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Ukraine: Newly-Elected, Kuchma Must Tackle Economy

Voters in Ukraine yesterday elected Leonid Kuchma as their president for a second time in polls that were seen as a choice between continuing, however shakily, along a pro-Western course or veering back towards communism. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky, in this report from Kyiv, assesses the outcome.

Kyiv, 15 November 199 (RFE/RL)-- After months of what has been called Ukraine's most bitterly contested election, incumbent President Leonid Kuchma won a convincing victory over his Communist rival, Petro Symonenko.

With nearly all the ballots counted after Sunday's voting, Kuchma had 56 percent of the votes while Symonenko received 40 percent. The balloting was a runoff between the two candidates who received the most votes from among a field of 13 in the first round at the end of last month.

International observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told RFE/RL that there was little evidence of electoral fraud on Sunday. However, the OSCE has been critical of Kuchma's use of state agencies to help in his election campaign, as well as his control of the media. OSCE observers will issue a preliminary report later today.

Symonenko complained yesterday that in the days before the election state-controlled television had broadcast dozens of films and documentaries about Communist atrocities in a bid to scare voters.

And indeed Kuchma did everything to portray yesterday's election as a contest between continuing market reforms and strengthening ties with Western Europe or restoring Communist power.

Symonenko, a life-long Communist bureaucrat, inadvertently helped Kuchma by advocating Soviet-style government and the reversal of market reforms.

He also attacked Kuchma for crippling the country's economy and presiding over an administration where corruption is rampant. Most Ukrainians do blame Kuchma for the disastrous economy and corruption, but in the end they decided that communism was not an acceptable alternative.

In the fiercely nationalist west of Ukraine, there was overwhelming support for Kuchma, with some regions giving him more than 90 percent of the vote. But even in the heavily populated east of the country, a traditional leftist bastion, Kuchma scored important gains over his Communist rival.

This morning, as Kuchma's success became clear, his chief of staff, Ivan Kuras, said the vote gives Kuchma a mandate for the sweeping reforms that have been blocked by a strong leftist presence in parliament. Kuras says:

"We have indeed won a great victory, we have enormous social and political support for the acceleration of reform. We have the support of the Ukrainian nation and we will have the support of the European Union. "

Kuchma's advisers said the president would press this week for the removal of one of the leftists who have blocked reform -- the parliament speaker, Oleksandr Tkachenko. Tkachenko, a fierce critic of Kuchma, was himself running for president before he withdrew to back Symonenko. Although the president does not have the power to remove the speaker, he can dissolve parliament and is expected to do that unless Tkachenko steps down.

Kuchma has said that his priority is to repair the tattered economy, and some of his senior ministers repeated that view today. Foreign Minister Boris Tarasiuk said that Ukraine would step up its efforts to enter the European Union and tap foreign markets. He also signaled closer cooperation with NATO.

"We have to ensure the realization of a free trade zone with the CIS countries and to deepen our cooperation with NATO. It is imperative to consolidate existing markets and to search for new ones. It is necessary to promote Ukrainian high technology products on the world market, that is, the various Antonov planes (manufactured in Ukraine), ship manufacturing, that is, competitive goods. We have to consolidate our share of the space technology market. It is also important to arrange our foreign policy in such a way as to secure our national interests."

Kuchma hopes that the defeat of the Communists means that Western financial institutions will help restructure Ukraine's massive foreign debt. Ukraine faces bankruptcy if it is forced to pay $3 billion in interest payments for the loans next year. And Ukrainian business owners hope that Western investors, scared away by the poor economy, will now return.

Mary Mycio is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times who has covered Ukraine since the country's independence in 1991. She says she is not certain that Kuchma's victory will bring back investors.

"I would very much hope so, but I don't think that the presence of Communists in power, as a general rule, interferes with Western investment -- we can see that in China. Basically I think what Western investors are looking for is a certain amount of predictability and basic elements of the rule of law and the sanctity of contracts. I think that with the rule of law there has to be a more active role taken by those who want the rule of law and not to only expect it to come from the top. And if that happens, then the investment climate could truly improve in a way that would make it more attractive for Western investors. But Western investors stopped investing in Ukraine when competition became a rampant problem."

Political analysts say that Kuchma must use his mandate to vigorously root out corruption. They agree he must make radical changes in the country's administration and bureaucracy which is blamed for resisting reforms or being to inept to implement them.

But some observers, like the head of the Kyiv-based Institute of Statehood and Democracy, Ivan Lozowy, are skeptical that Kuchma will change.

"In the first instance, the victory of Leonid Kuchma means the continuation of the same policies he pursued for the past years as president, and these are the growth of corruption, the plunge of the economy and the disintegration of society."

Kuchma himself has said that his first term in power was a time of learning and that he now feels himself better equipped to lead his country. His actions over the next few weeks will show what he has learned and whether he can finally pull Ukraine out of its economic misery.