Carried away by authoritarianism. Lessons of the second term of Kuchma

26 August 2021
Carried away by authoritarianism. Lessons of the second term of Kuchma
Home > Parliamentary Republic > Carried away by authoritarianism. Lessons of the second term of Kuchma

How Kuchma tried to seize Ukraine and why he failed.

The end of the 90th. Ukrainians now carry cell phones instead of “Kravchuchkas”, a young Lviv band “Okean Elzy” becomes popular on the radio, the middle class is growing after the introduction of the simplified tax system. Big cities discover a new wonder — the internet. Young people text each other via ICQ. Meanwhile, on the political arena of Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma strengthens his authority and power.

According to the Constitution adopted in 1996, the President submits to the Parliament a candidature for the Prime Minister while the Parliament proposes to the President candidates for ministers. The President has the authority over the whole defense block, law enforcement agencies, the Anti-Monopoly Committee, and courts. The Verkhovna Rada, on the other hand, has almost no powers to influence the Cabinet even though formally it still was the main representative body of the country elected via the all-national election. As a result, the Parliament is not that efficient or independent. For example, MPs of the third convocations managed to appoint their speaker only after 18 attempts and three months.

Under such circumstances, the President was bound to be at the top of the political food chain.

Before Kuchma won for the second time, there were several events that Ukrainian society puzzles over even today. The death of the leader of the People’s Movement Viacheslav Chornovil in the car crash under suspicious circumstances half a year before the election, a grenade that exploded after Nataliia Vitrenko’s meeting with voters in October of 1999, and the murder of an MP Vadym Hetman in the elevator of his house.

These strange events combined with the administrative resource, political technologies, falsifications, and under-the-rug games helped Kuchma once more to become the President. In the second round of presidential elections of 1999, he got a convenient sparring partner — the leader of communists Petro Symonenko that had no chances of winning.

The first Prime Minister of the second term of Kuchma was Victor Yushchenko, appointed in December of 1999. He managed to hold his position only until May of 2001. The reason, supposedly, was the successful implementation of the Reforms for Prosperity program. President Kuchma was afraid of the increasing popularity of Yushchenko, so MPs loyal to the President started a smear campaign that resulted in the Prime Minister’s dismissal.

The fact that Kuchma was interested in authoritarian ideas is not a secret. On April 16, 2000, the all-national referendum was held that should have legitimized the expansion of presidential powers. In particular, it proposed to give the President the power to dissolve the Parliament if no coalition was formed within a month, to abolish the parliamentary immunity, to decrease the number of MPs to 300, and to introduce a bicameral parliament.

Even though he got significant support at the referendum (not least due to falsifications and administrative resources), the authoritarian dream of the President never came to life because Kuchma faced a number of resonant scandals. In September of 2000, the body of a murdered journalist Heorhii Gongadze was found in the Tarashcha forest.

In December 2000, people started a mass protest “Ukraine without Kuchma”. The campaign united the representatives of the Parliament’s left wing and their opponents. The protests were quickly and brutally dispersed. Special units of Berkut used force, several hundreds of the participants were beaten, dozens were arrested, and the tent camp on Khreshchatyk was torn down. Within a year, many participants of the protests were convicted for “significant material damage to the state” and “inflicting bodily harm to militia officers.”

Kuchma’s regime was becoming more and more isolated and embittered. Having the monopoly on violence, it resorted to actions that were even more aggressive.

In the spring of 2002, the election to the Verkhovna Rada was held. Half of the 450 MPs were elected via party lists, another half — in single-mandate districts.

Our Ukraine, the party of Victor Yushchenko, has received more than a fourth of the votes. The party of Yushchenko’s ally Yuliia Tymoshenko got 5%. As a result, they got 132 seats and became the opposition. The block “For the United Ukraine” led by the Head of the Administration of President Kuchma Volodymyr Lytvyn got 170 seats.

The pro-Presidential party has managed to get only 11% of the votes. However, it still became the largest faction in the Parliament. The key to this success was the majoritarian component, in particular, due to the use of administrative resources.

The next Prime Minister became a now-notorious Donetsk governor with criminal past Viktor Yanukovych.

While political quarrels continued, Russia tried to test the integrity of Ukrainian borders. In September of 2003, Russians started to sluice a dam near Tuzla Island in Crimea. This dam changed the intensity and direction of the currents, so the Ukrainian coast and Ukrainian border started to deteriorate. The President flew to Crimea on short notice and the State Border Guard set a checkpoint on Tuzla. As a result, Russia stopped the construction of the dam and Kuchma stopped his attempts “to be friends” with Russians. Instead, he published a book “Ukraine is not Russia” and, ignoring the Constitution, started preparations to become a president for the third time.

With the help of the Constitutional Court, Kuchma found a way to run for President for the third time. The Court has ruled that since the Constitution of Ukraine was adopted in 1996 and Kuchma’s first term started in 1994, he can run once more: since there was no Constitution yet, the first term does not count. However, Kuchma never used the opening provided by the court’s decision.

Ukraine was facing the presidential election where Yushchenko was competing against Yanukovych in the second round. The latter actively resorted to the administrative resource prepared by Kuchma, and that is how the “orange” protests started.

Kuchma was the President of Ukraine for the whole decade. That was a period of dramatic contrasts, the so-called “multivector” policy on foreign affairs.

On the one hand, Kuchma has created state institutions. During his presidency, Ukraine got its Constitution, launched large-scale privatization, introduced hryvnia, and even experienced economic growth in the last years of his second term.

On the other hand, Leonid Kuchma allowed the rise of oligarchs and their intrusion into all aspects of the state. His management style was authoritarian and based on the tyranny of militia, prosecution, and the Security Service, not to mention the tail of protests and unsolved political murders. He put in the minds of millions of Ukrainians the fears and stereotypes we still have, made a brutal struggle for power, volatile policies, and uncontrollable law enforcement a part of Ukrainian political tradition.

Leonid Kuchma left Ukraine with a broken checks and balances system and citizens tired from authoritarianism and intimidation.

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