The Nowhere Nation

Leonid Kuchma
Leonid Kuchma; drawing by David Levine


On November 14, 1999, President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine won re-election to a second term in a runoff vote against his Communist opponent, Petro Symonenko, a former apparatchik who was opposed to a market economy and in favor of a confederation with Russia and Belarus. Official results showed Kuchma, who promised to continue economic liberalization, including privatization, by reducing government controls, and to preserve Ukrainian independence, winning by a large margin: 56 percent to 38 percent (6 percent of the voters having opposed both candidates).

The campaign, however, was the dirtiest and most scandal-ridden in Ukraine’s eight years of independence. In 1994 Kuchma, a sixty-one-year-old former director of a Soviet missile factory, had upset Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, in a hard-fought but remarkably peaceful campaign. To many, the transfer of power at that time demonstrated that Ukraine had passed an important test of its democratic credentials.

The 1999 campaign suggests that the praise Ukraine’s acceptance of democratic fair play received in 1994 was premature. After the first round of voting, on October 31, election observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) commented that the campaign had been “highly questionable,” even though the voting was conducted in an orderly fashion. The observers stopped short of charging that the election returns misrepresented “the will of the Ukrainian people,” but Simon Osborne, the British head of the OSCE monitors, spoke of “serious violations,” during the campaign, including forged ballots, confiscation of campaign materials, improper influence by public officials, and biased coverage by newspapers and television, the latter largely under government control.

Conditions became even worse after the first round. President Kuchma fired the governors of the three provinces in which he had done poorly, presumably to make sure local officials there would produce more favorable results during the second vote. According to foreign monitors, some voters were given more than one ballot, and officials put pressure on voters in prisons, hospitals, and educational institutions to vote for Kuchma.

Kuchma’s strategy seemed modeled on Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign in Russia. Yeltsin started that campaign when his popularity was below 10 percent but ultimately defeated Gennady Zyuganov, his Communist rival, by a small margin. Kuchma’s popularity never sank quite as low as Yeltsin’s; in the months preceding the campaign it hovered around 20 percent. Copying the tactics Yeltsin had used in Russia, Kuchma first tried to divide the opposition—there were sixteen candidates in the first round—and then turned the runoff into a referendum on a return to the Communist past.

There were also differences between Russia in 1996 and Ukraine in 1999. The Communists and other “left-wing” parties in Russia—i.e., those supporting a return to “socialism” in 1996—did not receive a majority of Russian votes; this year, during the first round of votes, their Ukrainian counterparts did. If Kuchma’s opponents had been able to unite behind a single candidate who was…

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