THE recent election of President Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine has met with a good deal of quiet apprehension on the part of Ukrainians and Westerners alike who fear that his leadership will represent yet another stage in the whittling away of Ukrainian sovereignty. This feeling was based on a fear that his prescription of closer economic integration with Russia would lead to economic and political subordination.
Since he assumed office three weeks ago, however, Mr. Kuchma has given ample cause to reassess this position.
During the past six months, Kuchma has been on a campaign to rid himself of his image as ``red director'' and the prime minister under whom the country's economy worsened. On a trip to Washington in April, Kuchma laid out the key elements of his platform: rapprochement with Russia and the need to reform Ukraine's economy.
At the time it was unclear how dedicated Kuchma was to Ukrainian statehood; it would be untenable anyway without a functioning economy. In response to a question about the potential breakup of Ukraine, Kuchma stated that it is possible, and that it would not be an ethnic or national divorce, but an economic divorce. During the past year, Ukraine's economic decline has exacerbated regional tensions between Kiev and the Crimean peninsula, as well as between eastern and western Ukraine.
Kuchma also repeatedly stressed that Ukraine would be unable to implement needed reform without funding from outside. The West had not delivered its promised assistance; therefore Ukraine would have to turn to Russia, with which it already possessed the infrastructure for a close economic relationship.
Kuchma's actions during the past month have been consistent with his platform. Regarding Russia, he has indicated that Ukraine will have a pragmatic, cooperative relationship, but he will not sell out his country's interests, especially the Crimean peninsula, to achieve this.
He has also indicated that his relations with other former Soviet states within the Commonwealth of Independent States will be strengthened, as evidenced last month by his meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and his sending a delegation to three other central Asian states to work on implementing commonwealth agreements. Kuchma's multilateral dealings will not weaken Ukraine's power within the commonwealth, but rather increase Ukraine's leverage within the organization and therefore its ability to shape its own future.
On the economic front, Kuchma has been much more active and has indicated that his closer relations with Russia and the commonwealth will not come at the expense of Ukraine's relations with the West. At their July meeting in Naples, Italy, the industrial nations known as the Group of Seven - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States - wisely agreed to provide more than $4 billion to help fund Ukraine's transition. This aid is contingent on a comprehensive and radical reform program, on which Kuchma seems more than ready to embark. Over the past month he has hosted a string of well-known transition economists, such as Anders Aslund and Rudiger Dornbusch, in an effort to enlist their help in developing a program that will release G-7 aid. The International Monetary Fund, one of the administrators of the aid package, has indicated that it is willing to release the first tranche of this aid by October if the plan materializes.
The remaining apprehension about Ukraine's economic potential lies in the makeup of parliament. The largest party is the unreformed Communists, which, together with the Agrarians and the Socialists, make up the largest coherent voting bloc in Ukraine's still-incomplete legislature.
Because the bloc is the most disciplined group in parliament, many analysts predict a clash between the president and parliament over the pace and scope of reform. Indeed, right before its summer recess, parliament enacted a moratorium on privatization to ensure that no objects of ``critical national interest'' are inadvertently privatized. This resolution was proposed by the left bloc, which on its own does not hold a deciding vote, and drew enough votes from the undisciplined center to pass.
Since the deputies left for their month-long vacation, Kuchma has taken advantage of his free rein in Kiev to issue a series of decrees whereby he will assume greater control of the decisionmaking process governing economic reform. He will thus attempt to present parliament with a fait accompli when it returns in mid-September. Many fear it will immediately attempt to reverse Kuchma's decrees.
However, a conflict between Kuchma and the parliament is not inevitable. Pessimists are remiss in overlooking the potential importance of independent deputies in the centrist factions.
The Communist-Agrarian-Socialist bloc will claim approximately 150 seats of 393 filled to date (parliament has a total of 450 seats); but center-oriented independents, the majority of whom belong to the ruling nomenklatura, will hold about 185 seats. With each by-election and run-off held to fill remaining parliamentary seats, more independents are elected.
These independents do not have a clearly defined political orientation and do not yet form a cohesive faction. But the majority of them are favorably inclined toward market reform.
The centrist-independents may well unite around the president in the autumn, when a conference will be held to establish a party among the parliament's centrists, including Kuchma's Inter-Regional bloc, and the Unity, Reform, Center, and Statehood factions. Kuchma should have an easier time winning the support of centrist independents now that fresh aid from the West seems imminent.
In addition, he stands a better chance of garnering more parliamentary support than did his predecessor Leonid Kravchuk because he is more dedicated to reform and possesses better leadership skills, and because his power base lies in the east of Ukraine, the new center of gravity in parliament.
There is now greater hope for reform in Ukraine than there has been since the heady days of independence in January 1992. Economic reform is the clearest way to ensure continued Ukrainian sovereignty.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski has stressed, and the West has belatedly come to realize, a strong, independent Ukraine is crucial for continued Russian democratization and security across Europe. The West would do well to come through with promised aid this time, as it did for Russia last year despite that country's even greater political instability. Ukraine will thus get another chance to build a viable state and will be helped as it redefines its relationship with Russia and the commonwealth from a position of much greater strength and credibility. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.