2000-2005: Kuchma as Pariah


The Gongadze Affair

Georgiy Gongadze

Heorhiy Gongadze

June 2000: A journalist named Heorhiy Gongadze, founder of a news website called Ukrainska Pravda (‘Ukrainian Truth’), writes an open letter to Ukraine’s procurator-general alleging that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is persecuting him and his colleagues because of their investigations into corruption and murder in Ukraine.

September 2000: Gongadze disappears on his way home from work one night, and the issue becomes a serious focus of media attention. Eighty journalists write a letter to Kuchma complaining of injustice against journalists in Ukraine.

November 2000: A headless corpse is found in a forest 70 kilometers from Kyiv. Although Gongadze’s wife, Myroslava, identifies the body as that of her husband, the matter of certifying the identity of the corpse is not settled for almost two and a half years. A Russian-language Ukrainian newspaper, Sevodnya (‘Today’), speculates that the police have abducted Gongadze and accidentally shot him in the head while seated in a car. They have then, according to the newspaper, beheaded the corpse to prevent the matching of the bullet with the gun.

Oleksandr Moroz

Oleksandr Moroz

A few weeks after the discovery of the body, Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz publicizes secret recordings implicating Leonid Kuchma in the murder of Gongadze. The recordings feature Kuchma, Presidential Chief of Staff Volodymyr Lytvyn and Minister of Internal Affairs Yuri Kravchenko discussing Gongadze and the inconvenience he has caused. Kuchma is heard cursing and recommending that Gongadze be “sent to Chechnya,” interpreted as an expression meaning he should be killed. Kuchma denies the authenticity of the tapes, admitting his voice is featured in the recordings, but claiming they have been edited and doctored to incriminate him.

Yuri Kravchenko

Yuri Kravchenko

February 2001: Public outrage over the murder of Gongadze erupts into mass protest in central Kyiv, with the protesters calling for the resignation of Kuchma and the dismissal of key officials. Clashes continue on and off for several months.

Yulia Tymoshenko is arrested and charged with forgery and smuggling gas in 1997 as president of UESU. Protests by her supporters outside the prison in Kyiv where she is held augment the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” demonstrations linked to the Gongadze scandal.

March 2001: A court in central Kyiv rules that the charges against Tymoshenko are groundless and dismisses all charges against her. Tymoshenko accuses Kuchma of having fabricated the charges to defend oligarchs threatened by her reforms.

May 2001: Minister of Internal Affairs Yuri Smirnov announces that the murder of Gongadze was committed by “two hooligans” with links to a gangster named “Cyclops,” but that the killers are now dead. The opposition and the procurator-general’s office dismiss the claims. Western organizations such as the EU, Council of Europe and OSCE express serious disapproval with the investigation into Gongadze’s death.

Internecine conflict in the Yushchenko government results in a parliamentary vote of no confidence, at the initiative of the Communist Party, which opposes Yushchenko’s Westernizing economic policies, and of “centrist” groups – such as the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united), or SDPU(o) – acting on behalf of Ukraine’s now-powerful “oligarchs.” Yushchenko is removed from office by a vote of 263 to 69.

September 2001: The American detective agency Kroll, Inc., issues a report of its investigation into the Gongadze case, concluding that Kuchma had nothing to do with the murder. Kroll has been contracted by the Labor Ukraine political party, headed by former Economy Minister Serhiy Tihipko.

The Rise of Putin and Kuchma’s Fall from Grace

Leonid Kuchma’s relationship with the West never fully recovered from the Gongadze scandal. The negative transformation of Kuchma’s image in the West roughly coincided with the consolidation of power of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia. Putin had quickly appeared out of political obscurity to become head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), prime minister, and then acting president, all in the space of a few years in the 1990s, at the end of which ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin had resigned. Presidential elections in Russia in 2000 were won convincingly by Putin, who promised to restore living standards in Russia to a dignified level, and to eliminate corruption. He developed personal friendships with Western leaders such as US President George W. Bush, British Premier Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French President Jacques Chirac, convincing them that he wanted to cooperate with their countries on a global level.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter's first term as head of state

British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the latter’s first term as head of state

In Western capitals, this at first seemed a relief after tension with the Yeltsin administration over NATO intervention in Yugoslavia to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. Notably, after the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, Putin was the first foreign leader to make a public address to the American people, pledging, “We are with you,” in the fight against global terrorism. It was a romance that would last roughly until the end first half of Putin’s second term in office, when pro-Western revolutions would have occurred in former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, areas the Kremlin considered to be within its “sphere of influence.” The Russian regime’s reaction consisted of an authoritarian domestic clampdown on dissenters and the political opposition, and increasing hostility toward the West in foreign policy. Kuchma, meanwhile, found a friendlier ear in Moscow than in the West, and increasingly gravitated toward Russia politically. He thus came to be associated with the anti-Western forces in Ukraine.

The Rise of Our Ukraine

2002: Roughly 130 different political parties are registered in Ukraine on the eve of the March parliamentary elections, many nothing more than a name on a door, sometimes not even that. Often three or four different parties bear almost identical names, for example, the Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Party, and the Social-Democratic Union.

Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western former prime minister ousted the previous year, leads a pro-reform electoral grouping of ten parties called Nasha Ukraina (‘Our Ukraine’), campaigning as the main opposition to the Kuchma establishment. Our Ukraine’s offices house a think-tank called the Foundation for the Support of Reform, which conducts opinion polls and sociological studies. In response to the occasional allegations by the respective electoral blocs of Yulia Tymoshenko and Oleksandr Moroz that Our Ukraine is just another “party of power,” Our Ukraine counters that both Tymoshenko and Moroz have had much closer relations with President Kuchma over the years than Yushchenko has.

Poster for Our Ukraine in 2004

Poster for Our Ukraine

Rumors circulate to the effect that, when Yushchenko resigned as prime minister in April 2001, the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” protests died down immediately because the demonstrators had actually wanted to get rid of Yushchenko, not support him. Our Ukraine counters these claims by asserting that the protests had actually ended in March, not April, when Yushchenko had been forced from office. Our Ukraine charges that the extreme right-wing groups such as the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), who were involved in violence during the demonstrations, are hand-in-glove with the state security services.

Our Ukraine is financially well endowed. Its campaign workers are visible everywhere in the streets of Kyiv. But a party that appears to match Our Ukraine in terms of campaign paraphernalia and media presence is the Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine (united), or SDPU(o). Some Ukrainians joke that the “o” in the brackets actually stands for “oligarch,” since the party is made up of some of the richest people in Ukraine. Its leaders include ex-

Viktor Medvedchuk

Viktor Medvedchuk

Poster for the SDPU(o), featuring the red rose emblem of post-WWII socialist parties

SDPU(o) poster featuring red rose emblem of post-WWII socialist parties

President Kravchuk and Grigory Surkiss, the owner of the Dynamo Kyiv soccer team. The high-quality SDPU(o) posters show party chairman Viktor Medvedchuk, the former vice speaker of parliament who had led the ouster of Yushchenko as prime minister a year earlier, with the caption: “The Face of Social Democracy.” Medvedchuk and his “financial-industrial group,” as many label SDPU(o), control not only Dynamo Kyiv, but also the Slavutych company, which manufactures one of Ukraine’s most popular beers, and the two largest non-state television channels, 1+1 and Inter. The Social-Democratic Party of Ukraine (SDPU), without the “(o),” enjoys something that Medvedchuk’s does not: membership in the Socialist International. For that reason, according to the SDPU, Medvedchuk has done everything possible to harass the SDPU and put it out of business. The only literature the SDPU makes available apart from its flimsy newspaper are copies of a clandestinely published biography of Medvedchuk called Narcissus.

Vasyl Stus Commemorative Plaque at Donetsk University (Photo: Yakudza)

Vasyl Stus Memorial, Donetsk (Photo: Yakudza)

The book recounts the tale of how Medvedchuk, as a lawyer in the Soviet Union, had betrayed a Soviet dissident he was supposed to be defending in the 1970s, taking the unprecedented step of admitting his client’s guilt in court. The dissident, a poet and member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group named Vasyl Stus, was sent to a forced labor camp and died there in 1985.

The electoral coalition presented as the political face of President Kuchma is called Za Yedinu Ukrainu! (‘For a United Ukraine!’). The bloc abbreviates its name ZaYedU! and some of its posters and stickers feature photographs of large deli-style sandwiches over the word ZaYedU! In Russian, the words za yedu mean “for food,” and perhaps the double entendre refers to the fact that Ukraine’s shops are still full of food items produced, processed and packaged in Ukraine, and not expensive. But another theme of ZaYedU!s campaign is “love,” including a series of posters and other images stressing “love” as a factor uniting Ukrainians.

A poster for the "For A United Ukraine' electoral bloc, featuring the slogan: "Love Unites Us"

“For a United Ukraine!” campaign poster with slogan: “Love Unites Us”

Among the parties in the ZaYedU! coalition is the drab “Party of Regions,” set up in 1997 as the “Party of Regional Revival.” It is largely non-ideological, but claims vaguely to be defending the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and its leadership and constituency are mostly from eastern Ukraine. Some of the founders, however, will go on to support the pro-Western Our Ukraine coalition within two years after the elections of 2002. In 1998, the Party of Regional Revival had received less than 1% of the total vote and sent only one MP to the Verkhovna Rada (from a majoritarian district). By 2001, the renamed Party of Region’s membership had increased from roughly 30,000 to 500,000, apparently benefiting from having supported the presidential candidacy of Leonid Kuchma in 1999 at the expense of the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko.

Poster for KPU(o). It reads: "Don't let yourself be fooled! Vote for No. 12." The KPU was No. 1 on the ballot.

Poster for KPU(o). It reads: “Don’t let yourself be fooled! Vote for No. 12.” On the ballot, the KPU was No. 1.

The Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) no longer points the finger away from President Kuchma’s inner circle for the disappearance of Heorhiy Gongadze, as they had a year before. Now, some claim that Kuchma’s former minister of internal affairs, Yuri Kravchenko, probably carried out the killing thinking that Kuchma had wanted it. In place of the talk of CIA conspiracy are complaints in the form of a conspiracy by the “regime” to deprive the party of votes by setting up bogus parties. One party, the Communist Party of Ukraine (renewed), or KPU(o), is – according to the KPU – a phantom: it has a lot of money but exists nowhere, either in terms of popular support or organizational apparatus. Its leader is a man named Savenko, previously a member of Serhiy Tihipko’s pro-Kuchma Labor Ukraine party.

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) alleges that “neo-totalitarianism” is emerging in Ukraine, likening the political situation to the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Its campaign tactics involve allegations that Our Ukraine is a phony opposition made up of the most powerful businessmen, big bankers and oligarchs in the country. Although the Tymoshenko Bloc promotes itself as a “right-wing” opposition, its coalition includes the “Ukrainian Social-Democratic Party,” described as the bloc’s “left flank.” Yulia Tymoshenko claims she opposes land privatization under current terms and believes that certain strategic sectors of the Ukrainian economy should be off limits to foreign buyers. A fervent proponent of “Ukrainian capital,” she points the finger both at the pro-Russian businessmen-politicians such as Medvedchuk, and also – more gently – at the pro-Western Yushchenko, someone she claims wants Ukraine laid wide open to foreigners. When she runs through all the major parties and candidates in her speeches, she reserves scorn for each except Yushchenko and Moroz, who, despite formally competing in separate blocs, seem to form a triumvirate with Tymoshenko in opposition to Kuchma, Medvedchuk and ZaYedU! In the campaign offices of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, posters for the other’s campaigns are always visible. Tymoshenko urges Ukrainians to vote for Our Ukraine if they cannot bring themselves to vote for her.

The results of the parliamentary election of 2002 give the largest single number of seats to Our Ukraine: 111 out of 450. While the ZaYedU! bloc receives only 101, it does so at the expense of the Communist Party, which sees its share of seats in the Verkhovna Rada cut almost in half – from 121 to 66. ZaYedU! quickly dissolves after entering parliament, while the Party of Regions begins to grow in strength, increasingly sidelining the Communist Party as the main party favoring the retention of close political and economic ties with Russia.

A map showing the results of the 2002 parliamentary election. The red areas indicate regions won by the Communists under the proportional representation (party list) system, representing half the ballot. The blue dots represent areas where ZaYedU! came second, but ZaYedU! won the region of Donetsk and also most single-mandate constituency (first-past-the-post) races in the red areas. This indicated that people had voted for the Communist Party, and at the same time for a ZaYedU! majoritarian candidate. The areas in orange were won by Our Ukraine, and the pink district represents the SPU's only regional victory under the party list.

A map showing the results of the 2002 parliamentary election. Red areas indicate regions won by the Communists under the proportional representation (party list) system, representing half the ballot. Dots represent 2nd place finishers. Blue represents ZaYedU! (‘For A United Ukraine!’), while orange represents Our Ukraine, magenta the Socialists, yellow the Tymoshenko Bloc, and purple the SDPU(o).

ZaYedU! comes second in 6 out of 11 regions (including the city of Sevastopol in Crimea) won by the Communists. ZaYedU! also wins the region of Donetsk and also many single-mandate constituency (first-past-the-post) races. This suggests that ordinary people in Russophone areas of eastern and southern Ukraine have voted for the Communist Party, but at the same time for a ZaYedU! majoritarian candidate.

Election map for 2002 showing results by individual electoral district

2002 results by individual electoral district: ZaYedU! is in green; SDPU(o) is in light blue.

In combination with the Communists and SDPU(o), the ZaYedU! bloc parties form a majority, and Our Ukraine goes into opposition with BYuT. The Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz attempts to position himself as a kingmaker, and does so by delivering support to the pro-Russian (and pro-Kuchma) faction. Less than a year earlier, Moroz had attempted to bring down Kuchma over the Gongadze affair.

Viktor Yanukovych at his wedding in 1971

Viktor Yanukovych at his wedding in 1971

November 2002: Kuchma appoints the governor of the Donetsk region, Viktor Yanukovych, as prime minister, and the Verkhovna Rada confirms the nominee by a vote of 234, only 8 more than necessary. Yanukovych cuts an especially rough figure, even in Ukrainian politics. From a very poor and underprivileged background, he was orphaned as a teenager and twice arrested and sentenced to jail terms of 2-3 years (at the ages of seventeen and nineteen, respectively) for robbery and assault. He managed to rise through the local automotive transport services industry after six years of study in the mechanical engineering department of Donetsk Polytechnic Institute, from which he graduated in 1980, the same year he joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). It was unusual for an ex-convict to be admitted to the CPSU, and Yanukovych would attempt to have his convictions annulled and expunged from various official records in later years.

Yanukovych as president, with wife and sons

Yanukovych with wife and sons

In August 1996, at the height of the gangland warfare and killings between the financial clans of Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Yanukovych became deputy governor of Donetsk region. In less than a year, he became governor. Kuchma’s appointment of Yanukovych is evidently part quid pro quo for the Donetsk business establishment’s support of Kuchma’s bloc in the 2002 election, part genuine appreciation of Yanukovych as a competent administrator. Yanukovych will emerge as Kuchma’s designated successor over the space of two years.

The Orange Revolution

Yanukovych (right) with Kuchma and Putin in Kyiv, November 2004

Yanukovych (right) with Kuchma and Putin at 60th anniversary of Kyiv’s liberation from Nazi Germany, October 2004

October 2004: In the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych emerge as the two contenders for the second round run-off, winning 39.87% and 39.32% respectively. Yushchenko’s support base is located primarily in the west and center of Ukraine; Yanukovych’s is in the east and south. Yulia Tymoshenko backs Yushchenko in the second round and becomes one of the most prominent faces of the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych is President Kuchma’s hand-picked candidate, and has the obvious support of Moscow.

November 2004: Yanukovych is declared the winner, and a wave of popular protests against the officially declared result become known around the world as the “Orange Revolution.” Exit polls have shown Yushchenko with up to an 11% lead over Yanukovych, but the latter wins by 3%, according to the Central Election Commission. Modern mass media transmit images of the Orange Revolution around the world, as tens of thousands fill central Kyiv to demonstrate against the regime, and protests break out in cities around Ukraine.

Yushchenko and Yanukovych meeting with Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov at the height of the Orange Revolution

Yushchenko and Yanukovych meeting with Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov at the height of the Orange Revolution

As demonstrations continue around the clock, Kuchma refuses to consider bringing the military in to suppress them. By the last week of November, the protests have reached such proportions that they prevent the normal operation of both the capital and the national government. Kuchma then calls for outside help, asking the presidents of Poland and Lithuania, the EU foreign minister, and the speaker of the Russian parliament to act as intermediaries in the unfolding crisis.

At the end of November, Yanukovych holds a conference in the eastern city of Severodonetsk, attended by representatives of 14 of Ukraine’s 27 districts, as well as Russian political allies such as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Speeches are made protesting against the lawlessness in Kyiv and other cities, and warning against the consequences of the “Orange” forces coming to power. There are also statements made raising the prospect of the federalization of Ukraine, in turn giving rise to accusations among the “Orange” camp that Yanukovych’s allies favor separatism, although no actual statements in favor of secession are ever proven to have been made.

December 2004: The Verkhovna Rada passes a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet of Ministers. Yanukovych refuses to sign it. The parliament also passes a resolution strongly condemning separatism and federalization. The Supreme Court then decrees that the election results should be annulled and a 3rd round of voting held. On 26 December, Yushchenko wins the third round of voting.

21st Century Revolutions: Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine

The Orange Revolution resembled upheavals that had occurred in two other countries in recent years: Serbia and Georgia. In 2000 in Serbia, President Slobodan Milošević was ousted after large-scale demonstrations, and in Georgia in late 2003, post-election demonstrations led to the overthrow of President Eduard Shevardnadze and quickly became known around the world as the “Rose Revolution.” A national upsurge in popular activism and networks of civic organizations had – in all three cases – preceded mass protests by several months, and the change of regime had occurred after election results in favor of the incumbent regime were declared by the official state organs.

Otpor! Logo

Otpor! Logo

Kmara Logo

Kmara! Logo

Student movements played a significant, if not ultimately decisive, role. In Serbia, a group called Otpor! (‘Resistance!’) suddenly became famous as part of the opposition to Milošević. Its counterpart in Georgia three years later was called Kmara! (‘Enough!’). In Ukraine, the youth movement was known as Pora! (‘It’s Time!’). Most of the funding for these groups came from domestic sources, but members were very often English-speakers who had formed close ties to Western NGOs and saw themselves as pro-Western.

Pora! Logo

Pora! Logo

Each group professed to adhere to nonviolent change, despite their militant-looking logos, and indeed, cases of actual violence involving these organizations were negligible. But the mass produced t-shirts and paraphernalia often gave these movements a sense of “uniformity,” as if attempting to create a kind of “esprit de corps” among disaffected young people in need of a cause.

For its part, the Russian regime had made clear its preference for Yanukovych from well before the first round of voting. Russian President Vladimir Putin had met repeatedly with Yanukovych before and during the elections, and congratulated Yanukovych several times before the results were even certified after the second round in November 2004. Russian media demonstrated an open preference for Yanukovych while heavily criticizing and disparaging the demonstrators. But the pro-Yanukovych (pro-Russian) camp never featured the kind of civic activist groups that seemed to blossom on the side of the Orange Revolution forces, and this difference was clearly a factor in the political fortunes of the respective sides.

Viktor Yushchenko: before and after dioxin poisoning in September 2004

Viktor Yushchenko: before and after dioxin poisoning in September 2004

One particularly unpleasant aspect of the Orange Revolution was the disfigurement of Viktor Yushchenko, a man whose Hollywood looks had furthered his political fortunes over the years and made him even more appealing in the West. During the pre-election period, Yushchenko became seriously ill and was flown to a clinic in Vienna, Austria, where he was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and found to have in his system chemical substances not generally associated with food poisoning. When Yushchenko emerged from the clinic, his skin was a yellow-green color, and his face was pockmarked and misshapen to the extent he was almost unrecognizable. He immediately alleged that he had been poisoned by government agents.

Yushchenko’s changed appearance was the result of chloracne, and several medical analyses concluded that he had been poisoned with dioxin, which was found in his body at a concentration 1,000 times higher than normal. Although there was never unanimity among doctors examining the case in different countries, Yushchenko had dined with a group of senior Ukrainian government officials shortly before his hospitalization, most notably, Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) Chief Ihor Smeshko, and Deputy SBU Chief Volodymyr Satsyuk.

David Zhvania

David Zhvania

Yushchenko with Volodymyr Satsyuk (center) and Ihor Smeshko (right) at dinner in early September 2004

Yushchenko with Volodymyr Satsyuk (center) and Ihor Smeshko (right) at dinner in early September 2004

Smeshko was later cleared of any involvement in the poisoning incident, and was even credited with facilitating the peaceful transition of power during the Orange Revolution. Satsyuk, however, fled Ukraine for Russia. Later, former political allies of Yushchenko such as David Zhvania claimed the results of the analyses of Yushchenko’s illness had been falsified. Yushchenko, in turn, accused Zhvania of complicity in the poisoning. Yushchenko said in late 2009 that the testimony of certain men with whom he had dined that night five years earlier was key to successfully concluding the investigation, but that these men were hiding in Russia. He claimed the Russian government was refusing to extradite Satsyuk, who held both Ukrainian and Russian citizenship.

January 2005: Yushchenko is inaugurated as president.

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