The political history of post-Soviet Ukraine is marked by corruption, electoral fraud, and mass protests.
In the 30 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has endured seven presidents, two revolutions, and countless scandals. It lost the geographically vital territory of the Crimean peninsula when the Russians annexed it in 2014, and since then it has been fighting Russian-supported separatists in the eastern regions (oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk (aka Donbas). Implementing democracy has been rough for a country that was controlled by the Russian Empire from the 18th century until the Russian Revolution in 1917 and by the Soviet Union from 1922 until their breakup in 1991. In Russian, Ukraine means borderland. Clearly, Russia is determined to retain Ukraine as their borderland against the West.
Presidential Power in the Ukrainian Political System
The Ukrainian Constitution adopted in 1996 experienced numerous revisions through 2014. A 2004 amendment weakened presidential power, a 2010 amendment strengthened it, and a 2014 amendment weakened it again. The constitution allows presidents to serve a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms. In addition to being the commander in chief of the armed forces, presidents act as head of state, oversee executive ministries, and initiate or veto legislation.
The Ukrainian Parliament
The Verkhovna Rada (supreme council) aka the Rada is a unicameral (single-house) parliament with 450 People’s Deputies who serve a five-year term. Half are voted in regionally to single-member districts, and the other 225 are selected via a national election based on proportional representation by party. The Rada chooses the Prime Minister, who in turn nominates a Cabinet of Ministers that is approved the Rada.
The Parade of Presidents
Leonid Kravchuk: 1991-1994
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Leonid Kravchuk was speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, and as such, he led the vote for Ukrainian independence from the USSR. Huge street celebrations ensued, and a nationwide referendum appointed him the first president. The transition from a command to a capitalist economy was rough for average people in Ukraine—and Russia. As the well-connected scrambled to gobble up state-owned businesses and resources, everyone else struggled to find food and necessities. The shadow economy that existed during the communist era to avoid taxes expanded following independence to meet basic needs. Kravchuk’s most consequential action was the denuclearization of Ukraine. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine possessed the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. Kravchuk negotiated a series of agreements wherein all the nuclear weapons in Ukraine went to Russia. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum protected Ukrainian sovereignty under the assurance of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, who later violated the agreement when they annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Shortly after the Budapest Memorandum, Kravchuk became embroiled in a power struggle with his Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma; Kravchuk agreed to hold an early election, which he lost.
Leonid Kuchma: 1994-2005 ~ reelected in 1999
Under the leadership of Leonid Kuchma, relations with Russia improved. Kuchma began office as a pro-Russian leader. His regime oversaw the dismantling of the state-owned, communist economy and its transition to an economy dominated by oligarchs. A privatization program gave every Ukrainian adult a voucher to buy shares of state-owned companies that were to be auctioned off. Not understanding the system, most people sold their vouchers to middlemen on the black market rather than wait for a potential profit. Average Ukrainians experienced no economic benefit, while Kuchma’s favorites got wealthy via the acquisition of state property.
The Cassette Scandal
Kuchma’s reputation suffered at home and abroad following the Cassette Scandal. Numerous recordings surfaced wherein Kuchma demanded that provincial authorities secure the 1999 vote in his favor. Among the hundreds of hours of secret recordings, there was a leaked audiotape of Kuchma ordering an aide to “do something” about journalist Georgiy Gongadze who had been reporting about the corruption in Ukraine. In September 2000, Gongadze disappeared, and in November 2000, his decapitated body turned up in a wooded area outside Kiev. The Cassette Scandal inspired the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” protests beginning in December 2000 in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). Initiated by students, the protest gained the support of Kuchma’s political opposition. The students erected tents in the square and on nearby Khreschatyk Street. The protest came to an end on March 9, 2001, the anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), renowned artist and the most respected poet of Ukraine. On March 1, Kuchma ordered the police to tear down the tents, which had been occupied in shifts by the protesters. On March 9, while police clashed with protesters, Kuchma laid a flower on Shevchenko’s monument. Mass arrests finally ended the movement, but continued discontent inspired an even larger protest movement at the next election.
During the summer of 2004, Viktor Yushchenko formed an alliance with rival politician Yulia Tymoshenko (known for her signature blond braid worn like a crown around her head) to keep the presidency from Kuchma’s Prime Minister and Putin’s favorite, Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko promised Tymoshenko that if he won the presidency, he would appoint her as Prime Minister. Yushchenko gained worldwide attention after being poisoned with dioxin (TCDD) following a dinner with prominent Ukrainian leaders in September 2004. The ordeal left his face scarred with pockmarks.
Orange Revolution: November 2004-January 2005
In the October 31, 2004, election between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych, each candidate received 39% of the vote with Yushchenko getting a faction of a percent more than Yanukovych. Since neither candidate received 50% of the vote, a second election occurred on November 21, 2004. Officially, Yanukovych won by 3%. However, amidst accusations of voter intimidation and electoral fraud when exit polls did not match vote counts, Yushchenko and his supporters refused to accept the electoral results. The protests in Kiev and other major cities came to be known as the Orange Revolution because the protesters wore orange, the color of Yushchenko’s political coalition. Across the nation people took to the streets. In the Donbas region in the east, supporters of Yanukovych dominated; whereas in Kiev, Yushchenko’s supporters vastly outnumbered those of Yanukovych. Some days, up to a million people took to the streets in Kiev in freezing temperatures. Yet, throughout this non-violent protest there was only a single death due to a heart attack. Another election was held on December 26, wherein Yushchenko garnered 52% of the votes.
Viktor Yushchenko: 2005-2010
The most Western-oriented and anti-Russian Ukrainian president proved to be a disappointment. Despite being a Ukrainian nationalist, Viktor Yushchenko quickly lost popularity. Critics blame his disastrous reign on poor oversight and a lack of engagement, but corruption played a big role. By February 2009, nearly 70% of Ukrainians thought he should step down and 56% thought he should be impeached. According to a document attributed to U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, John F. Tefft, Yushchenko lost popularity due to his weak leadership, hostility towards Russia, ambitions to join NATO, and his ongoing conflicts with Yulia Tymoshenko. Rather than send “the bandits” to jail as promised, the oligarchs created during the Kuchma regime gained additional power and more oligarchs emerged. Many of these “bandits” received awards for merit from Yushchenko. Even worse, during his presidency, Yushchenko’s wife Kateryna raised over $18 million to build a children’s hospital in Kiev that to date has never been constructed, making the donations appear to be bribes to her husband.
Viktor Yanukovych: 2010-2014
Of Russian and Polish/Belorussian ancestry, Viktor Yanukovych grew up desperately poor in Donetsk Oblast. As a young adult, he spent a few years in prison for two separate charges of robbery and assault. After a couple years at the Donetsk Polytechnic Institute in the mid-1970s, Yanukovych worked his way through the ranks in the transportation industry before entering politics. According to a document dated February 2, 2010, from U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft, former president Kuchma said the electoral choice between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko was a choice of “bad and very bad.”
During his tenure, Yanukovych attempted to play up to both the West and the Medvedev/Putin regime in Russia. Pro-Russian Yanukovych surrounded himself with a retinue of criminals and anti-democracy types. A native Russian speaker, Yanukovych had a poor command of Ukrainian and was a bad public speaker, infamous for verbal blunders and geographic illiteracy. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions hired Paul Manafort as a campaign advisor in December 2004 to help him restore his political image in the wake of the Orange Revolution. Their professional relationship ended in 2010 after Yanukovych’s election. For his efforts, Manafort acquired $60 million from the Ukrainians before agreeing to become Donald Trump’s campaign advisor in 2016.
Yanukovych will never live down the allegations of corruption and cronyism that defined his regime. The Yanukovych Families organization amassed a reported $70 billion from Ukrainian assets and the treasury. Called “robber capitalists,” they manipulated sales of public and private Ukrainian businesses to purchase them at “rock bottom prices.” Most the “family” members were natives of Donetsk or longtime residents.
Euromaidan Protests aka The Revolution of Dignity: November 2013 – February 2014
Demonstrators reconvened on November 21, 2013, at Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kiev, after Yanukovych chose stronger ties with Russia rather than a closer relationship (Association Agreement) with the European Union. After the police attacked the protesters, civil unrest broke out in western Ukraine. At least 70 people were killed. On January 16, 2014, Yanukovych signed the Anti-Protest Law, which led to the occupation of provincial buildings by demonstrators in ten regions.
On February 22, as the Ukrainian parliament voted to impeach Yanukovych, he fled Kiev. Following Yanukovych’s exit, the discovery of his lavish estate outside Kiev valued at $75 million shocked Ukrainians and foreigners alike. On June 18, 2015, Yanukovych was officially deprived of the title “President of Ukraine.” In January 2019, the Ukrainian court convicted Yanukovych of high treason in absentia, and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. He currently resides in Russia.
Oleksandr Turchynov: 2014 (February 23 – June 7)
On February 22, following Yanukovych’s departure, Oleksandr Turchynov – a longtime ally of Yulia Tymoshenko – was elected as speaker of the Rada, and the following day he was appointed to serve as interim president until the next election, after which Petro Poroshenko took office. During his short reign, Oleksandr Turchynov had his share of challenges. Putin publicly stated that he did not consider Turchynov the legitimate ruler of Ukraine. Taking advantage of the nation’s instability following the flight of Yanukovych, Putin sent troops to annex Crimea and immediately afterwards, the separatist unrest in Donbas began.
Turchynov’s family owns and operates a multi-million dollar telecommunication and data center business that includes economic research and film production. A Baptist minister in a country where Protestants make up only 1.9% of the population, Turchynov had issues with the LGBTQ community. He has written novels dealing with totalitarianism, corruption, and the black-market economy, one of which – Illusion of Fear – was made into a film and sent to the 2008 Academy Awards for consideration as Best Foreign Language film.
Petro Poroshenko: 2014-2019
When early presidential elections were held on May 25, 2014, oligarch Petro Poroshenko won by an easy majority over his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko with his political slogan “Living in a new way.” Poroshenko had financially supported the Euromaidan Protests and opposed the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic separatists movements in Donbas. He is one of the wealthiest men in Ukraine, and as owner of the Roshen confectionery group, Poroshenko is known as the “Chocolate King.”
Like every other Ukrainian president, scandal followed Poroshenko. Between the decline in their standard of living and the revelation of banking scams during his reign, Poroshenko’s new campaign slogan of “army, language, faith” was not enough to win over Ukrainians in his next presidential campaign. Even worse, Poroshenko has been accused of high treason due to his involvement in sales of coal that helped finance separatists in Donbas. He claims the charges are politically motivated. If convicted, Poroshenko could face 15 years in prison.
Volodymyr Zelensky: 2019-Present
An actor and comedian with a law degree, Volodymyr Zelensky is the first Ukrainian president of Jewish ancestry. In 2015, he starred in the TV show Servant of the People, where he played a high school history teacher who becomes the president of Ukraine and fights against corruption and the entrenched oligarchy. A supporter of the Euromaidan Protests, Zelensky was seen as a fresh face amidst the old guard of Ukrainian politics. He defeated Poroshenko: 73% to 24% in the second round of voting on April 21, 2019.
Zelensky’s reign began on May 20, 2019, and has been beset with a host of challenges, mostly from the United States and Russia. In July 2019, just two months into his presidency, Zelensky had his infamous phone call with Donald Trump, wherein Trump requested dirt on the Biden family’s business dealings in Ukraine in exchange for the $400 million in aid that had already been promised and a visit to the White House. The Democrats called this a quid pro quo arrangement; however, Zelensky denied being pressured by Trump to provide information on his opponent and has repeatedly denied any quid pro quo, stating, “I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chess board of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain (Politico).” Nevertheless, when the details of this conversation went public, it resulted in Trump’s first impeachment.
That was just the beginning. The separatist movement in Donbas continues with an estimated 14,000 dead. Putin has surrounded the north, east, and south of Ukraine with over 100,000 troops in Belarus and Russia, along with six warships in the Black Sea. Putin’s demands are clear. The West must remove military equipment and forces from nations who joined NATO after 1997, and Ukraine must be banned from ever joining NATO. Rumor has it that Putin also wants a pro-Russian leader, such as Yevheniy Murayev, installed as Ukraine’s president.
As tensions rose on Ukraine’s borders, President Zelensky worked to keep his populace calm, while President Biden declared that a Russian invasion was imminent. Biden has deployed at least 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe in preparation for what could be the largest invasion in Europe since WWII.
In the midst of this mess, Zelensky has been accused of centralizing power and curtailing democratic institutions. Are these autocratic moves a reaction from being a nation at war? Or is Zelensky just another power-hungry Ukrainian president out to enrich himself and his cronies? Either way, Zelensky has learned that being an actual president is much more challenging than acting the part of a president on TV.
Sadly, Ukraine has indeed become a piece on the global chess board being tossed around by the biggest of players – the archenemies of the Cold War: Russia and the United States. Since 17% of the Ukrainian population is ethnically Russian, fully escaping Russian influence will prove difficult for Ukraine. Whether they like it or not, Ukraine will always be the borderland of the Russian empire.
I consulted between five to ten online sources while researching each Ukrainian president, including Wikipedia. An excellent source of information was the series of articles by Katya Gorchinskaya, entitled “A brief history of corruption in Ukraine,” published from May through June 2020, on eurasianet.org: https://eurasianet.org/a-brief-history-of-corruption-in-ukraine-the-kravchuk-era