr. Kuchma and the Yushchenko camp. The pro-Kuchma oligarchs are seeking guarantees of immunity in a post-Kuchma era and realize that Mr. Yushchenko may be in a position to strike a deal.
In the meanwhile, Mr. Kuchma is doing everything he can--short of outright repression--to weaken his opponents. The weaker the opposition's hand, the stronger will Mr. Kuchma be in any bargaining about his own future. And, given the cascade of allegations concerning his corruption and that of his closest associates, Mr. Kuchma will need the same guarantees of personal immunity that Boris Yeltsin and his clan received from Russian President Vladimir Putin when presidential power changed hands at the Kremlin.
Mr. Karatnycky is President of Freedom House and co-editor of the new study Nations in Transit 2002: Civil Society, Democracy and Markets in East Central Europe and the Newly Independent States (Transaction Books).
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.