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Ukraine: Incumbent President Plays On Fears Of A Communist Return

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The second, decisive round of Ukraine's presidential election takes place on Sunday, with incumbent Leonid Kuchma and Communist candidate Petro Symonenko on the ballot. RFE/RL's Askold Krushelnycky reports the vote is seen as a choice between continuing market reforms or turning the clock back to Communist times.

Kyiv, 10 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first round of Ukraine's presidential elections late last month (Oct. 30) left incumbent Leonid Kuchma in the lead, with his Communist rival, Petro Symonenko, in second place. Under Ukraine's electoral rules, if no candidate gets more than half the vote, then the two with the highest share of the vote go on to a run-off.

Kuchma seemed comfortably ahead in the first round with 36 percent of the vote, compared to Symonenko's 22 percent. But Kuchma has been criticized throughout his term in office for the troubled state of the economy, for failing to introduce major market reforms, and for presiding over a government riddled with corruption. Critics say that as a result, Kuchma is playing on fears of a Communist return to power to win second-round votes from many who intensely dislike him.

Symonenko has openly acknowledged he favors a return to Soviet-style government, and wants to reinstate a new Soviet Union with Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan as initial members. He has also said he will reverse those market reforms Kuchma has introduced.

Ahead of Sunday's second round of voting, Symonenko has been trying to gather support from some of his former rivals among the 12 other opposition hopefuls who competed in the election's first round. Symonenko has put together a loose coalition of three Leftist and three Centrist former candidates in the hope that their supporters will vote for him on Sunday.

Symonenko has the total support of the leader of the Peasant Party and current parliamentary speaker, Oleksandr Tkachenko. But his support from the two candidates who took third and fourth in the first round is clearly less than full-hearted.

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, the third-place candidate, has said he will support Symonenko -- but he has given that support only grudgingly. Moroz notably failed to turn up beside Symonenko last Sunday (Nov. 7) for Communist Party commemorations in Kyiv of the October 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia.

Like Moroz, ultra-Marxist Natalya Vitrenko also scored some 11 percent of the vote in the first round, ranking her fourth. Some analysts believe Vitrenko's popularity was boosted by an apparent assassination attempt against her during the campaign. Vitrenko has since said she will give her blessing to Symonenko only if he promises her the prime minister's job. That is a promise the Communist leader has n-o-t been willing to make.

Mary Mycio has been the Ukraine correspondent of the U.S. national daily "Los Angeles Times" since the country gained independence in 1991. She has doubts that Symonenko's former rivals can persuade their supporters to transfer votes to the Communist candidate.

"I don't think that the people who are supporting Symonenko can deliver votes. They can basically only provide him with their own personal support. But I don't think that the people who voted for them will necessarily vote for who they say to vote for. There are people who voted for Moroz who would never, ever vote for Symonenko .... In the case of Vitrenko, I think that a lot of her votes were very emotional and based perhaps on her popular slogans and not necessarily on any program or proposals that she was making."

During Sunday's Communist rally in Kyiv, attended by some 3,000 mostly elderly party faithful, Symoneno toned down his rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to a wider range of voters. His supporters have sought to dispel fears of a Communist comeback, presenting Symonenko as a moderate who would take care of Ukraine's sluggish economy and its people, and even restore churches now in disrepair.

But analyst Mycio does not think Symonenko will be able to persuade enough voters of his new-found moderation to win the run-off. She believes Kuchma could only have been defeated had Symonenko stepped down in favor of another candidates, as is allowed by Ukraine's electoral law.

"Ironically, I think that the only person in the election, in the stable of candidates, who could deliver votes would be Symonenko. I think that if Symonenko told the members and supporters of the Communist Party to vote for a candidate, they would."

Kuchma has dismissed the alliance backing Symonenko, saying he was "not afraid, even if they are joined by several more candidates." But he and his supporters have also sought help from former first-round rivals. And they have stepped up efforts to portray a potential Communist victory as a national disaster. They say it would bring in its wake the sort of repressions and mass executions that cost the lives of millions of Ukrainians under Soviet rule. State-controlled television channels have been showing grim film footage of Soviet atrocities in Ukraine.

Among Kuchma's democratic opponents in the first round, the candidate who did best was Yevhen Marchuk. Kuchma today named Marchuk to head the National Security Council, a presidential body with sweeping powers in security matters. The move is seen as a clear attempt to win over the some eight percent of voters who backed Marchuk in the first round.

Meanwhile, Kuchma has won support from the Greens' Party, whose leader was also one of the first-round losers, while a faction of the divided nationalist Rukh movement said it would back the president on condition that Ukraine seek membership in NATO. Like many who will support Kuchma in the second round, Rukh sympathizers will vote for him only because they fear the alternative more than the incumbent.

That was a point made last Sunday at a rally in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv by Rukh parliamentary member Yaroslav Kendzor, one of a score of speakers urging people to vote for Kuchma. Kendzor said:

"The president who will rule for the next five years -- and I believe that will be Kuchma -- must remember one simple thing and deal with it honestly: Those 68 percent of votes that he [that is, Kuchma] received [in the first round] in western Ukraine were not given to him out of great love for the president. It was from love of Ukraine, from the fear of losing Ukraine [in a new Soviet Union favored by Symonenko]. And that's the most important thing in this election: saving Ukraine." It is this sentiment that Mycio and some other analysts believe will allow Kuchma to pull off a victory on Sunday -- barring any spectacular developments during the last days of campaigning.