He's been buffeted by scandal, accused of ordering the death of a journalist, and exposed by secretly-taped conversations - widely believed to be authentic - as an authoritarian with a foul mouth.
The fate of Ukraine's embattled President Leonid Kuchma appeared sealed during two months of winter street protests. Pundits argued whether Mr. Kuchma's fall would mirror the quick overthrow of Romanian dictator Ilieu Ceausescu - shot to death on Christmas Eve, 1989 - or the drawn-out fall of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
But Kuchma is capping a political comeback by hosting Pope John Paul II, who wrapped up a controversial five-day visit yesterday. Opposition forces are in retreat. And stability has returned to this former Soviet nation, which lies at a strategic crossroads between Russia and the West.
Critics charge that the price has been high, however. Ukraine is taking steps back to a more Soviet-style of control, they say, that shows how little democratic values - despite a decade of independence - have sunk in.
"Ukraine lost a real opportunity to force those in power to make some real democratic change," says Anatoliy Grytsenko, head of the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies in Kiev. The swell of discontent "is almost over. We didn't take that chance, now the president has regained power, and the US and Europeans welcome his hand as the only one that can bring stability."
With a population of 50 million, Ukraine wields powerful influence over half a dozen former East Bloc neighbors. It has special ties with the NATO alliance. Pipelines that feed Europe the bulk of its natural gas pass across Ukraine from Russia.
Stability is a priority, a point underscored by a visit earlier this month from US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. A senior Western diplomat says that 80 percent of Mr. Rumsfeld's talks with Kuchma were spent on domestic issues.
The reason is that few leaders of any former Soviet state, no matter how unpopular, have weathered such heavy political storms. European Union chiefs warned in late May that "Ukraine must assiduously pursue a path of democracy," and that instability risked a "bleak scenario" of "new discontinuity in Europe."
Political turbulence deepened in April, when reform-minded Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was forced out in a no-confidence vote by a coalition of business oligarchs and Communists.
Thousands took to the streets from December to February to protest Kuchma's alleged role in the disappearance of muckraking journalist Georgy Gongadze. His headless body was found in November. On recordings secretly taped by a Ukrainian intelligence operative, the president appears to ask that Mr. Gongadze be got "rid of." Kuchma also appears to discuss manipulation of vote results and other strong-arm tactics. The president maintains the tapes are doctored.
"If such a scandal happened in a developed democracy, it would be enough to topple the president," says Mr. Grytsenko. The issue did not ignite the public mood, even though results of a poll from the center this week show only a 11.7 percent approval rating for Kuchma. Parliament's rating is even more dismal, with just 4 percent.
So what happened to the fiery optimism that brought as many as 7,000 people onto the streets of the capital? Disappointed opposition leaders publicly described Ukrainians as "bovine" in their apathy.
Anti-Kuchma feeling withers
"It is ridiculous that this society didn't show its strength to deal with Kuchma at the peak of the crisis," says Serhiy Holovaty, a parliamentary deputy and a leader of the anti-Kuchma Forum for National Salvation. "For centuries, during Soviet times, and the last five years of Kuchma's rule, they have been used to living in a climate of terror, harassment, and intimidation. This is the achievement of seven decades of Soviet rule, which created 'Homo Sovieticus.' "
Opposition leaders, who often appear united only in their distaste for Kuchma, also entered the fray overestimating the power of their message. In early March, Kuchma portrayed them as an "ultranationalist and fascist force" - a label that began to resonate after a March 9 rally that led, for the first time, to pitched battles between riot police and demonstrators. Many Ukrainians were turned off by the violence. Protests fizzled.
"It was never a social crisis, as the opposition said, but only a political crisis," says Markian Bilynskyj, head of the Kiev office of the US-Ukraine Foundation. Comparisons to Mr. Ceausescu were "an illusion," he says, noting "a lot of breathless reporting, hot on the heels" of Yugoslavia's Oct. 5 popular uprising that forced Mr. Milosevic from power.
"Many Ukrainians, even if they oppose Kuchma, will vote for him, because Ukraine is one of the most conservative societies," says Mr. Bilynskyj. "Even in Soviet times, when the Baltics seized their nationalism, and Central Asian states chose nationalism and religion, this was the last hold-out of Brezhnevite socialism."
While Kuchma is a "factory manager and not a leader," Bilynskyj notes that the president never dismissed parliament, and held a referendum on constitutional change. "This is not the stuff authoritarian regimes are made of," he adds.
Still, an increasing number of government posts are held by former KGB and other security officials, just as in Vladimir Putin's Russia. For opponents like Conservative Party leader Oleg Soskin, who says he found out this week that his name appears on a "black list" kept by Kuchma, the overtones are ominous.
"This 'black list' evidently shows the direction this regime is going. It means we are witnessing the formation of a dictatorial state," says Mr. Soskin.
He is not the only one concerned. Some analysts speak of a chilling of freedom of speech that has them looking over their shoulders in ways unknown since Soviet times.
Kuchma denies any new crackdown, and publicly speaks the language of democracy that is the hallmark of all former Soviet states that aspire to join Western institutions like NATO and the European Union.
"The Soviet, KGB thinking is coming back here. This machine wasn't built by Kuchma, but it has been restored by him," says Pavlo Zhovnirenko, head of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Kiev. The opposition is also out of touch, he says: "They are doing the same as a decade ago, thinking that if they tell truth, people will push Kuchma from power. But they haven't realized that it takes hard work, and must be managed."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor