Leonid Kuchma may have trounced his nearest contender--the Communist Petro Simonenko--but his recent election to a second five-year term as Ukraine's president falls short of being a victory for democracy. Indeed, Kuchma seems to have torn a page from Boris Yeltsin's 1996 campaign manual, using strongarm tactics to silence the opposition and a tainted privatization process to buy support from the country's powerful and corrupt oligarchs.
While Election Day itself was relatively free of fraud, the process leading up to the contest was fraught with abuse. The president's administration has proved a jealous guardian of Ukraine's media, particularly the electronic outlets. Of four national television stations, two are directly controlled by Kuchma and a third by his allies. The fourth, STB, initially tried to present a balanced picture but was intimidated by tax police raids and forced to become yet another pro-government organ.
In this environment of intimidation, those who still dared to oppose the president got a clear warning through official channels. Partisan abuse of the country's administrative structures to discourage dissent is widespread, particularly the use of tax collectors to harass opponents. On Nov. 1, the day after the first round of voting that later pitted Kuchma against Simonenko, three governors were unceremoniously dismissed when returns in their oblasts did not favor Kuchma.
While opponents are silenced and marginalized, the president's supporters grow richer and more powerful. Victor Pinchuk, a powerful figure from Kuchma's home town of Dnipropetrovsk, and boyfriend of the president's daughter, scored a profitable metal works in a September round of privatization. And Oleksander Volkov, who headed one of Kuchma's campaign teams is a key figure in the president's camp, with access to inside information despite the fact that investigators in Brussels have frozen his foreign assets and Ukraine's own Parliament has repeatedly targeted him as part of an "anti-mafia" campaign.
The result for ordinary Ukrainians has been disappointing. They voted for Kuchma not because they approve of his policies--his administration's economic record is dismal--but because they did not want to see a return of communism. Young people, who this time turned out in droves, voted for Kuchma because he promised them market reform and integration with Europe. Their hopes should not be dashed. President Kuchma must move quickly to use his 56 percent victory at the polls to distance himself from greedy oligarchs and to institute long-promised economic and political reform.
The president needs to be put on notice that the Western governments that have supported him will not tolerate the status quo. An inefficient system and corrupt government have been able to survive with international help provided largely on account of Ukraine's geopolitical position. But a system of crony capitalism that enriches a tiny elite while the vast majority of the country's 50 million beleaguered citizens live in poverty and are bullied by bureaucrats cannot be sustained in the long run.
The West must make it clear that Ukraine's geopolitical position isn't enough to guarantee continued support. The most important action we can take is to make continued assistance conditional on political and economic reform. Ukraine has $3.1 billion in debt payments coming due in the year 2000. Most of that is owed to the International Monetary Fund, which is rightly insisting on a more transparent privatization process, administrative reform, deregulation, anti-corruption and other measures before allowing the country to borrow new cash or roll over its current debt.
Further assistance should also be made conditional on greater freedom of the mass media and an end to intimidation. Political conditions are as important as this or that economic target.
I have been deeply committed to helping the development of democracy and open society in Ukraine for over a decade. I established a nonprofit foundation there in 1989 even before the country became independent in 1991. I shall continue my support for the foundation. And I urge other donors to maintain or increase their support for building an open society in Ukraine. But financial support to the government must be strictly conditional on performance.
The weeks ahead will be decisive. Kuchma has appointed Yevhen Marchuk, the former KGB man who was a presidential candidate, to head the National Security Council. Will Marchuk begin to clean the stables, as many Ukrainians hope? He needs to break the stranglehold of the crony capitalists if he is to survive in his position. Or will he be co-opted as Kuchma himself has been? In that case it is better to withdraw support than to allow the same disreputable tactics to be used in two years in the next parliamentary elections.
The writer is an international financier and philanthropist.