Ukraine Leader, Attacking Rival, Won't Halt Vote
Published: December 6, 2004  (must register to view original article)

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 insisted.

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 scoundrels."

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 mace."

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 buildings.

"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 round.

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 campaigning.

"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 crowd.

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."