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Kuchma Leaves Mixed Legacy in Ukraine

Leonid Kuchma was president of Ukraine for a decade. He was first elected in 1994 and re-elected five years later for a second term.

During Soviet times and before turning to politics, Mr. Kuchma was a successful rocket engineer. He played an important role in the Soviet strategic missile and space programs as chief engineer at the Baikonur launch complex. He gradually shifted to politics during the waning days of the Soviet Union and was elected to the Ukrainian parliament. Ukraine declared its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a year later, Mr. Kuchma became prime minister. He resigned his post in 1993 to run for president and was elected a year later, replacing Leonid Kravchuk.

Historians and western experts on Ukraine say Mr. Kuchma's legacy after 10 years in power is mixed.

Roman Szporluk is the Director of Harvard University's Ukrainian Research Institute. He says during Mr. Kuchma's tenure, people got used to the idea that there is a state called Ukraine.

"There was one of those big think tanks in Moscow, in 1986 held a conference about a schedule for restoring the Soviet Union, not under the name of the Soviet Union,” said Mr. Szporluk. “The year 2005 was to be the year when this union was to be restored, with Ukraine prominently back in it. About Kuchma, I would say his greatest accomplishment is that Ukraine survived for 10 years without becoming reunited with Russia and now its existence, its normalcy, its stability is more safe now than it was 10 years ago."

That is a positive assessment. But many experts, including Mr. Szporluk, point to the negative features of Mr. Kuchma's decade in power. First and foremost, says Frank Sysyn, Director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies is corruption.

"The major legacy of Kuchma has been the formation of a corrupt and semi-criminal state: a state in which not only oligarchic business interests are dominant, but that a pattern has been set up that the state is not at all neutral, that it takes part with certain economic interests in manipulating the state for the gain of a relatively small number of individuals and that the rule of law has declined," he noted.

That view is echoed by Mark von Hagen, Ukraine expert at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

"He moved away from some of the initial openness of the Ukrainian state and society and re-centralized power as much as he could,” he added. “Things like appointing local officials instead of allowing them to be elected. He erased the border between the private and public [sectors] much more than had been the case before so that corruption became endemic, if not criminal corruption becoming a sort of feature of the Kuchma state."

But by far the most serious scandal to engulf Mr. Kuchma was accusations he was in some way involved in the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in September 2000. Those accusations were made by opposition politicians after secret recordings made in Mr. Kuchma's office were released to the public. The Ukrainian president has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Many experts, including Lucan Way, from Temple University, say the tapes don't provide ironclad evidence of Mr. Kuchma's complicity.

"It's actually very murky,” he explained. “We have in the tapes, which sort of provide some circumstantial evidence that he was interested in kind of dealing with or getting rid of Gongadze. However there is no real 'smoking gun' which has him actually ordering the murder of Gongadze. So I think it is certainly highly suspicious, but we don't yet have any proof that he actually ordered the murder of Gongadze."

But Mr. Way says what those tapes reveal is Mr. Kuchma's broad abuse of power.

"Rarely do we have a situation in which we actually have a tape of public officials engaging in bribery and blackmail, and this is a case in which we do,” he said. “Now I think that did a tremendous amount to discredit Kuchma in world opinion and also lets in the first serious crisis in the regime and eventually his downfall."

Experts say Mr. Kuchma has left the Ukrainian presidency with a checkered record. They say newly elected president Viktor Yushchenko faces enormous challenges: the most important one being how to eradicate corruption which has become such a part of the previous government's day-to-day dealings.