Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk obituary: A dynamic and radical politician

First president of independent Ukraine who helped bring Soviet Union to an end

Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk  attends a conference in Almaty, on December 21st, 1991. Photograph: VItaly Armand/AFP via Getty

Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk attends a conference in Almaty, on December 21st, 1991. Photograph: VItaly Armand/AFP via Getty

 

Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk
Born: January 10th, 1934
Died: May 10th, 2022

Leonid Kravchuk, who has died after a long illness aged 88, was a Communist Party bureaucrat who became the first president of independent Ukraine and a main player in bringing the Soviet Union to an ignominious end.

At a hastily arranged meeting in a remote hunting lodge in the Belavezha forest in Belarus in December 1991, Kravchuk joined Stanislav Shushkevich, a nuclear physicist who was the leader of Belarus, and Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Federation, in signing a declaration that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Shushkevich died of Covid-19 a week ago. Yeltsin died in 2007.

Kravchuk led the Communist Party majority in parliament and played a key role in persuading his colleagues to support the opposition’s proposal for independence

Kravchuk was the most dynamic and radical of the three men during the fateful discussion. Fearing Russia would continue to try to dominate Ukraine, he told Yeltsin he did not want the Soviet Union to turn itself into a loose confederation. It should be abolished altogether.

The three men’s deal had gone ahead without the knowledge of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president, who was shocked when he heard the news. He had no choice but to resign two weeks later, after accepting that the three Slavic republics, the core entities of the Soviet Union, were no longer loyal to the system.

The road to independence had begun in August 1991 when the Ukrainian parliament voted for secession from the Soviet Union a few days after the collapse of an abortive coup by communist hardliners in Moscow to reverse Gorbachev’s democratisation programme. Kravchuk led the Communist Party majority in parliament and played a key role in persuading his colleagues to support the opposition’s proposal for independence.

The parliament arranged a confirmatory referendum and a presidential election for December 1st. Some 92 per cent of the Ukrainian electorate, including a majority of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, voted for independence. Kravchuk was chosen as president, a job in which he served until 1994.

In 1992, at a meeting with the US president George HW Bush, Kravchuk agreed to send back to Russia the nuclear missiles that were deployed in Ukraine. Sometimes touted as a magnanimous gesture, Kravchuk told German radio that Kyiv’s possession of a nuclear arsenal was mainly symbolic. “All the control systems were in Russia. The black suitcase with the start button, that was with the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin,” he said.

Former president Boris Yeltsin, left, shakes hands with then Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk during his visit to Ukraine, Yalta, in 1992. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/ AP Photo
Former president Boris Yeltsin, left, shakes hands with then Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk during his visit to Ukraine, Yalta, in 1992. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/ AP Photo

 

Kravchuk was born into a Ukrainian peasant family in the village of Velykyi Zhytyn. The village was in Poland at the time, and Kravchuk’s parents worked for Polish landowners. It was taken into the Soviet Union after the Soviet invasion in 1939. Kravchuk’s father had served in the Polish army in the 1930s and was killed during the second World War.

Kravchuk graduated from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in 1958, a year after marrying a mathematics teacher, Antonina Mykhailivna Mishura. He immediately joined the Communist Party and worked his way up through the agitprop department. By 1989 he was ideological secretary of the central committee in Kyiv. His first sense of the strength of feeling for independence came when he discreetly attended the founding congress of Ruch, a popular grassroots national movement, sitting in the back row of the gallery as an observer in 1989.

In 1990 the Communist Party elected him as chairman of the supreme soviet of the Ukrainian parliament, making him the nominal head of state. His low-key style and openness to other views made him the compromise candidate, supported by conservatives as well as reformers.

His term as president was marked by his even-handed approach to foreign policy. He took a pro-European stance, even as he championed Russian speakers and sought to guarantee them better language rights. He spoke in favour of an agreement giving Russia the right to continue to base its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol in the Crimea. In 1994 he signed a partnership agreement with the EU, but later that year he lost the election to Leonid Kuchma, his prime minister, who argued that the reduction of economic links with Russia had caused Ukraine’s lack of growth.

From then on Kravchuk remained an MP but floated rather aimlessly, switching for a time to a group led by a pro-Russian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, which called itself the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine. In the 2004 presidential election, which was marred by fraud and had to be re-run, Kravchuk supported the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych against the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko, who won. In 2006 he failed to be re-elected to parliament.

He then went into political obscurity, appearing only for occasional interviews. In 2014 he denounced Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, telling Radio Free Europe that the Russian president’s philosophy of a broad “Russian world” was centred on “aggression and disregard for the interests of its neighbours”.

In 2020, at the age of 86, he accepted an invitation from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to take the post of presidential envoy in the trilateral contact group on resolving the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. The group consisted of Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but it failed to make progress.

Kravchuk is survived by his wife and their son, Oleksandr. – This article originally appeared in the Guardian