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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 13:39 GMT
Kuchma scrambles to secure future
By Stephen Mulvey
BBC News, Kiev

Opposition supporter in Kiev
Kuchma underestimated the staying power of the opposition protesters
President Leonid Kuchma has been the president of Ukraine for 10 of the 13 years since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union.

He arrived on the political scene as a "red director" - the boss of a Soviet rocket factory - and ultimately became a master powerbroker among Ukrainian oligarchs.

His chief of staff and his son-in-law are two of the country's most powerful men - politically and economically - while the candidate they jointly put forward for the presidency, Viktor Yanukovych, was a representative of the country's other top clan.

Kuchma and the people around him did not expect these protests, and they never believed people would stay on the streets as long as they have
Political scientist Olexiy Haran

With Mr Yanukovych installed as president, Mr Kuchma could have gone into retirement with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution, and with his family's business interests secure.

But the millions of Ukrainians who have flooded the capital Kiev to demonstrate against the falsification of the election have thrown these carefully laid plans into chaos.

Mr Kuchma has been floundering as he searches for the right response.

"Kuchma and the people around him did not expect these protests, and they never believed people would stay on the streets as long as they have," says political scientist Olexiy Haran.

"I believe he is afraid of this revolutionary process. He doesn't know how to secure himself."

According to Dr Haran, one option for Mr Kuchma is to do a U-turn, and make a deal with the demonstrators' hero, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

What the business elite needs most of all, he says, is stability. It also needs to prevent Ukraine becoming a pariah state, which could cut their access to Western markets.

New horse?

Mr Kuchma's call for an entirely new election, however, suggests that he is also considering choosing a new candidate to back in a race against Mr Yushchenko - now that Mr Yanukovych has become damaged goods.

Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma
Age: 67
Married with one daughter
Prime minister from 1992-1993
Formerly head of Dnipropetrivsk missile factory
Currently unable to enter presidential HQ - working from out-of-town dacha

A possible candidate would be Mr Yanukovych's presentable and articulate former campaign manager, Serhiy Tihipko, who this week resigned as governor of the central bank to concentrate on politics.

By happy coincidence, Mr Tihipko comes from Dnipropetrivsk, as do Mr Kuchma and his billionaire son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk.

This makes him an ideal successor from their point of view, though not necessarily from the point of view of the Kiev and Donetsk oligarchs, with whom they exist in an unstable coalition.

Mr Kuchma's greatest weakness is his lack of popular support - his opinion poll approval rating is in single figures.

He can no longer rely on controlling the parliament and his hold over the media has loosened.

Mr Kuchma does not have control over the Supreme Court either, though he does have the power to sack and appoint members of the Central Electoral Commission - which could be a useful lever of influence as the dispute over the falsified election develops.

How far the police, the army and the security services remain loyal to him is unclear.

As president, Mr Kuchma is still the main point of contact for foreign mediators, such as the EU's Javier Solana, and Mr Haran says he may be able to exploit this to his advantage.

"He is proposing new elections and political reforms, which sounds very democratic to international observers who don't know much about the peculiarities of Ukrainian political life."

'No deal'

In fact, the political reform proposed by Mr Kuchma earlier this year would have transferred many of the president's powers to the prime minister rather than creating a true parliamentary democracy.

And there is a huge difference between Mr Kuchma's proposal for an entirely new election and the opposition's proposal for a re-run of round two of the election that has just taken place between Mr Yushchenko and Mr Yanukovych.

"Viktor Yushchenko does not want to win another election," said opposition spokesman Myron Wasylyk.

He added that Mr Kuchma's team had made indirect approaches to discuss a possible immunity deal, but had been rebuffed.

"To do a deal you need two sides," he said.

"Yushchenko will not cut a deal."

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