Once a reformer, Ukraine president falls out of favor


KIEV, Ukraine - A decade ago Leonid D. Kuchma, the former manager of a rocket factory, ran for president of Ukraine and, in the process of winning, won applause for his pledge to press for political and economic reforms.

Now, as Kuchma prepares to leave the presidency after two five-year terms, he seems a lesser figure - a president implicated in widespread corruption, vote-rigging and the murder of one of his critics.

The shift in his political standing reflects larger changes in Ukraine, where voters will elect a new president Sunday and have already shown their impatience with pervasive criminality and a quasi-authoritarian government.

During Kuchma's presidency, Ukraine became the world's largest arms bazaar, accused of peddling weapons to unsavory forces, including Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Kuchma's former bodyguard, Maj. Mykola Melnichenko, accused the president of personally stealing more than $1 billion from the state. Political foes say Kuchma also has used his presidential power to award contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to his daughter and son-in-law. And during the political campaign to choose Kuchma's successor, the president's most prominent foe was poisoned in circumstances that remain unexplained.

Like former presidents Eduard A. Shevardnadze of Georgia and Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia, Kuchma was once regarded as someone who could lead his country out of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. But like Shevardnadze and Yelstin, his critics say, Kuchma became an accomplice of former Communist bureaucrats who transformed themselves into an economic elite.

Kuchma's rise was steep.

Elected to parliament in 1990, he became prime minister in 1992, only to be fired. Eduard Gurvits, then mayor of Odessa, recalls going to Kuchma's home.

Over a dinner of fish caught by Kuchma, Gurvits pleaded with Kuchma to run for president as a reform candidate.

"When he was prime minister, he knew how to create a team," Gurvits says now. "He knew how to work with people."

Kuchma reluctantly accepted. He ran for president and won. At first, reformers celebrated. But the euphoria didn't last.

Three years after urging him to run, Gurvits again met with Kuchma. The mayor had been the target of an assassination attempt and was convinced it was arranged by business tycoons close to Kuchma.

"You know they want to kill me?" Gurvits remembers shouting. Kuchma assigned him 30 elite soldiers as bodyguards.

Gurvits' political survival, though, was not assured. In 1998, a court ordered his name off the ballot for re-election as mayor the night before the vote. The court pointed out that a leaflet seen in Odessa in support of Gurvits did not include the name and the address of the sponsor, as required.

Despite the court's ruling, Gurvits won the election with almost 60 percent of the vote. But in subsequent court battles, the courts rejected the election results and ordered a new vote. This time, local officials rejected Gurvits' application to run on similarly narrow grounds.

"He turned into a person who is above all paranoid, someone who is intolerant of critics," Gurvits says of the president. "He's obviously someone who will betray his principles."

Most political experts expect opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko to win the Sunday presidential runoff. His opponent is Kuchma's protege, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych. Ukraine's supreme court ordered the new runoff after agreeing with Yushchenko that an election on Nov. 21 included wide-scale fraud on the part of the government.

When he leaves office, Kuchma will not necessarily surrender all his powers. When parliament this month approved election reforms, it also shifted significant power from the presidency to the parliament and prime minister. Parliament is still controlled by three groups of industrial tycoons, or "clans," one of them headed by Kuchma.

Born in a farming family in northern Ukraine, Kuchma, 66, earned an engineering degree that helped him advance through the vast military-industrial complex of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1980s, he became technical director of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia's Cape Canaveral, in what is now Kazakhstan. In 1982, he was named chief of Yuzhmash rocket engine factory in Dnepropetrovsk, the largest rocket producer in the world and still a major supplier for the Russian military.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, Kuchma turned to politics. When he became president, he faced an economy that was shrinking about 10 percent a year and a threat of secession by the country's eastern provinces.

He reduced inflation to 40 percent a year from 1,000 percent and succeeded in holding the country together. He also agreed to send to Russia 1,269 Soviet-era nuclear warheads that Ukraine was unable to guard or maintain, in exchange for $1 billion in American aid.

But his presidency also became known as an era of corruption.

Kuchma helped friends as well as family. During the 1990s, critics say, he filled Cabinet posts with cronies from the Dnepropetrovsk region, including Pavlo I. Lazarenko, a former farm collective director.

As energy minister, Lazarenko set up regional gas monopolies that let Ukraine's factories pay for their energy with cash, manufactured goods or shares of stock. The middlemen in those transactions reportedly reaped huge profits.

Lazarenko was named prime minister in 1996. In 1999, after he left office, he was charged in the United States with trying to launder $119 million in stolen money. In June, he was convicted of money laundering, wire fraud and extortion in a U.S. District Court.

The incident that harmed Kuchma's reputation most was the murder of a journalist, Georgi Gongadze. His headless body, splashed with acid, was discovered near Kiev in November 2000.

A month later, a member of parliament produced a tape recording of a conversation in which Kuchma seemed to give his approval to "take care of" Gongadze. Kuchma said the tape had been altered to implicate him.

Gongadze was one of three Ukrainian journalists, along with five members of parliament and several businessmen involved in arms trading to die under suspicious circumstances. But it was Gongadze's death that triggered protests demanding Kuchma's ouster.

The man who made the incriminating tapes, Melnichenko, released more evidence last year. On another of his tapes, a voice identified by the FBI as Kuchma's authorized the $200 million sale of a radar-tracking system to Hussein's Iraq. (Despite Kuchma's apparent approval, the sale was never completed.)

Over the past four years, Kuchma's critics have repeatedly demonstrated in the streets of Kiev demanding his resignation. Kuchma has outlasted them until now.

"What can I think about this bandit?" says Nikolai Tkachenko, a retired factory worker who is in the opposition crowds that gather every night in central Kiev, awaiting the presidential vote. "For 10 years he tortured Ukraine. Now it's time for him to retire. But he doesn't want to leave. He's still trying to find ways to stay."

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