The Director of Ukraine. Lessons of the first term of Kuchma’s presidency

26 August 2021
The Director of Ukraine. Lessons of the first term of Kuchma’s presidency
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How Leonid Kuchma tuned the state mechanism to his needs.

Leonid Kuchma became the President of Ukraine in very difficult times when romantic hopes that Ukraine will become prosperous and successful right after independence were dissipating. The need for reforms that would change the fundamental rules of the workings of the state and switch to market economy became obvious not only to professional economists but to regular citizens as well. The leaders of the country, though, had no plan on how to do that. On the other hand, the political elite in the first years of independence occupied the niche of the “supreme power” previously occupied by the communist party. This was obvious not only from the actions of some top officials but also from how citizens reacted to these actions.

The first three years of independence under the presidency of Leonid Kravchuk have brought economic decline and tremendous inflation. It was time for some action. Both Kravchuk and the Parliament of that time presented the country with new hope: Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma. It was October of 1992. The superpower of Prime Minister Kuchma was to issue governmental decrees — the power that neither his predecessors nor his successors had. Cabinet’s decisions were equal to laws adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. They addressed a variety of issues: finances, governance, economy, social policy, etc. Since preparation time for decrees is much shorter than that of the laws, voters that were waiting for changes were quite satisfied with the work of the Kuchma’s Cabinet.

In 1993, the karbovanets devalued by 100 times, so it is an open question whether the unconstitutional authority to issue such decrees really helped. However, the decrees did introduce new rules necessary at that time. By presenting himself as a decisive reformist, Leonid Kuchma was elected the President of Ukraine in the early election by promising economic growth and restoration of friendly relations with Russia.

Having full control over the Cabinet, Kuchma now could implement his own vision of the reforms from Bankova Street. However, he still needed the Parliament. In 1994, before the presidential election, Ukraine also held the parliamentary election. Although the electoral system was majoritarian, the procedure defined by the law was complicated. For an election in a single-mandate district to be valid, at least half of the registered adult voters of the district had to vote. The winner had to get more than half of the votes to be elected. If these two requirements were not met, the second round was held between the two most popular candidates. The second round also had to be attended by at least half of the registered voters for one of the candidates to become a winner. Because of this complicated procedure, the election continued for 9 months and even then in each tenth district no representative was elected. As a result, there were no 450 MPs in the Verkhovna Rada until the next election.

The winner of the parliamentary election was the Communist party. It got 90 seats. The party had risen from ashes after been banned in 1993. The closest contestants of the communists, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, managed to get only 20 seats. Half of the MPs, though, were independent.

For the new President, it was time to enforce new rules for the country waiting to change. It is important to note that according to the Constitution of 1978 that Ukraine lived by until 1995, the President had more influence over the Cabinet than the Parliament did. The Parliament only appointed the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense. For Kuchma, a man who did not like discussions and compromises, such a model suited well.

MPs of the new convocation started to work on a new constitution. It was dangerous to Kuchma to allow this process to go on uncontrolled, although since the Parliament was so diverse the danger was moderate. After the presidential and parliamentary elections, the Constitutional Agreement was adopted. This law temporarily defined the distribution of powers between the Parliament and the President. It was prepared by Kuchma’s administration and pushed through the Verkhovna Rada. It gave significant powers to the President. On top of that, Kuchma got a bonus of a special provision in the Constitutional Agreement: the Verkhovna Rada decided that either it adopts the new Constitution within a year or a referendum will be held to approve the Constitutional Agreement as the Constitution of Ukraine.

Although Kuchma did not have his faction in the Verkhovna Rada, his administration knew how to make MPs and ministers do what he wanted. First, he had economic leverage. Imagine that you are a director of a factory or an owner of some business. At the same time, you are also an MP of the Verkhovna Rada. The President controls every person that can turn your life and work into hell: law enforcement officers, prosecutors, representatives of the Tax Service, oblast state administrations, and raion state administrations. Obviously, you will listen to the requests and recommendations from Bankova Street.

To prevent the President from getting more power via the constitutional process, the Parliament has created a new working committee to prepare the Constitution. The head of the state sent a supervisor to oversee the process. That supervisor was the Vice Prime Minister on Political and Legal Issues, an MP Oleksandr Yemets. MPs called him nothing less than “the Prime Minister on the Issues of the Constitution.” During the parliamentary sessions, he was in contact with the presidential administration via phone and coordinated voting of a part of MPs.

On June 28, 1996, the Constitution was adopted. Despite all the efforts of some MPs, the President preserved his key powers allowing him to influence the executive branch: the authority to propose to the Parliament the candidature for the Prime Minister and to approve candidatures for ministers proposed by the Prime Minister. According to the Constitution, the President had control over the defense block, law enforcement, the Anti-Monopoly Committee, and courts.

The weakest link always was Prime Ministers. People that occupied the position in Kuchma’s times rotated much more often than the Verkhovna Rada. The cause for the dismissal of Prime Ministers was their tendency to control every governmental decision — the power that Kuchma had while being the Prime Minister himself. Not once, like in the case of Pavlo Lazarenko, the influence was converted into personal wealth. Lazarenko was probably one of the first oligarchs in Ukraine that took control of the gas pipeline. Dismissal of a Prime Minister was always a way to cover inaction or corruption of the President and ministers. A person dismissed — problem solved. Such logic was popular at Bankova at that time.

The year 1998 came. It was the year of the new parliamentary election. The election was held under the mixed system: 225 MPs were elected in single-mandate districts and 225 MPs — via party lists. For the first time, Ukrainians voted for political parties. As a result, the 4% threshold was met by seven political parties and one election block.

The largest number of seats — 123 — got the “communists.” The People’s Movement got 46 seats, socialists — 35. The results of the other five parties were even smaller. 120 MPs were independents. The composition of the Parliament was very diverse and produced no stable majority. The majority was not needed, to be sure, since it had no power to form the Cabinet at that time. The Cabinet of Valerii Pustovoitenko was not even dismissed after the parliamentary election.

For the positions in the Rada itself, though, MPs negotiated furiously. The speaker was elected only on the 18th voting — the representative of the villagers’ party by documents, previously and afterward the representative of the communist party Oleksandr Tkachenko.

In the Rada of the third convocation, the President had no solid support. Communists, the block of socialists and villagers, and progressive socialists became an opposition to the President right after been elected. However, they were not united among themselves.

Meanwhile, the preparations started for the presidential campaign of the autumn of 1999. On the one hand, the President was swiftly losing his rating because of yet another economic decline caused by the Russian economic crisis. Due to close economic ties to the markets of the Russian Federation, Ukraine had 20% inflation in 1998. On the other hand, Leonid Kuchma had all tools of the “administrative resource” to ensure his victory.

It is worth mentioning that half a year before the election the main rival of Kuchma Viacheslav Chornovil died in a car crash near Boryspil. To this day, the truth of what happened there was not uncovered. Other competitors from the “parliamentary left” have even tried to unite under the so-called Kaniv four alliance to nominate one candidate against the President. Oleksandr Tkachenko, Oleksandr Moroz, Yevhen Marchuk, and Volodymyr Oliinyk announced their plan on Independence Day near the grave of Taras Shevchenko. However, as it often happens in the history of Ukraine, the agreement was breached and in the second round the President was competing against the leader of communists Petro Symonenko. Frightened by the perspective to return to the communist past, Ukrainian voters once more elected Kuchma.

Such was Leonid Kuchma’s first term in office. It was the time when Ukrainian citizens hoped for “a strong hand” and “an efficient leader.” The strong hand, of course, was not able to control all aspects of the state and after several years state institutions started to work not as much for the benefit of citizens but rather for the benefit of the first oligarchs and their associates in the establishment.

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