Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ukraine: Colorful New Defense Minister Has His Work Cut Out For Him

Ukraine has a new defense minister. President Leonid Kuchma has appointed Yevhen Marchuk, one of the country's most colorful public figures, to the post after accepting the resignation of Volodymyr Skidchenko over issues related to the lack of military reforms and alleged corruption. What will the appointment mean for the future of Ukraine's beleaguered military and its ambitions to join NATO?

Prague, 30 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The ouster of Ukrainian Defense Minister Volodymyr Shkidchenko was not unexpected. President Leonid Kuchma had upbraided him several times recently for failing to begin reforms to modernize the country's huge but inefficient army.

Kuchma had also blamed Shkidchenko after the president claimed to have seen evidence of widespread corruption during a surprise visit to Ukrainian military units in Crimea. There also has been speculation that Shkidchenko was removed because his political enemies thought he was too pro-Western.

Kuchma accepted Shkidchenko's resignation and last week appointed the secretary of the National Defense and Security Council, Yevhen Marchuk, as Ukraine's new defense minister.

Leonid Polyakov is the military programs director at the independent Rozumkov Center think tank in Kyiv. Polyakov believes Shkidchenko did not have, or chose not to exercise, the political skills to defend himself.

"General Shkidchenko stood out by his professionalism and decency," Polyakov said. "Therefore, I think that the main reason for the changes is political. I'm not clear about the exact reason for the change, but it seemed inevitable it would happen sooner or later because it was difficult for a military personage like Shkidchenko to remain in the political role of minister of defense. He tried to avoid politics, but the defense minister is a political role and sooner or later he was going to be sacrificed."

Kuchma says Marchuk's tasks are to bring the army under civilian control and to transform Europe's second-largest military force -- after Germany -- into a much smaller and more modern volunteer force. Presently, the Ukrainian Army is made up mainly of poorly motivated and badly paid conscripts. They live in shoddy barracks where they are often bullied and where even proper food is lacking.

Politicians and soldiers agree the Ukrainian military is grossly under-funded, which has lead to poor training and sloppy standards blamed for a string of fatal accidents in recent years. These accidents include a stray missile that exploded in an apartment block in the capital, and another missile error that destroyed a Russian civilian airliner, killing 78 people. Last year, 80 spectators died when a military plane crashed at an air show in the western city of Lviv.

In contrast to his predecessor, the man now responsible for restoring the military's reputation and introducing radical reforms has proven himself to be -- since Ukraine's independence in 1991 -- one of the country's most ambitious and skilful politicians.

The 62-year-old Marchuk has displayed not only an ability to adapt to different circumstances but extensive political survival skills, as well.

Marchuk spent most of his career working for the Soviet secret police, the KGB, which he joined in 1963 after graduating from a pedagogical institute. In 1990, he became first deputy chairman of the KGB in Ukraine. From November 1991 to July 1994, Marchuk worked as the head of the newly formed Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), where he achieved the rank of general.

But the world of politics beckoned in 1994. He served as prime minister from June 1995 to May 1996, when he was fired by Kuchma.

Marchuk ran for president against Kuchma in 1999. On the eve of the first round of elections, he spoke on RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, condemning Kuchma and warning of disaster for Ukraine if Kuchma won.

But after Marchuk failed to gain enough votes to proceed into the second and final round of the elections, he switched his support to Kuchma, who was re-elected. Kuchma appointed Marchuk as secretary of the National Defense and Security Council in November 1999.

Polyakov from the Rozumkov think tank said that, at first glance, Marchuk's background suits his new job. "Mr. Marchuk, General Marchuk, is an experienced and intelligent man. In principle, if other factors didn't intervene, he'd be a good candidate for the post of defense minister," Polyakov said.

But Polyakov said Marchuk is not affiliated with any powerful political grouping in parliament and that without political support, he will be unable to get the large financial resources needed to bring about significant reforms in the army. Polyakov said this lack of support in parliament may doom Marchuk.

"They [parliament] determine financial questions and enact the relevant legislation, and if there isn't going to be support from parliament, then what happened earlier -- when the president announced reform programs which were not backed by financial resources -- will continue. And if that continues, it will be difficult to introduce any radical changes. There might be some changes that don't require much cash, but it's impossible to build a modern army without big investments," Polyakov said.

But Marchuk is not without political clout. He controls one of Ukraine's largest newspapers, "Den" (Day), and is rumored to have influence over many leading politicians because of what he knows about them from intelligence files.

Marchuk has been one of the main proponents of Ukraine's entry into NATO since Kuchma last year announced his country's intention to join the military alliance. Marchuk's appointment has been welcomed by NATO, where he is known as an erudite and well-informed member of Ukraine's political elite.

However, Ukraine has not gotten far in its efforts to join NATO, due mainly to Kuchma being plagued by allegations of corruption, abuse of human rights, and of making an offer to sell weapons to Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Polyakov said other issues also make Ukraine unattractive to NATO at the moment. "It's not just a question of individuals or the issue of selling weapons to Iraq. The problem is that it's impossible to separate the military sphere from the political and economic aspects of entry into NATO because political and economic issues are the most important in this respect. And here [in Ukraine], we have dishonest elections, the abuse of power by officials, and problems in the justice and law enforcement systems. So I'd say that although it's a military alliance, when NATO sees how we behave, especially in the military sphere, then there obviously isn't much trust toward such a country," he said.

Marchuk, fluent in English and German, seems at ease when dealing with international issues and has demonstrated that he is realistic about Ukraine's chances of joining NATO. He says it will take at least eight to 10 years and that Ukraine must double the amount it spends on the military before entry can conceivably occur.