NEW YORK: 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 is no victory for democracy. Nor is it a victory for Ukraine. Indeed, Kuchma seems to have torn a page from Boris Yeltsin's 1996 campaign manual, employing strong-arm tactics to intimidate and silence the opposition, as well as a tainted privatization process to buy support from Ukraine's powerful and corrupt oligarchs.
While election day itself was relatively free from fraud and thuggery, the process leading up to the ballot was fraught with abuse. President Kuchma's administration has proved a jealous overseer of Ukraine's media, particularly the electronic outlets. Out 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 yet dared 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 November 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 maginalized, the President's supporters grow richer and more powerful. Victor Pinchuk, a powerful figure from Kuchma's home town of Dnipropetrovsk, and the boyfriend of the President's daughter, secured a profitable metalworks 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.