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Ukraine: Kuchma's Re-Election Reflects A Vote Of Weariness

When Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma won a handy re-election victory in Sunday's runoff against his communist rival, Petro Symonenko, he said Ukrainians had chosen democracy and reform. But RFE/RL political analyst Jan Maksymiuk notes that the vote was against communist backsliding, not for market reform.

Prague, 19 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After winning the runoff this week (Nov. 14), Kuchma suggested that his re-election as Ukraine's president means Ukrainians have chosen a "democratic way to build their country based on a market economy." Few observers, however, are likely to agree with Kuchma's interpretation of the ballot.

One reason to object to his interpretation is that during his five years in office, Kuchma has shown himself to be neither a truly democratic head of state nor a true advocate of market economy. Both at home and abroad, he has been described as a half-hearted democrat and a half-hearted reformer.

Another reason is the large number of violations of voting and campaigning procedures that international observers identified in the election. The president's almost total control over television and radio, and the partiality of state organs, appear to have been instrumental in determining the election outcome.

Despite these violations, no international body will question Kuchma's re-election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported many irregularities in the runoff but said they did not have a decisive effect on the outcome. "Serious violations" -- including the executive's stifling of the media and public officials' campaigning for Kuchma -- were noted, but the European election watchdog indicated no immediate link between the violations and the final result.

Still, the scent of foul play lingers. Kuchma's Communist rival, Petro Symonenko, said: "The runoff result is not [the Communists'] defeat but the defeat of democracy in Ukraine." That opinion is clearly exaggerated, but it nevertheless underscores the fact that Kuchma did not give the Communists a fair chance.

Instead, the president's election team modeled his duel with Symonenko on Russia's 1996 runoff between Boris Yeltsin and Gennadii Zyuganov, scaring the electorate with the prospect of a Communist comeback and "red revenge." Between the first and second rounds, Ukraine's television fed voters documentaries and films about Soviet-era repression and terror. The issue of building the country "based on a market economy" was present, if at all, only in the deepest background of the media campaign.

Under these circumstances, Ukrainians voted on Sunday not for a market economy, but for preserving the country's fragile economic status quo -- and against the sort of radical change that Symonenko was portrayed as supporting. Independent Ukraine's first presidential election, of Leonid Kravchuk in 1991 took place in a burst of enthusiasm, and the second, of Leonid Kuchma in 1994, was equally emotional if less enthusiastic. This most recent election was a vote of weariness on the part of the electorate. Rather than enthusiasm for Kuchma's reformist effort, voters displayed skepticism about the ability of politicians to improve the economic situation by systemic change.

By the same token, Symonenko's not unimpressive electoral showing (38 percent) should not be interpreted as a sign that 10 million politically active Ukrainians want the return of communism. By casting their votes for Symonenko, many Ukrainians were in fact protesting their country's economic plight, which is widely associated with Ukraine's failed attempts under both Kravchuk and Kuchma to follow a "Western path."

As expected, the presidential election showed once again that Ukraine remains politically split into a western, "nationalist" part and an eastern, "socialist" one. This time, Kuchma received overwhelming support in western Ukraine. The dividing lines between east and west in Ukraine are somewhat blurred by Kuchma's fairly strong showing in such eastern regions as Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, or Kharkiv, but the overall "two-nations-in-one" pattern has not changed. Only a definite improvement in Ukraine's economy can heal the cleft between these two parts of one country.

Yet even if the full message of the Ukrainian presidential ballot is not easily identifiable, there is nonetheless strong ground for optimism, at least among democrats. Kuchma supports Ukraine's rapprochement with the West, and his re-election is a good omen for all those who oppose the Communist-sponsored idea of restoring some kind of USSR in the form of a "Slavic union." Without Ukraine, such a union would make no sense, either politically or economically. And it appears that Kuchma is bent on continuing to strongly oppose that restoration effort.