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Ukraine Needs A President Who Can Break The Spell

No matter who is ultimately elected Ukrainian president in the February 7 runoff, the winner cannot become president of all Ukrainians. The mere fact of being elected will not make the winner president of all Ukrainians. Considerable efforts will be required to win the acceptance of even a majority of the country's citizens, and there is no guarantee that such efforts will be successful.

Judging by the prevailing moods in society, it is unlikely the winner of the election marathon will manage to mobilize much more than one-third of the electorate. The remainder will either vote for the other candidate or "against all" or will simply not bother to go to the polls. Also, neither candidate managed to win an absolute majority even among voters in Kyiv. Can a head of state claim to be president of all of Ukraine without even the support of the majority of voters in the capital?

This is the first time in the modern history of Ukraine that such a situation has arisen. Even during successive presidential ballots in 1994, 1999, and 2004, when there were problems enough and regional divisions were also a factor, the victors still had the support of more than 40 percent of all voters, while the capital gave a clear indication of whom it wanted to see become president. (Both in 1994 and 1999, Leonid Kuchma had to contend with Kyiv voters' skepticism toward him.)

Ukraine's Recent History

Since these elections are not going to give us a "president of the whole of Ukraine," perhaps it is time to wonder aloud what kind of figure a president should be to be able to count on the mass support of the citizens, rather than waste his or her term on populist steps taken in a state of panic.

In 1991 Leonid Kravchuk won the presidency in the first round everywhere except for three western provinces, and he garnered over 50 percent of the vote. That gave him the authority to accomplish some momentous achievements: to play an active role in the final destruction of the USSR, to lay the foundations of an independent Ukrainian foreign policy, to refuse overtures to draw Ukraine into some new confederative structure, and to quash attempts to foment unrest in the armed forces (which was a real threat in early 1992).

Kravchuk did not, however, manage to take the Black Sea fleet under his control (which would have reduced by at least half the threat of Crimean separatism) or to implement decisive economic reforms that would have made it possible to create an integral national economy from the post-colonial rubble, or to take to its logical conclusion -- the holding of preterm parliamentary elections with open lists -- the creation of a multiparty political system. But he failed not because he did not have sufficient popular support, but because he lacked the requisite political decisiveness.

Kravchuk also failed to summon the courage to take a firmer stand against the Kremlin, mindful of the fact that Ukraine gets its oil and gas from Russia. (For some reason the president and his entourage forgot that Russian hydrocarbons cannot reach Europe except via Ukrainian pipelines.) And he did not set about implementing systematic linguistic Ukrainianization that would encompass a publishing blitzkrieg, the swift transition from the use of Russian to Ukrainian in radio and television broadcasts, perfecting scientific and technical terminology, and, lastly, organizing classes for those who wished to study Ukrainian. Kravchuk was clearly afraid of losing the status of "president of all Ukrainians," and soon after he did lose it, because he had voluntarily relinquished the political initiative.

Leonid Kuchma did not manage to become "president of all Ukrainians" in 1994 insofar as he did not win an overall majority or a majority in Kyiv or a more or less equal share of the vote across the country. Aware of this, he kept demanding additional powers, and when he got them he had to struggle to keep supporters of union with Russia and Ukrainian patriots alike happy. In the 1999 presidential election, Kuchma was perceived by a relative majority in almost all regions of Ukraine as "the lesser evil" in comparison with Communist leader Petro Symonenko. But that wasn't enough, and after the murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, society began to view the lesser evil as the greater one.

By 2001, every region of the country had a negative opinion of Kuchma's presidency.

'Time Squandered'

Viktor Yushchenko became president of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians not because of the election that brought him to power, but as a result of his first six months in office, during which he had significantly greater support than at the time of the election. That was when he could have implemented radical reforms, from structurally rebuilding and modernizing the economy to granting state recognition of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and implementing anticorruption measures. But the time was squandered with nothing to show for it.

This brief historical diversion shows us two things. First, that even if it is that the next president will become the genuine national leader by virtue of the February 7 vote, the head of state still has a chance to muster the support of a majority of citizens and count on that support to implement an agenda. Second, there are certain things that are approved equally in all regions of the country and of which a majority of Ukrainians approve. What are they?

If you consider the ideology espoused by Serhiy Tihipko, the candidate who placed third in the first round of the election, we find amazingly that he has no clearly formulated ideology whatsoever. He is not a man of the left, or of the right, or a liberal. Sometimes his ideas are dubbed technocratic, but for a technocrat he does not have enough concrete programs to resolving key problems. In a word, he is a decent human being and quite an effective business manager, with no skeletons in his closet. He advocates acting on the basis of common sense, avoiding extremes, in a calm, balanced, and confident way. That is the secret of the only candidate who won almost an identical level of support in eastern and western Ukraine.

Paradoxical as it may seem, Kravchuk adopted a similar position in 1991. Do nothing radical; preserve everything that is of value; move gradually toward the new; do nothing that would worsen living standards. All of this gave him the image of a good person, an effective politician who steered Ukraine "between the raindrops" (Kravchuk was mocked for being so slick he could walk between raindrops during a downpour without getting wet) at the time of the August 1991 attempted putsch against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. And Kravchuk had never been the subject of a major corruption scandal, in contrast to runner-up Vyacheslav Chornovil, the former dissident who had served several prison camp terms for anti-Soviet activity, and who was an impetuous and stubborn man with a clearly formulated ideology -- and not a chance of becoming head of state!

And what about Yushchenko in 2004-05? Almost the same. He was probably the most moderate of the Orange Revolution leaders. He had no clear ideological position, but in comparison with Kuchma at that time he appeared "an absolutely sound president," in the words of Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz. Even Yushchenko's opponents sensed that he sincerely believed in the almost abstract humanistic values he espoused and that he sincerely wanted a decent life for all Ukrainians. And while all this remained at the level of a conversation between Yushchenko and the electorate, it was enough to win him the people's affection.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is not a particularly happy one: the majority of Ukrainians don't want a head of state with clearly formulated ideological priorities, with the experience and attitudes of a radical political fighter, with an explicit geopolitical orientation, and with an economic-reform program that can be hard on their wallets. That may explain why different groups of Ukrainians have such widely diverging views of their country's past and future.

Even if a potential reformer becomes head of state, that person will not become "president of all Ukrainians," or of all regions and segments of the population. A reformer might possibly win the trust of the majority for a limited time, but that is unlikely: the society’s insistence that reforms yield a positive result would be too great.

On the other hand, the voting habits of the majority of Ukrainians could still enable a politician to become head of state who is capable both of winning the support of the majority of voters and of implementing genuine modernization. That politician would simply have to have enough human virtues, combined with managerial ability, to overcome all possible objections on the part of either the east or the west of the country, and both the right and the left. That may sound like a fantasy, but then the whole of Ukrainian history for the past 20 years has resembled a fantastic saga of wandering in circles locked in time, waiting for a knight to break the spell.

Serhiy Hrabovsky is an analyst at the Institute of Philosophy of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL