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RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report Vol. 4, No. 24, 18 June 2002

A Survey of Developments in Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine by the Regional Specialists of RFE/RL's Newsline Team


KUCHMA APPOINTS MEDVEDCHUK AS CHIEF OF PRESIDENTIAL STAFF. The appointment on 12 June of oligarch and Social Democratic Party United (SDPU-o) leader Viktor Medvedchuk as the head of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's presidential administration, a position vacant since 29 April, means that Kuchma has finalized his post-election chess game by checkmating both the Verkhovna Rada and the opposition. Kuchma's latest move highlights the failure of Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko's policy of attempting to maintain good relations with Kuchma by not joining the opposition camp.

In mid-December, Medvedchuk was removed by a vote of no confidence from his position as first deputy Verkhovna Rada speaker. Having named his former head of the presidential administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, to be the Verkhovna Rada speaker, Kuchma has now handed Lytvyn's old position over to Medvedchuk.

Medvedchuk has never hidden his presidential ambitions -- unlike Lytvyn, who has never mentioned such a role for himself and feels uncomfortable in the limelight. In the summer of 2000, just after Kuchma was re-elected to his second and final term, Medvedchuk proposed to Kuchma that, as a show of gratitude for the SDPU-o's assistance in securing Kuchma's re-election in 1999, the president should openly opt for the "Boris Yeltsin-Vladimir Putin" transfer-of-power mode. Kuchma refused, having at that time no inkling of the immunity he would soon desperately need when the "Kuchmagate" scandal erupted four months later.

The "Yeltsin-Putin" model is no longer completely out of the question following Medvedchuk's appointment. As no other personality from the oligarchic and pro-presidential factions can rival Medvedchuk, Kuchma may see him as his only chance to thwart a presidential election victory by Ukraine's most popular political figure, Our Ukraine's Yushchenko.

Kuchma still faces an uphill struggle, but not an impossible one. An opinion poll by the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies in May that asked respondents if they supported certain politicians gave Yushchenko 27.6 percent support and Medvedchuk 11.2 percent. Although Yushchenko's lead is substantial, Medvedchuk is already in a threatening position, especially considering his new access to the president's "administrative resources." For comparison, it should be recalled that Kuchma himself had less public support at the beginning of the 1999 presidential elections than Medvedchuk has now.

Certainly, Russia would not complain about Kuchma's choice of Medvedchuk. Gleb Pavlovskii's Effective Policy Foundation, which has close ties to Putin, worked for the SDPU-o during the March elections. Pavlovskii and other Russian leaders have applauded Medvedchuk's promotion. Russia's leaders tend to see Ukraine's political groups in black-and-white terms: "pro-Russian" (United Ukraine, SDPU-o, and the Communists) and "anti-Russian" (Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and even the Socialists). This division into pro- and anti-Russian forces is also the same fault line dividing the pro- and antipresidential forces, with the exception of the Communists.

Although Medvedchuk has a reputation for aloofness, Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh and Lytvyn are little better. Indeed, this aloofness from the average Ukrainian is typical of the former high-ranking Soviet Ukrainian elite, something that might work against them in the 2004 presidential elections. By contrast, one of Yushchenko's biggest assets is his ability to connect with the Ukrainian public.

The final move in Kuchma's endgame will be to allow United Ukraine to divide into five or more factions and to give each one separate access to resources, such as staff, vehicles, and offices. This division will not necessarily harm their cohesiveness. During times of crisis, they can be pulled back together.

After blocking Yushchenko's moves to replace Kinakh as prime minister and then placing Lytvyn and Medvedchuk into checkmate positions, Kuchma was in a position to demonstrate his magnanimity in the division of Verkhovna Rada committees among factions. That division was consummated on 11 June by a vote in the Verkhovna Rada of 348 in favor.

Our Ukraine came away with the largest number of committees (10). Of these 10, the three most significant are Budget, Law Enforcement, and Freedom of Speech and Information. Our Ukraine also heads the Industrial Policies and Entrepreneurship, Combating Crime and Corruption, and Law Enforcement committees. National Democrats control two of their favorites: Culture, Spirituality, and Human Rights; and Ethnic Minorities and Inter-Ethnic Relations.

The number of deputies on each committee is a reflection of how deputies calculate their usefulness to themselves and, in some cases, to their vision of Ukraine. The most popular committees are also, not surprisingly, the most lucrative: Budget (39), Finances and Banking Activity (34), Fuel and Energy Industries (32), and Transport and Communications (23). Of these four, the last three are controlled by the pro-Kuchma and oligarchic United Ukraine. Three of the smallest are Science and Education (11); Health, Motherhood, and Childhood (8); and Social Policies and Labor (8), in which United Ukraine has no interest.

Former Foreign Minister and Our Ukraine member Borys Tarasyuk failed to obtain the Foreign Affairs Committee after Kuchma adamantly opposed his candidature. It was handed instead to a former head of the presidential administration, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who has long coveted the post of foreign minister. His committee has 21 members, compared to just 11 on the Committee on European Integration that was created especially as a sop for Tarasyuk. The Communists continue to control Defense and National Security.

This division of committee heads does not bode well for an integrated policy toward future NATO membership, something the Communists oppose and that they could easily block in the military sphere. More important, the Verkhovna Rada will have two committees with competing ideologies on European integration. Tarasyuk's committee will support integration in word and deed, dealing with Brussels directly. Tabachnyk's, on the other hand, will continue to pay lip service to the need for integration into Europe, but will proceed via Moscow while continuing to support domestic policies that hinder integration. Tabachnyk was a leading member of the "To Europe With Russia!" deputies group that existed in the 1998-2002 Verkhovna Rada.

Ihor Zhdanov, an expert at the Ukrainian Center for Economic and Political Studies, believes that all these moves by Kuchma signal the beginning of the 2004 presidential election campaign. Nevertheless, the positions of Verkhovna Rada speaker or head of the presidential administration are poor launching pads for the presidency. As in Russia, the most useful launching pad is generally believed to be the post of prime minister, especially during a period of economic growth and declining wage and pension arrears.

If Medvedchuk is to be anointed as Kuchma's replacement, he needs to become prime minister at least a year prior to the election. Replacing Kinakh with Medvedchuk would not be difficult, as Kinakh's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs is close to the SDPU-o. But such a move might displease rival oligarchic clans who would oppose such SDPU-o favoritism.

Kuchma will not be able to launch a nationalist campaign to elect his successor, as did Putin, and Kuchma is far more discredited than Yeltsin ever was. These negative factors could be overcome if Kuchma uses another trump card he mastered in the 1994 elections and that Pavlovskii's foundation worked on in the March elections: the promotion of the "pro-Russian" Medvedchuk to counter the "nationalist" Yushchenko. The more densely populated eastern Ukraine might not like Kuchma or Medvedchuk, but they might prefer him to Yushchenko, for whom they did not vote in large numbers in March.

"RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report" is prepared by Jan Maksymiuk on the basis of a variety of sources including reporting by "RFE/RL Newsline" and RFE/RL's broadcast services. It is distributed every Tuesday.

On 3 June, Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski traveled to Moscow for his first official visit to Russia. He was invited on the four-day visit by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to discuss a number of long-standing issues in bilateral relations. However, although leading Russian politicians including President Vladimir Putin called Saxecoburggotski's visit a "turning point" in relations, Bulgarian observers were more skeptical about the results of the trip.

During much of the postcommunist period, relations between the two former allies seesawed with the political orientations of Bulgaria's governments. Relations were better when the Socialist Party (BSP) was in power in the immediate postcommunist period and worsened as soon as the anticommunist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) came to the helm. One consequence of the strained relations of recent years was that Saxecoburggotski's visit was the first by a Bulgarian prime minister to Russia since that of Zhan Videnov of the BSP in 1995.

Saxecoburggotski's predecessor, Ivan Kostov of the SDS, strictly opposed warm relations with Russia. He feared that the former oppressor would regain its once tremendous influence over Bulgarian politics and economics; in the communist period, even Bulgaria's leadership sometimes referred to the country as a "Soviet republic." As a result, many questions between Russia and Bulgaria remained open: Russia's debt to Bulgaria; unsolved problems regarding former Soviet property in Bulgaria, mainly stemming from mixed Soviet-Bulgarian enterprises; Russian licenses for Bulgarian ordnance factories; Bulgarian licenses for cigarette production in Russia; and more recent problems stemming from the introduction of visa requirements for Russian citizens after the European Union lifted its visa requirement for Bulgarian citizens. These bilateral problems were further complicated by Russia's opposition to Bulgaria's aspirations to join NATO.

These unresolved issues have not, however, prevented Russian businessmen from making Russia one of Bulgaria's largest trading partners, if not the largest. Russian companies such as LUKoil and Gazprom have a considerable stake in Bulgaria's economy. At the same time, the traditionally strong presence of Bulgarian agricultural products on the Russian market has diminished considerably.

Saxecoburggotski, for his part, seems to have been aware of the pitfalls in bilateral relations before he left for Moscow. He repeatedly called for pragmatism and tried to play down the importance of his visit. He was accompanied only by a small delegation of experts and his wife. Most media outlets opted not to cover the trip closely, which later led to a number of misunderstandings.

The most important result of the visit was a supplement to the Agreement on the Settlement of the Mutual Obligations Between the Russian Federation and Bulgaria. Russia's debt to Bulgaria was reduced and will be repaid both in cash and in nuclear fuel for Bulgaria's Kozloduy power plant. Bulgaria, for its part, agreed to have its MiG-29 fighter jets serviced at Russia's RSK MiG factories. But what is even more important -- and what was one of the reasons for Kostov's reluctance to improve Russian-Bulgarian relations -- the supplement linked the debt settlement to the condition that Bulgarian authorities register former Soviet property in Bulgaria as Russian. In doing so, the Bulgarian government risks a dispute with Ukraine, which also claims some of this property.

On his return from Russia, Saxecoburggotski faced numerous questions from the Bulgarian media. Most of these questions, however, focused on an incident during the signing ceremony when Bulgarian Ambassador to Russia Iliyan Vasilev hesitated before signing the document. Later, this hesitation was explained by a lapse in protocol that resulted in only one copy of the document being available. But the media speculated that the document might have been changed at the last moment to include passages that had not been agreed upon.

Bulgarian media also criticized the lack of results of Saxecoburggotski's visit. Some journalists, such as Maria Pirgova of "Dnevnik," even went so far as to say that the prime minister did not manage to lay out Bulgaria's interests for the Russian leadership. Instead of introducing a new pragmatism, Pirgova wrote, Saxecoburggotski -- formerly the king of Bulgaria -- acted like a monarch and was treated as such by his Russian hosts.Georgi Karasimeonov, director of the Sofia-based Institute for Legal and Political Studies, believes that relations between Russia and Bulgaria still suffer from old ideological problems. "In Bulgaria, there still persist the old passions from the period of Russophiles and Russophobes. In Russia, some still cannot accept the fact that Bulgaria is not the loyal vassal it used to be," Karasimeonov said in an interview with the daily "Standart." But unlike Pirgova, Karasimeonov believes that Saxecoburggotski's visit contributed to the improvement of bilateral relations.

However slight the immediate results of Saxecoburggotski's visit might seem, the mere fact that his government is trying to reestablish good relations with Russia should be regarded as a positive sign. But, as Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Vladimir Titov pointed out in an interview, the many open questions between the two countries still need to be resolved.