Kuchma: warring elites or justice at last?

Kuchma for KArasyov.jpg
The re-opening of the investigation into the 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze is motivated more by President Yanukovych’s wish to cut a positive figure in the West and solve domestic problems than by a desire for justice. Ordinary Ukrainians, meanwhile, are more likely to regard it as part of elite infighting and as a presidential show of strength, explains Vadim Karasyov.

Vadim Karasyov
5 April 2011

On 22 March the Prosecutor General of Ukraine opened a case against Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine from 1994 to 2004. The accusation is that he exceeded his official authority, specifically in relation to the disappearance of the opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000. Ten years after this event, law-enforcement agencies have announced that they are ready to close the case and name the man who ordered the murder.

The majority of the Ukrainian elite and, indeed, the ex-president himself, are well aware that the decision to open the case was sanctioned at the highest level. What is less clear is why the investigation was re-opened now, what the presidential administration hopes to achieve by it and what conclusion a court might reach. All these questions are highly relevant in light of the fact that Prosecutor General has summoned for interrogation people from Kuchma’s closest circle: former national security chief Yevhen Marchuk, former head of the SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) Leonid Derkach and former head of the presidential administration Viktor Medvedchuk.


Leonid Kuchma, former president of Ukraine (1994-2004), is a figure that has united opposition parties. The “Ukraine without Kuchma” movement was a powerful force for civil protest.

Why has Victor Yanukovych turned on Kuchma? The answer probably lies in the political changes which have taken place in Ukraine since Yanukovych was elected president in 2010. One year later, the political landscape is very different indeed. The President has managed to concentrate the full weight of power around himself, government loyalties have been re-directed towards him and Parliament is no longer a forum for reconciling interests. On top of this, the opposition sponsors have been lured away to the presidential camp. As a result, the opposition has been weakened, both politically and electorally, and no-one more so than the leader of the opposition and Yanukovych’s main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych has tamed the opposition and consolidated around himself all political and “administrative” resources, thus establishing the supremacy of personal presidential power.

By demonstrating that all are equal before the law, even an ex-president, the new regime intends to prove to society that it is at one and the same time just and strong

The real opposition is now civil society and the media, and this is one of the main factors behind the escalation of the Gongadze case. In my view, it intended to demonstrate to all those watching that the authorities are able to bring to a close the most high-profile case of the last decade, and prove that they really are intent on change. But the law-enforcement agencies - the Prosecutor General’s Office, the police and the SBU - are still operating in the old Soviet un-reformed way, so whatever the final outcome of the case, it will still seem unjust to society. Instead of embarking on far-reaching reforms of the entire law-enforcement system, which still functions as part of the security services, the authorities have chosen an easier and quicker path. By demonstrating that all are equal before the law, even an ex-president, the new regime intends to prove to society that it is at one and the same time just and strong.

The President is also using the Kuchma case to try and address other issues. Firstly, Yanukovych wants to present a positive image of himself in the West as a politician acting as guarantor of the supremacy of the law in Ukraine. 

Secondly, when there is an accumulation of contradictions that are difficult to solve, society can be pacified with a sacrifice and the new government has in effect been seeking such a sacrifice for a year. Yulia Tymoshenko failed to yield the desired results in this role, because she is too combative by nature and anyway the loser is not always the most suitable choice as a sacrifice. But, as a figure who attracted negative public opinion for years, Kuchma would be ideal.

Thirdly, the public investigation of the Gongadze case could de-activate civil society’s pattern of opposition for a long time. After all, the ideas and the organisation of the political opposition for the past decade were formed within the protest movement “Ukraine without Kuchma”. It was the moving force for civil protests, and then for the Orange and post-Orange parties. Now there is an opportunity to disorganise all the opposition forces – civil society and the media.

It should also be noted that active investigation of the criminal case against Kuchma is not without its political risks for both the President and the political regime. The first risk is that the elites unite in a wide-ranging “coalition of the injured”. Yanukovych hopes that, by concentrating political and economic resources around his closest entourage, he will be the strongest institutional player and will thus automatically have the right to “reset” the elites. His team was winning politically when they shattered the opposition, isolated Tymoshenko and blocked any possible attempts at unity. But now that the case against Kuchma has been opened, the President could provoke a coalition of the injured among the elites, who could unite against him.

Yanukovich, militia day

Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine, celebrating Militia Day. Might his moves on the Gongadze case be interpreted as part of a PR campaign to cultivate a more positive image of himself in the West? 

The second risk is that control of the elites is not the same as control of society. In building up his personal presidential power, Yanukovych has destroyed the elites’ political and economic autonomy. The “Gongadze case” is an attempt to prove to society that the President’s actions are dictated by the logic of justice. But society regards the Kuchma case more as infighting between the elites and a demonstration of Yanukovych’s power, than the supremacy of the law and fair justice.

The third risk is the destruction of the non-aggression pact between the elites. The outcome of this could be that Yanukovych finds himself in the same situation as Kuchma during the years 2000-2004, when all the resources at the disposal of the president were concentrated on holding on to power. This would mean abandoning the reforms that have been announced, foreign isolation and the construction of defensive strategies. If Yanukovych is no longer the arbiter between the elites, he could cease to be a president who is politically and administratively strong and turn into a politically weak president.

The “Kuchma case” [...] could have the most unforeseen results for both the elites and the ruling regime.

At the present time it is clear that the “Gongadze case” is gradually turning into the “Kuchma case”. This could mean that the murder of the journalist will remain unsolved.  The “Kuchma case”, on the other hand, could have the most unforeseen results for both the elites and the ruling regime.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData