The Ukrainian Model of Democracy
Chad Nagle
Special to

[O]ne more time Kuchma has demonstrated his unshakable position of the leader of a geostrategically important country that permanently balances on the verge of economic collapse but nevertheless successfully maneuvers its political course through the conflicting interests of Washington and Moscow. Taking into account the latest outburst of popular love for and confidence in the president during Ukraine’s constitutional referendum, Kuchma may be said to be one of the most successful politicians on the post-Soviet territory.

- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Report
25 April 2000 (Vol. 2, No. 16)

On April 16th, Ukraine held a referendum on extending the powers of its president. President Leonid Kuchma, after winning reelection in November 1999, proposed putting six questions to the people, although Ukraine’s Constitutional Court struck down two as "unconstitutional." If successful, the Ukrainian head of state would have a popular mandate to dissolve the parliament (Rada) whenever it failed to agree on a budget. In addition, he would reduce the size of the Rada by one third, add an upper chamber composed of the governors of Ukraine’s regions, the vast majority of whom happen to be his allies, and strip members of the Rada of immunity from criminal prosecution.

Kuchma must have felt he had no choice. Desiring a secure future for his country within the NATO alliance, and continued economic assistance from the West, he was constantly hampered in his goals by a combination of a Leftist-dominated Rada and increasing pressure from Moscow to repay Ukraine’s staggering gas bill. With his back to the wall, Kuchma took the bold step of holding a nationwide referendum. In a country beset by corruption, economic stagnation, and an inability to move ahead, the vote was overwhelmingly in his favor.


When Leonid Kuchma became president of Ukraine in 1994, the regional breakdown showed his support came chiefly from voters in the industrial, Russian-speaking, eastern part of the republic. Kuchma’s voters were reportedly unhappy with the "Ukrainianization" undertaken by Kuchma’s predecessor, Leonid Kravchuk, a former Ukrainian SSR ideology chief from western Ukraine who signed the treaty dissolving the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

Kuchma and his cohorts hailed from Dnipropetrovsk, home to Soviet-era, city-sized enterprises. Kuchma himself was director of the USSR’s largest missile manufacturing plant and a Central Committee member of Soviet Ukraine’s Communist Party for ten years, right up to the Soviet breakup. He had been a Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) member since 1960, and served as the CPSU secretary at a missile engineering and design bureau. Both Kuchma and Kravchuk had cast aside their previous Communist Party affiliation in the interests of building the New Ukraine.

Kuchma’s second-round defeat of Kravchuk in 1994 happened in no small part thanks to the support of the Communist Party. Kuchma originally came to power as a pragmatic factory manager with little patience for Ukrainian nationalism. Swirling rumors about billionaire George Soros having financed Kuchma’s campaign surfaced and disappeared.

Four years later, having learned to speak Ukrainian, Kuchma was running against Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). This time Kuchma pinned the blame for Ukraine’s ills on leftists dominating the fractious parliament (Rada). In the 1999 elections, Kuchma cloaked himself in the Ukrainian colors and held himself out to the West as Ukraine’s only hope. Only he could lead reform and defend Ukraine from the "Reds."

By 1999, the West had started to be critical of Kuchma. He hadn’t put Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises up for sale to foreigners yet, and his associates had become very wealthy. But in spring, Vyacheslav Chornovil, Ukraine’s most famous Soviet-era dissident and leader of the now-fragmented Ukrainian National Movement (Rukh), had become the latest of the USSR’s oppositionist stalwarts to die in an auto "accident" when one of the wheels fell off his car. There remained only Leftist parties – Communists and Socialists – as serious opposition to Kuchma.

The Communist and Socialist candidates claimed to represent the huge swathes of Ukrainian society – particularly miners and industrial laborers from eastern Ukraine – who hadn’t received wages for several years, and who had never had any understanding or sympathy for reform or privatization. Also, they appeared to represent old age pensioners picking scraps out of garbage dumps to stay alive.

When Kuchma defeated Symonenko handily in the second round of the presidential election, his support had apparently come from western Ukraine. This represented a dramatic swing in Ukraine’s political demographics. In 1994, the Russophile Kuchma had supposedly garnered only 3-5% of the vote in the three principal "oblasts" (regions) in western Ukraine – Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Allegedly, the "nationalistic" western Ukrainians’ had put aside their previous aversion to Kuchma in favor of keeping the Communist Symonenko out at all cost.


No sooner had Kuchma made his plans known for a referendum than the Council of Europe began issuing warnings that holding such a referendum would threaten Ukraine’s membership and imperil the country’s further integration into Europe. It fired off a salvo of complaints at Kuchma on the basis of the Venice Commission’s analysis of the "legality" of putting his four questions to his people in a nationwide vote.

But the Council was unconvincing. It had never been very vocal about the legitimacy of previous Ukrainian parliamentary and presidential elections as expressions of popular will. It was as if somehow a referendum couldn’t be "democratic," whereas elections for the legislature and executive could. Was the Council indicating that it didn’t believe popular votes in Ukraine were free and fair? If so, its past endorsements of Kuchma’s electoral victories were lies. More the point, the Council appeared to be trying to force a norm on Ukraine’s domestic political system to fit in with its own "model" for Europe, and thus interfering with the sovereign democratic will of an independent state. In the face of the Council of Europe’s apparent hypocrisy and attempts to violate his country’s sovereignty, Kuchma made clear his intention to go ahead.


I traveled to Lviv (known in Russian as Lvov), the largest city in western Ukraine, to observe the referendum. Lviv was allegedly the nucleus of Kuchma’s political support in the country, as reflected in the 1999 presidential elections.

Lviv was a Galician fortress town founded in the 13th century, and ruled by Poland from the 14th century until 1772. The natural and architectural beauty of the place is stunning. But, having been under Soviet control since Stalin acquired it under the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, it looks typically run-down and dirty. McDonald’s has arrived, of course, as well as casinos, cramped bars and café-restaurants where patrons listen to thumping disco music while eating. A few small shops sell European designer wear at a big markup.

As a whole, the sprinkling of neon and other garish signs and ads appears to be light dressing on a Sovietized metropolis of faded former grandeur that hasn’t really gone anywhere in the last ten years. Middle-aged and elderly people shuffle along the crowded sidewalks with blank facial expressions betraying despair. Beggars stand, sit, or kneel on every block, while the youth saunter past, confident that their foreign-made leather jackets – the uniform of choice for the generation that can’t remember the NKVD – will set them apart from the "peasantry."

When I arrived in Lviv, a demonstration was going on in the central square. I was told that several local newspapers had been shut down or "taxed" out of existence after expressing opinions critical of the regime. Kuchma had put top-level advisers and cabinet members in charge of nationwide TV stations, and given his allies responsibility for monitoring press and media activity in the regions. Radio and TV stations who said anything critical of Kuchma or his functionaries in the central or regional government, I was told, ran a big risk of losing their licenses. Several reporters and journalists had suffered police harassment for speaking out against Kuchma’s leadership, and one prominent opposition editor had recently been beaten up while walking home from work one night. But the demonstration failed to draw sizeable crowds while I was there, and apart from a few unfortunate tales like the ones mentioned, "Kuchma Country" seemed relatively peaceful and under control.


There was very little of the polling station commotion typical of elections in the former Soviet Union. "Hospitality tent" gatherings with refreshments and socializing in the back rooms were the main event. The referendum was being treated as quiet Sunday recreational activity. Friends and neighbors were getting together for a little food and drink while supplementing their $20-a-month incomes with whatever they received for carrying out the poll.

Peace and orderliness reigned on referendum day. The referendum went smoothly and largely without incident. At each of the more than 20 polling stations I visited, a quiet stream of voters trickled in to cast their ballots. Some of the commission chairmen appeared keen and ambitious, assuring me that there would be the requisite 50% turnout, and that the "peak hour" would be later in the day. Others told me that if half their precinct showed up they would be very surprised. Apparently, the government had issued a decree making it a criminal offense to organize a boycott, but perhaps some people would just boycott in a disorganized fashion by staying home.

Old people ambled into polling stations and complained that they couldn’t find where they were supposed to vote because the names of the streets had all been changed (Lermontov Street, for example, named after the legendary Russian writer of A Hero’s Tale, had been changed to "Dzhokar Dudayev Street"). Many complained that they didn’t understand the questions. Younger commission workers told me that the people casting ballots, especially the older ones "had no idea what they were voting for," and that a lot of people wandered into the polling stations to discover for the first time what was going on there. But other than this, no one seemed very distressed.

Ballot-stuffing or blatant skullduggery weren’t much in evidence during the outburst of popular love. So the fact that there were never more than two observers in any polling station, and usually only one (typically from the Lviv regional government or some obscure political party with no seats in the Rada), probably didn’t matter. Often, when I asked where the observers were, I was told: "Oh, we have one. He should be back in a while." When I asked some of the chairmen what they thought of the Lviv regional government’s refusal to register the Communist Party as a participant on the referendum commissions, they usually got up very close to me and said, quietly, that there weren’t any Communists in the region to speak of.

I wasn’t quite able to decipher the Ukrainian questions on the ballot sheets, but several people told me they were confusingly worded. Also, the procedure for voting "Yes" was to put an "X" in the "No" box, and vice versa. But this may not have mattered. In many places, commission members told me that when voters were confused about the voting procedure, the commission chairmen took care of this problem by simply explaining to them how to vote.

At about 3:00 pm I was sitting and talking to some commission workers, and the chairman came into the room and switched on the television. The head of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC) was making a special announcement that already ten of Ukraine’s regions had finished voting. I thought I detected sniggering in unison among my companions, including the chairman, but I may have imagined it. A look at my notes indicated that as of 1:00 PM, a total of 223 people had voted in that precinct out of a total of 2,641. At about 3:20 PM, a commission chairman loudly announced that according to the CEC, already half of the population of Ukraine had voted.

In the evening, when I watched the ballot papers being counted in a polling station in central Lviv, the commission workers separated the "Yes" and "No" votes into separate piles. By the time it was all over, 995 valid votes had been cast out of a total of 2,386 on the voter list for the precinct. This meant that 77 people had voted there every hour. I felt somehow cheated that I’d missed the rush, as if I’d been deprived of the day’s excitement. I never saw more than two or three voters enter every five minutes anywhere. Even so, the total of votes cast was well shy of 50%. I considered the possibility that I may have picked a dud polling station in a precinct inhabited by atypically jaded voters who had abstained from fulfilling their civic duty.

The "Yes" votes won the day overwhelmingly at my polling station. An old man who had been observing all day there pulled me aside to tell me "the people had been tricked." The regime would "falsify everything," he said, and he had already resigned himself to the worst. Ukraine was "finished," because the country had "no leaders." Evidently he was out of step with the overall atmosphere of popular love.


When all was done, amid the din of the commission workers breaking out the vodka and shot glasses, I thought I sensed a collective mood that the result had been preordained. But this may have been my imagination. All that was left to do was to have a drink, a smoke, and a few sandwiches with the polling station workers.

Official figures showed that in three regions adjacent to Lviv, the turnout was 96.77%, 88.43%, and 87.24%. Lviv itself had recorded a turnout of 82.27%. I must have just been in the wrong places at the wrong times. When I checked with a colleague from the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, who had been observing in Kiev and several villages in central Ukraine, he said voting had been slow in every polling station he visited. Yet Kiev region recorded a 78.9% turnout. We must have stumbled at random into pockets of voter apathy, while all around us Ukrainians were flocking to the polls in droves.

I remembered when I had arrived at the Central Election Commission the day before the referendum to pick up my observer card. I was told I was the last foreign observer to be accredited. The number on my card was 18. Neither the OSCE nor the Council of Europe had sent any observers to the referendum. Without any OSCE or Council of Europe reports to read, I had to judge the legitimacy of the referendum by choosing between my own observations and instincts, and the official announcements of the tinted-spectacled chairman of the Ukrainian CEC. Obviously, I went with the CEC chairman.

The referendum was a model of democracy. It just wasn’t the model that the Council of Europe wanted. I understood fully why, on the eve of the referendum, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had rushed to Kiev, having changed her itinerary to get there ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She expressed her support for the referendum, and urged Kuchma to continue the "reforms." The immediate complaints of Oleksandr Moroz, leader of the Socialist Party, that the outcome had been planned in advance, were just so much hot air. The foreign envoy of the greatest democracy in the world had already put her stamp of approval on the referendum – "in advance."

Moroz said the referendum results couldn’t be implemented without a resolution from the Rada, but Kuchma behaved like a leader and insisted that the results would have the force of law. If anything was to be done for the millions of ordinary Ukrainians – trudging through their day-to-day lives trying to scrape together enough money for a few loaves of bread – clearly the Beloved Leader would have to take power into his own hands.

Many Ukrainians have told me that without the gas pipeline running through their republic from Russia to the West, Ukraine would have no money at all. They tell me that the few "private gas companies" – set up by government bigwigs to punch holes in the pipeline and siphon out gas for profit – are by far the biggest moneymakers in the whole country. Russia is not happy about this, as one might imagine, and has been planning to construct a new pipeline through Belarus to the north. Some Ukrainians say this will kill the Ukrainian economy, which is based on the illicit sucking of gas.

Interestingly, one of the earliest reform plans of the new reform-minded Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yushchenko (whose newly-formed party is aptly named "Reform and Order"), has been in the gas sector. He has put a dynamic woman in the office of Vice Premier for the Energy Market, Yuliya Tymoshenko. Ms. Tymoshenko was formerly president of a private gas company, United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UES), and the agenda for reform of the gas sector now appears to involve increased state control. UES’s annual turnover in 1996 reached $10 billion under the close patronage of former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Unfortunately, Mr. Lazarenko is currently incarcerated in San Francisco.


The Ukrainians taught me a saying when I first visited the country in 1992: "Hope dies last." Hope may have started dying in Ukraine when George Bush gave his "Chicken Kiev" speech in 1991 before a crowd of several hundred thousand in the capital, urging the Ukrainians not to be too "emotional" about independence. The current government of my own country obviously tried to turn that legacy around by endorsing a process that could give Ukrainians hope for a better future. And there is hope. Soon, Ukrainians may be able to let go of their collective agony as their history and national aspirations disappear down the memory hole of the New World Party. In the words of Bill Clinton: "I still believe in a place called ... Hope."

Chad Nagle is a lawyer and writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. He observed the Ukrainian referendum on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

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