Ukraine Leader, Attacking Rival, Won't Halt Vote
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: December 6, 2004
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KONCHA-ZASPA, Ukraine, Dec. 5 - President Leonid D. Kuchma of Ukraine
said Sunday that if he were Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich, the man
Mr. Kuchma had selected to be his successor, he would not run in a new
presidential runoff ordered by the country's Supreme Court.
Mr. Kuchma also accused the opposition leader, Viktor A. Yushchenko, of
prolonging the electoral crisis by breaking a promise to mediators to
allow changes in the Constitution sought by Mr. Kuchma before the new
vote, now scheduled for Dec. 26.
In his first interview since the country was thrown into tumult by a
disputed election, now overturned, Mr. Kuchma appeared reconciled to the
possibility of a Yushchenko victory in the new vote, but also suggested
that a withdrawal by Mr. Yanukovich could complicate Mr. Yushchenko's
effort to win a victory seen as legitimate. Nevertheless, he vowed to
push through a sweeping overhaul of the country's politics, shifting
some powers from the president to Parliament - in effect creating a
weaker presidency for Mr. Yushchenko to inherit, should he win.
Mr. Kuchma ruled out drastic measures, including a state of emergency,
which he said some in the eastern part of the country, where the support
for Mr. Yanukovich is centered, were pressing him to declare. He also
ruled out any steps to cancel the new election ordered by the court.
"The election will be done in full compliance with the laws," he
He warned, however, that Mr. Yushchenko had to seek a political
compromise or risk a prolonged stalemate, an economic crisis and the
loss of legitimacy, even if elected, especially among Mr. Yanukovich's
millions of supporters.
Mr. Yanukovich has yet to address the court decision publicly, though a
spokeswoman said he would run again. (For the past few days, Mr.
Yanukovich has been ill with a fever, Mr. Kuchma said, by way of
explaining his silence.)
Buffeted by criticism here and abroad, harassed by protesters banging
drums and chanting "Kuchma out!" and evidently isolated from many of the
people he has led for 10 years, Mr. Kuchma, now 66, seemed resigned,
even tired, but not yet out of fight. He was dismissive, almost
indifferent, to the extraordinary uprising of popular sentiment that has
swept Kiev and much of the country over the last two weeks.
"Revolutions are prepared by dreamers," he said. "And I always recall
1917: They are carried out by fanatics, and they are exploited by
Mr. Kuchma acknowledged, indirectly, that the Nov. 21 runoff had been
marred by electoral violations, though he questioned the extent of them,
and said he believed that Mr. Yanukovich had actually won. Mr. Kuchma
also criticized the Supreme Court's decision "as a political decision,
not a legal one," though he later said that he, like Mr. Yanukovich,
would honor it.
By suggesting that Mr. Yanukovich not take part, however, Mr. Kuchma
made it clear that he intended to continue to navigate Ukraine's
convoluted intersection of power and politics, bureaucracy and business,
in what appear to be the waning weeks of his presidency. He has
effectively done that for a decade, despite accusations of corruption
and criminality, which he denies.
"Though Yanukovich said he would run, I don't know," he said. "If I were
he, I would not, from any point of view. I do not exclude that we shall
have a plebiscite instead of elections, with one candidate. I do not
want to say it is final, but this is how the situation is developing."
A withdrawal by Mr. Yanukovich could leave Mr. Yushchenko running
unopposed. That would require him to win 50 percent of the vote, which
is not a foregone conclusion, given the deep ethnic, regional and
political divisions created by the campaign to replace Mr. Kuchma.
Mr. Kuchma described the fight spawned by months of nasty campaigning,
two rounds of voting - and now a third - as one not between East and
West, as it has been widely portrayed, but as one over the reins of
power in Ukraine. He referred to the country's historic rulers, the
hetmans, warriors whose political might came to be represented by
possession of an ornate mace.
"And this is what we are having today," he said, speaking in Russian
during a relaxed, wide-ranging, two-hour interview in a stucco
government guesthouse here outside Kiev, where he has been forced to
work ever since protesters blockaded his presidential office.
"This is not a struggle for Ukraine," he said, "but a struggle for the
Mr. Kuchma's tenure has covered most of the period since Ukraine gained
independence from a crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, but he has clearly
lost control of what he had hoped would be a smooth transition to his
chosen successor. He blamed not himself, his government or the Central
Election Commission, but rather the two candidates and external pressure
from the United States and Europe.
"We ended up in a deadlock, not only ourselves, but with the help of
outside forces," he said.
While the Supreme Court on Friday handed a surprising and decisive
victory to Mr. Yushchenko, clearing the way for another vote that his
supporters are sure he will win, Mr. Kuchma's remarks made it clear that
the electoral crisis was far from resolved.
He accused Mr. Yushchenko, a man who once described their relationship
as one between father and son, of acting in bad faith, saying that he
had reneged on agreements signed last Wednesday under the auspices of
European mediation. Those agreements included one to pursue the
constitutional changes in exchange for new laws for conducting a new
election and another to lift protesters' blockade of government
"I do not know what other country would tolerate such outrageous
behavior," he said of the blockades, noting that he had challenged
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on that point in a telephone
conversation during the crisis. When asked Mr. Powell's response, he
added, "I think we understood each other."
The political divisions, however, only hardened over the weekend.
On Saturday, with Mr. Yushchenko riding the momentum of the ruling made
Friday and the jubilation it provoked on the streets, his allies in
Parliament blocked a vote on the constitutional changes. Members loyal
to Mr. Kuchma then refused to adopt the election laws that Mr.
Yushchenko's allies have demanded in order to avoid a repetition of the
irregularities that called into question the results of the second
Unable to reach a compromise, Parliament adjourned until Dec. 14.
Underscoring the stalemate, a new round of talks with European mediators
- scheduled for Saturday, and then Monday - have been canceled.
As for the throngs massed in Kiev, clad in the orange color symbolizing
Mr. Yushchenko's campaign, Mr. Kuchma first said there were not as many
protesters as claimed. Then he acknowledged that there might have been
200,000. "O.K., let's say 300,000," he said. They do not, in his mind,
represent the will of Ukraine's 48 million citizens, but rather
brilliant "American technologies." referring to Western-style
"Anyway, this is only part of Ukraine," he said. "And it is not the
crowd that should make decisions on the future of Ukraine."
In one of many contradictions in his interview, however, he suggested
that the Supreme Court had succumbed to pressure from, among others, the
The court's decision stunned him.
"I think it was unexpected for many, including myself," Mr. Kuchma said,
"because the decision went beyond the legal framework determined by the
law on election of the president."
The court's decision abruptly ended Mr. Kuchma's efforts to hold a new
election from scratch, possibly with new candidates. Even before the
ruling, Mr. Kuchma revived the issue of constitutional reform as a way
out of the crisis caused by the disputed results, and now it is his
departing political objective.
Mr. Kuchma's view - supported by many in Ukraine, including some in Mr.
Yushchenko's camp - is that a greater distribution of power is the only
way to bridge the country's deep divisions.
Mr. Kuchma said that neither of the current candidates could
successfully overcome the divisions between ethnic Ukrainians and
Russians, between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, between rich and poor
that splinter Ukraine.
"We can hear voices of some well-known political figures, and from
regions, too, that neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovich is the figure who
can unite Ukraine," he said.
The country, Mr. Kuchma said, could have avoided the electoral debacle
if Parliament had already restructured Ukraine's political system,
effectively creating a power-sharing system. He also failed to note that
Mr. Yushchenko's and other opposition parties blocked the changes in
March, narrowly, because they feared Mr. Kuchma intended to use them to
remain in power, perhaps as a newly empowered prime minister.
"If the political reform had been conducted, the elections would have
been held according to a completely different scenario," he said. "And
Ukraine would have been a different place, not torn apart, not split as
it is now."