Ukraine’s Embattled Democracy
Unpopular leader steps up pressure against political foes
By Julia Barton, Chronicle Foreign Service
Earlier this month, President Leonid Kuchma, who is embroiled in the biggest scandal in his nation’s 10-year history, had a message for his employees: My way or the highway.
"I call on each state employee, from ministerial rank down, who either sympathizes with or takes part in opposition activities to resign or publicly distance himself from anti-government formations within the next seven days," he said, according to the Ukrainian wire service UNIAN.
Only a handful of Ukraine’s hundreds of thousands of state employees took the president up on his dare. But the ultimatum is another alarming sign for an international community concerned that the recent scandal may be pushing Europe’s largest nation off the road to democracy.
In a statement Monday, the European Union delicately pointed out that edicts such as Kuchma’s are not “consistent with democratic principles.” President Bush has also warned that Ukraine’s leaders are facing a serious test “as regards their devotion to the principles of democracy and human rights.”
Kuchma’s troubles began in late November, when his opponents released fragments of recordings secretly made in the president’s office, tapes that they say implicate Kuchma in election-rigging, bribe-taking and the murder of a young opposition journalist, Georgy Gongadze, whose body was found beheaded in the woods outside Kiev. Kuchma has proclaimed his innocence, but skepticism is running high.
The opposition also complains that Kuchma, who was elected in 1994 as a reformer, has been ruling Ukraine lately more like a mobster boss than a democratic leader.
One former prime minister of Kuchma’s, Pavlo Lazarenko, is being tried in federal court in San Francisco on money-laundering charges. Until recently, Kuchma had been able to deny any connection to Lazarenko or other allegedly corrupt officials. But an ex-guard who secretly recorded the president for years says Kuchma is the worst offender, accepting “gifts” of millions of dollars from state companies. Kuchma calls the guard “sick in the head.”
Despite four months of protests in the capital, Kiev, and other cities, Kuchma has maintained his grip on power. The fear, however, is that he is able to do so only by resorting to tactics even more divisive than his ultimatum to state employees.
Ukraine is filled with internal splits that were papered over by long years of Communist rule. The divisions are not as severe as the ones that led to years of civil war in Yugoslavia, but like the Balkans, Ukraine has been scarred by its history as a battleground of Europe.
Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions were under Russian, and then Soviet, control for more than 300 years, and nostalgia for the former Soviet Union remains strong. Western Ukraine, much of which was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II, retains a strong nationalistic and anti- Communist streak.
The divisions run so deep that Ukrainians actually fought on both sides during the war. While Kiev and Eastern Ukraine still celebrate the Red Army’s victory over Nazi forces on May 9, in parts of anti-Communist Western Ukraine, it’s a day of mourning.
Kuchma seems adept not just at straddling the divide but at playing one camp against the other.
Four hundred miles west of Kiev, the mood in the formerly Polish city of Lviv has turned sharply anti-presidential. Local radio and television stations are airing opposition-produced spots that urge listeners to “demand the truth. ” Last week, some 4,000 students from Lviv’s many universities went on strike, demanding the release of dozens of colleagues arrested in Kiev after anti- Kuchma protests.
About a quarter of the jailed protesters were members of the right-wing nationalist organization UNA-UNSO, which has strong roots in Western Ukraine. The group first gained notoriety in the mid-1990s when it sent paramilitary troops to Chechnya to fight the Russian Army. Although UNA-UNSO’s leaders say they now eschew fascism, the organization’s Web site contains a letter of support for far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider, and UNA-UNSO members still spout the rhetoric of aggrieved nationalism.
"The Ukrainian people are in the background of Ukraine," said one member, Nadeya Maya, at a recent protest in Lviv. "In front are the Russians, Poles, and Jews. Ukrainians work for them, or they have to go abroad to earn a living, and there they have other masters," she said.
The presence of groups like UNA-UNSO in the protest movement has been a boon to Kuchma, who has exploited their extremist past to tarnish all his opponents. In a speech on national television February 13, he warned of “professional revolutionaries” seeking to destabilize the country.
"We should not forget the lessons of history. You will recall how fascism started," he said, in what is seen as an appeal to voters in Eastern Ukraine, many of whom lost grandparents or other family members in battles against the Nazis.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s security service arrested Andry Shkil, the leader of UNA-UNSO, for inciting mass disorder. If convicted, he could face up to 12 years in prison.
"Kuchma’s strategy is an emphasis on order and in rising above the violence, " said one senior U.S. diplomat in Kiev.
A 15-minute film airing regularly on state television takes that tactic to the extreme. Without narration, the film shows footage of confrontations between protesters and police in Kiev on March 9, the birthday of Ukraine’s national hero, 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko.
After several minutes of footage of protesters spitting on and beating police, the film cuts to a calm (though heavily guarded) President Kuchma laying a ceremonial wreath at a statue of Shevchenko. Kuchma then departs, and in the next scene, protesters rush to the statue and trample the flowers. One is carrying a stolen police shield vandalized with a swastika, an image that state-television emphasizes by stopping the film and superimposing a large red circle over the shield.
Polls show that the president may need his Soviet-style propaganda machine to survive: In a recent survey of more than 2,000 voters by the Ukrainian Center for Political and Economic Research, only 6 percent said they would vote for Kuchma if elections were held that day. Still, the president’s spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko, says Kuchma hopes he can push through reforms he has been promising Ukrainians for years — lowering taxes, privatizing land and cutting down on the Soviet-style bureaucracy that plagues daily life. He proudly points out that Ukraine’s economy showed its first upturn last year after nearly a decade of stagnation.
Asked about the public’s trust in the president, Martynenko said performance is what matters.
"Ukraine is a post-Soviet society where people don’t judge leaders by what they say or occasionally do but by their (own) quality of life and salaries," he said. "People have so many other problems that scandals which in any other democratically developed country might be a big deal don’t seem as important to people’s lives."
But for young, Western-leaning protesters, that attitude — as much as Kuchma himself — is what needs to be overthrown. The majority of Ukrainians have been too conditioned by Soviet life to accept “stability” at any cost, said Eugene Gudz, a student from Kiev Mohyla Academy University, as he stood on the sidelines watching the March 9 demonstration.
"In our country," he said, "stability and authoritarianism are synonyms."
San Francisco Chronicle, 3/24/01