Three years af­ter be­ing elected, the pres­i­dent faces the same prob­lems as his pre­de­ces­sors

The Ukrainian Week - - FRONT PAGE - Ro­man Malko

All of Ukraine’s pres­i­dents have one un­pleas­ant thing in com­mon: af­ter three years in power, their per­sonal rat­ings went into a cat­a­strophic de­cline. Each of them had his own recipe for suc­cess, but three years were enough for vot­ers to get to know them and, ac­cord­ingly, to be­come dis­en­chanted. In fact, vot­ers tend to have un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions of their pres­i­dents, while those run­ning for the post tend to ex­ag­ger­ate their ca­pac­ity and to prom­ise too much in the hopes of win­ning. Partly be­cause of this and partly be­cause vot­ers tend to want to see the coun­try’s leader as a kind of Golden Fish that will carry out their in­di­vid­ual wishes first, and then ev­ery­one else’s, the re­sult is in­evitable dis­ap­point­ment.

Not long ago, the lat­est elected Pres­i­dent of Ukraine and Com­man­der-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Petro Poroshenko, closed the third chap­ter of his pres­i­den­tial biog­ra­phy. He turned the page as is typ­i­cal for this genre: rat­ings way down and a bunch of un­ful­filled prom­ises, as well as a few satchels of rea­son­able achieve­ments. The visa-free regime alone is worth some­thing and the­o­ret­i­cally all the set­backs can be writ­ten off be­cause of the dif­fi­cult times, but his pre­de­ces­sors did not have an easy time of it, ei­ther.


Leonid Kravchuk, the man who found an eter­nal place in the his­tory of in­de­pen­dent Ukraine as its first pres­i­dent, was de­feated at the polls be­fore he even made it to three years. Hav­ing won the top post in the land with the sup­port of his one-time com­mu­nist col­leagues and democrats who were thank­ful for the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence for a solid 61.59% of the vote, Kravchuk prob­a­bly never ex­pected that fate would give him so lit­tle time to re­build the state. Pri­va­ti­za­tion was just in its early stages and real power was di­vided among the Verkhovna Rada, which was even able to veto pres­i­den­tial de­crees, the pres­i­dent and the Cabi­net. De­spite the amaz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and prospects that seemed just on the hori­zon, in less than two and a half years, the sit­u­a­tion in the young coun­try had be­come so much worse that when an­a­lysts at the East­ern Euro­pean In­sti­tute in Mu­nich looked closely at the Ukrainian econ­omy in De­cem­ber 1993, they could not un­der­stand what was go­ing on and how it was that Ukraini­ans hadn’t al­ready died of hunger.

As a way to calm down its cit­i­zens, who had be­come im­pov­er­ished overnight—hardly sur­pris­ing when pries rose 1,030% in the first year and the piti­ful kupono-kar­bo­vanets slipped from 740 to the US dol­lar to 40,000. The Verkhovna Rada was un- able to find a bet­ter way out of the cri­sis than to re- set the en­tire govern­ment by call­ing snap elec­tions to the leg­is­la­ture and the pres­i­dency. Oddly enough, the sit­u­a­tion was some­how sta­bi­lized be­fore the vote took place. The Yukhym Zvi­ahilskiy Govern­ment had gained un­be­liev­able pow­ers and en­gaged in any num­ber of cyn­i­cal mea­sures such as quar­terly state bud­gets, by Jan­uary 1994 had man­aged to rein in hy­per­in­fla­tion and by sum­mer in­dus­trial out­put was up more than 4%, a pace that had not been seen prior to that in in­de­pen­dent Ukraine— and was not go­ing to be seen again un­til 2000. How­ever, the mirac­u­lous re­vival had no im­pact at all on the coun­try’s des­per­ate vot­ers and dur­ing the snap elec­tion that spring, the Rada turned com­pletely red, stuffed to the gills with com­mu­nists and so­cial­ists.

Had Kravchuk not be­haved like a coy young lady be­ing asked to the dance but im­me­di­ately de­clared his can­di­dacy, he might well have been re-elected for a sec­ond term. But he him­self had no idea what he re­ally wanted and kept say­ing that he wasn’t go­ing to run be­cause, he said, peo­ple were dis­sat­is­fied. In the end,


in order to pre­vent a sit­u­a­tion where the only fron­trun­ner in the cam­paign was for­mer PM Leonid Kuchma, a sym­bol of the coun­try’s hy­per­in­fla­tion and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the red di­rec­tors and com­mu­nists who was cam­paign­ing on pro-Rus­sian slo­gans and promised of­fi­cial bilin­gual­ism, a heavy­weight ri­val was nec­es­sary to sup­port the pro-Ukrainian ma­jor­ity. There were sev­eral such can­di­dates, the most promis­ing among them be­ing Speaker Ivan Pliushch. Ev­ery­thing looked set, ex­cept that a few days be­fore the dead­line for reg­is­ter­ing nom­i­nees, com­mu­nist-style as­sem­blies of vot­ers from across the coun­try be­gan to press Kravchuk to run, af­ter all, and the old wolf’s heart melted. “If the peo­ple want me to run, so be it.”

Need­less to say, this scat­tered the vote and op­por­tu­ni­ties to use ad­min­is­tra­tive re­sources but Kravchuk man­aged to beat Kuchma in the first round, 38.36% to 31.17%. The sec­ond round looked like a shoo-in. Ac­cord­ing to eye-wit­nesses, how­ever, the evening be­fore Elec­tion Day ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates, pre­dic­tions were al­most 100% that Kravchuk was a shoo-in. How­ever, a very un­pleas­ant sit­u­a­tion took place the next morn­ing. Prob­lems arose with bal­lot count­ing in Don­bas and all of Don­bas had to re­count its votes. The re­sult turned into an elec­toral win for Kuchma.


Hav­ing be­come the new pres­i­dent, Leonid Kuchma quickly grasped the sit­u­a­tion and, us­ing the man­age­ment style he had pol­ished as di­rec­tor of Piv­den­mash, the coun­try’s big­gest aerospace plant, be­gan to bring order to the coun­try as he saw it. Po­si­tion­ing him­self as a reformer, he pre­sented his pro­gram. How­ever, in order to carry out even min­i­mal of re­forms, he had to con­sol­i­date his re­la­tions with the leg­is­la­ture, which was run by the Speaker, So­cial­ist Olek­sandr Moroz.

This proved any­thing but easy. Kuchma wanted power and a strong ex­ec­u­tive branch that could “ef­fec­tively work dur­ing a time of grow­ing eco­nomic cri­sis,” while the Verkhovna Rada, nat­u­rally, was not pre­pared to share power with him and be­gan scare­mon­ger­ing about the threat of dic­ta­tor­ship. This con­fronta­tion made the res­o­lu­tion of top pri­or­ity prob­lems in the coun­try a ma­jor chal­lenge. Fi­nally, “demon­strat­ing po­lit­i­cal wis­dom,” Kuchma and Moroz signed a con­sti­tu­tional agree­ment on June 8, 1995, which de facto be­came a tem­po­rary Con­sti­tu­tion, rec­og­niz­ing the pres­i­dent as the Head of State and of the ex­ec­u­tive branch, and grant­ing him the au­thor­ity to ap­point the Cabi­net of Min­is­ters, in­clud­ing the Premier.

The first PM ap­pointed by Kuchma was the then act­ing Premier and a ca­reer of­fi­cer of the Se­cu­rity Ser­vices, Yevhen Marchuk. He lasted a year and was dis­missed “for work­ing on his own im­age.” Marchuk was re­placed by a strong busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive by the name of Pavlo Lazarenko, who also did not last long. Lazarenko man­aged to leave quite a mark on the coun­try’s his­tory and on the lives of many later in­flu­en­tial politi­cians, one that can still be seen to­day. He was a pow­er­ful fig­ure, pro-Ukrainian in ori­en­ta­tion, and, man­ag­ing the stil­ly­oung Yu­lia Ty­moshenko and her com­pany YES’s gas flows from Rus­sia, felt him­self quite in­de­pen­dent and self-suf­fi­cient. Kuchma could sense this and it an­gered him, but what both­ered him most of all was the per­sis­tent thought that Lazarenko had am­bi­tions to re­place him in the top post. Be­com­ing care­less at some point, Lazarenko was de­clared the coun­try’s top cor­rupt politi­cian and tossed into the jaws of Amer­i­can jus­tice. This is the point when leg­endary saga of Ukraine’s bat­tle with cor­rup­tion be­gan—one that still has not reached a con­clu­sion to this day.

This was not the only suc­cess­ful un­der­tak­ing for Leonid Kuchma. In his first three years, he man­aged quite a bit. In Jan­uary 1995, the Rada adopted the Law “On Fi­nan­cial-In­dus­trial Groups (FIGs) in Ukraine,” thanks to which the oli­garchic sys­tem be­gan to take shape whose fruits Ukraini­ans are reap­ing to this to­day. Kuchma was the key fig­ure in this sys­tem and was soon dubbed “daddy.” With the first wave of large-scale pri­va­ti­za­tion in full swing at this time, the FIGs grew stronger and stronger, and Kuchma along with them. Of course, he had to strike a bal­ance be­tween his charges, whose in­ter­ests did not al­ways co­in­cide, and the in­ter­na­tional arena, in ac­cor­dance with his fa­mous “mul­ti­vec­toral” ap­proach. It was dur­ing Kuchma’s first term that the ma­trix took shape un­der which the coun­try would live for the next two decades—and be un­able to get rid of, de­spite two in­sur­rec­tions and a war.

In fact, it’s not en­tirely true to say that Kuchma’s third year be­came a crit­i­cal turn­ing point for him. Yes, there were prob­lems with the Black Sea Fleet and that was when the time-bomb that blew Crimea up in 2014 was first set. His rat­ings did fall no­tice­ably, but in the ab­sence of a re­ally strong op­po­si­tion or a come­back by the com­mu­nists in the Rada, the ever-more states­man­like Kuchma was sit­ting pretty. Even the 1998 fi­nan­cial cri­sis did not stop him from win­ning the 1999 elec­tion, us­ing the for­mula “the best among a bad lot” by sidelin­ing the more mod­er­ate and pop­u­lar Moroz and leav­ing only hard-core com­mu­nist Petro Sy­mo­nenko to fend off in the sec­ond round.

The third year of Kuchma’s sec­ond term proved to be the turn­ing point and he en­tered it com­pletely crushed. First came the cas­sette scan­dal con­nected to the dis­ap­pear­ance and mur­der of jour­nal­ist Ge­orgiy Gon­gadze, which grew into the “Ukraine with­out Kuchma” cam­paign. Then came the sale of four Kolchuga ESMs, a pas­sive air­craft ra­di­olo­ca­tion sys­tem with an 800 km line-of-sight reach, to Iraq, which was a ter­ri­ble blow against the Ukrainian pres­i­dent and turned him into a pariah in the west. Even his ef­forts to warm up re­la­tions with NATO and the EU, and to be granted prospects for as­so­ci­a­tion and even­tu­ally proper mem­ber­ship could do lit­tle to turn the sit­u­a­tion around. Fi­nally, in 2004, af­ter win­ning a stand-off with Rus­sia over the is­land of Tusla in the Kerch Strait in the fall of 2003 that nearly turned into an armed con­flict, Kuchma took the pro­vi­sions on NATO and EU mem­ber­ship out of the coun­try’s Mil­i­tary Doc­trine as the ul­ti­mate goal of the coun­try’s Euroat­lantic and Euroin­te­gra­tion poli­cies, declar­ing that the coun­try was sim­ply not ready for ei­ther at that stage.

But the most far-reach­ing event dur­ing this pe­riod, as time would tell, was the ap­point­ment of a Donetsk boss, Vik­tor Yanukovych, to the premier­ship in Novem­ber 2002. Af­ter the Donetsk clans helped Kuchma be­come pres­i­dent the first time around, they were given carte blanche to act in their own re­gion. “Do what you want over there, but don’t mess with Kyiv and Kyiv won’t mess with you.” In time, the Don­bas ap­petite in­evitably grew and its clans be­gan look­ing at the cap­i­tal: we also want to be in­volved in state af­fairs. Oddly enough, this co­in­cided with the pe­riod when Kuchma him­self was ebbing, so when the Donetsk bosses pro­posed Yanukovych for premier, not with­out spon­sor­ship from Rus­sia, ei­ther, Kuchma agreed.


The third an­niver­sary of the elec­tion of Vik­tor Yushchenko, who was swept into of­fice on the back of the Orange Maidan, will prob­a­bly al­ways re­main in the coun­try’s his­tory as an ex­am­ple of the most bit­ter dis­en­chant­ment with a leader who was the fa­vorite of the en­tire na­tion. Per­haps not the en­tire na­tion, but no mat­ter how one looks at it, the name Yushchenko was a sym­bol of hope for change in the coun­try dur­ing the Orange Rev­o­lu­tion. Whether these hopes were been ill-founded, or the per­son who was ex­pected to ful­fill them was a mere holo­gram or a po­lit­i­cal scam is hard to say. One thing that can be said is that the phe­nom­e­nal prospects and op­por­tu­ni­ties that came with the vic­tory of the Maidan were wasted by Yushchenko and his team.

By his third year in of­fice, Yushchenko was com­pletely lost: his party had lost the VR elec­tion to his ri­val’s Party of the Re­gions and Yanukovych was once again premier. The re­turn of Ty­moshenko to lead the Govern­ment only re­vived all the tire­some squab­bles. All that was left was dis­il­lu­sion­ment and crises. The world­wide eco­nomic cri­sis of 2008, the Rus­sian at­tack on Ge­or­gia as a stern warn­ing, gas wars with Rus­sia. The 2010 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion had only two se­ri­ous con­tenders, Ty­moshenko and Yanukovych, and Yanukovych won.


Vik­tor Yanukovych sur­vived his third year in of­fice with enor­mous dif­fi­culty, and, in fact, that’s where ev­ery­thing ended. Flushed with vic­tory over the “schmucks” who were al­ways in his way in the 2010 elec­tion, he en­joyed his pres­i­den­tial pre­rog­a­tives with such rel­ish that he failed to no­tice when he had sal­lied well be­yond all ac­cept­able lim­its.

In 2010, Yanukovych signed an agree­ment in Kharkiv that ex­tended the term of Rus­sia’s Black Sea Fleet base on Ukrainian ter­ri­tory for an­other 25 years, to 2042. This and its scan­dal-rid­den rat­i­fi­ca­tion later on were the open­ing chord of the Yanukovych swan song. He went on to use the Con­sti­tu­tional Court to re­store the 1996 Con­sti­tu­tion, which re­turned to the pres­i­dency the kind of power that Kuchma had en­joyed. Then he played at Euroin­te­gra­tion and be­ing the Great Reformer. But when it came to ac­tu­ally sign­ing the As­so­ci­a­tion Agree­ment with the Euro­pean Union, Yanukovych fi­nally showed his true face and went into re­verse, car­ry­ing out all the in­struc­tions com­ing from his Krem­lin men­tors. This, of course, led to an out­burst of public anger and peo­ple went out on the Maidan once again.

Things might have ended at that, but an un­prece­dented at­tack by riot po­lice on stu­dents hang­ing out on the Maidan late at night was the last straw and the coun­try ex­ploded. Once again, Yanukovych was the cat­a­lyst for a protest Maidan. This time, how­ever, it was clear this would not be a song-and-dance Maidan, the way it was in 2004. Too much had changed in the in­ter­ven­ing years. Un­like the po­lit­i­cal class, Ukrainian so­ci­ety had been trans­formed, ma­tured and be­come braver—and prop­erly learned the recipe for mak­ing a Molo­tov cock­tail. More­over, a new gen­er­a­tion of Ukraini­ans had grown up that was ready to de­ter­mine its own fate and not beg for small mer­cies. Every at­tempt to stop the process, to cut deals, to con peo­ple or scare them was doomed. No dic­ta­to­rial Jan­uary 16 laws could not stop “an idea whose time had come.”

The end of the three-year pres­i­den­tial term of the twice-jailed Yanukovych, along with his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, co­in­cided with the start of his ca­reer as a mi­grant. And even then, noth­ing would have mat­tered if, hav­ing aban­doned the coun­try that was care­less enough to elect him as pres­i­dent, he hadn’t left be­hind hun­dreds of trau­ma­tized and killed fel­low cit­i­zens, a di­vided so­ci­ety, a com­pletely emp­tied-out trea­sury, mas­sive loans, and a let­ter beg­ging Putin to oc­cupy Ukraine.


Three years into his pres­i­dency, Petro Poroshenko still re­tains his con­fi­dence, de­spite low rat­ings that hover around the 10% mark. He does have a num­ber of bonuses: the war and the visa-free regime with the EU. And even with­out these plusses, he is strong enough not to be afraid of any­thing and to plan his fu­ture. Poroshenko in 2017 even has echoes of Kuchma in 1997, when Big Daddy was do­ing very well. Of course, things are far from per­fect with Ukraine’s fifth pres­i­dent, and the third year of of­fice has been a crit­i­cal one for most of Ukraine’s lead­ers. The fallen rat­ings re­flect wide­spread dis­en­chant­ment as a con­se­quence of not-quite skilled or even inad­e­quate ex­e­cu­tion of his du­ties and lost op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Ini­tially, every in­com­ing pres­i­dent blames his pre­de­ces­sor for leav­ing be­hind a poor sit­u­a­tion and, for a time, this works. Then comes the phase when say­ing, “It’s not so easy, things will change, but it takes time” works. Still, af­ter three years in power, those kinds of ex­cuses don’t work, not even from the lips of Petro Poroshenko. More­over, he lost his kamikaze PM, Arseniy Yat­se­niuk, be­hind whose back any num­ber of “in­ter­est­ing” is­sues were re­solved. Now his light­ning rod is Volodymyr Gro­is­man. He works pretty well as Prime Min­ster but not so ef­fec­tively as the light­ing rod given his back­ground of close re­la­tions with the pres­i­dent.

Poroshenko is also hav­ing trust is­sues, not just with the Ukrainian vot­ers (which mat­ters less to him), but also with his west­ern part­ners. It’s be­com­ing harder and harder to cover the fee­ble progress of re­form with at­trac­tive ges­tures or to ex­plain how it’s be­ing ac­tively


sab­o­taged. And this trust means sup­port, money, and much more that he—and the coun­try—needs.

It’s still early, how­ever, for Poroshenko to con­tem­plate a well-earned re­tire­ment. The lack of a proper, con­struc­tive op­po­si­tion even in the pres­ence of a well­p­re­served old po­lit­i­cal guard al­lows him to se­ri­ously dream about a sec­ond term. Of course, pro­vided he doesn’t re­peat the mis­takes of his pre­de­ces­sors, such as Kuchma with his il­lu­sory sta­bil­ity in 2002 when Ukraini­ans were se­ri­ously dis­sat­is­fied. Or Vik­tor Yushchenko with his in­abil­ity to dis­tin­guish be­tween en­e­mies and friends, his end­less po­lit­i­cal flir­ta­tions, his ef­forts to cut deals, all of which ended in his de­feat and his ri­val’s come­back.

Step­ping into the same pud­dle over and over again does not take any smarts. Only by con­sid­er­ing his own mis­takes and those of his pre­de­ces­sors, thor­oughly as­sess­ing the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try, and gen­uinely turn­ing to the peo­ple who lit­er­ally spilled their blood so that he might be pres­i­dent, Petro Poroshenko might ac­tu­ally win a sec­ond term. But if he re­laxes, the risk is al­ways there that he won’t even com­plete the first one. The grounds for this—and the op­por­tu­ni­ties—are ac­cu­mu­lat­ing day by day.

The sec­ond pres­i­dency of Leonid Kuchma was when the ma­trix of the coun­try's life for the next two decades shaped

Leonid Kravchuk spent only two years and seven months as pres­i­dent

In his third year as pres­i­dent, Vik­tor Yanukovych fled the coun­try leav­ing a blood­bath be­hind

Vik­tor Yushchenko is the sym­bol of the great­est po­lit­i­cal dis­en­chant­ment

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